Ethics Paper


As part of your studies of computer science at a liberal arts institution, you are being asked in this assignment to review the ACM’s new version of the Code of Ethics and consider how that might apply to systems that have been or will be designed in the future … by you or by others.  

In order to give you something concrete to write about, you will review a case study which raises some ethical issues, analyze it in terms of which sections of the ACM Code apply, and consider how harm might have been prevented or mitigated.  You will write an argumentative, thesis-driven essay that explains how the situation in the case study was (or is being) unethically handled according to the ACM Code of Ethics and how it could have been handled better.  

Note: the case studies listed are a starting point only.  If you have an ethical issue related to software development that you want to explore, discuss it with your section’s professor.


If you have not had a course in philosophy, I highly recommend reading this short summary to help give you an overview of ethical frameworks and some of the language used in applied ethics:  Bonde, Firenze, et al., “A Framework for Making Ethical Decisions.” Brown University Science & Technology Studies. Access reading online.  

You should also review the ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct at:

Grinnell’s Writing, Reading, and Speaking Center supports students working on papers, projects, presentations, and applications. Schedule a session with one of the Center’s professional instructors and get feedback as you interpret readings, talk through your ideas, analyze evidence, develop and organize arguments, craft introductions and conclusions, rewrite sentences and paragraphs, or plan presentations. Center instructors do not proofread papers, but they can show you how to edit your own work effectively. Make an appointment online:


Since this is a large part of your grade, you will be asked to complete this assignment in stages.  Each stage is listed, with its due date, on the class schedule:

  1. Topic proposal – you may choose a topic on your own or pick one from a list of suggestions, but you will be asked to name that topic and provide a citation for the case study (use this worksheet to guide you in defining some initial ideas toward your final paper)
  2. Working thesis –  you’ll submit a preliminary thesis statement for feedback.
  3. Rough draft – you will provide a rough draft for feedback.  
  4. The rough draft will be scored using the final paper rubric with half points  so that you know what you need to improve.  
  5. You will receive feedback from the instructor
  6. Final draft – this should take account of recommendations you received in your feedback and will be due on the last day of classes.  You are welcome to submit this paper before the deadline!

What to Submit for the Final Assignment

Submit a 4 to 6+ page paper (12 point type, 1″ margins, double-spaced) in which you analyze the case study of your choosing. You should choose a case study that matters to or interests you, although I do have an ever-growing list of possible topics.  There have been controversies in every corner of the computing world in recent decades; so there is no shortage of ethical situations to analyze. Consult this list of case studies and articles if you are stuck for an idea.  You may also choose to address a larger issue (such as intellectual property, unionization of software engineers, etc.), but you must be able to tie it back to the ACM Code.

Your analysis should at least refer to the ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, identifying ethical questions and issues raised in the case study. You are strongly encouraged to refer to appropriate sections of the Code by number as you explore the various issues. If you choose a different case study for your paper, please remember to cite those materials in your bibliography. 

Additionally, you are encouraged to utilize works and types of analysis that might be relevant, especially making use of coursework and argumentation styles you might have encountered in other courses. These might include but are not limited to: sociology, philosophy, education, sociology, economics, GWSS, history, humanities, policy studies, political science, etc. Please cite any works consulted or referenced (citation style is up to you). 

Your paper should:

  1. Present a clear thesis statement regarding your chosen study’s unethical actions.  If you do not remember how to write clear thesis-driven essays, refer to the Grinnell College Guide to Writing, Research, and Speaking
  2. Describe your chosen case study.  What happened? Who were the parties involved? Be sure to provide references for your statements. This section of your paper should not be longer than one page.
  3. Identify facets of this case study that are addressed in the ACM Code. Describe what is happening in the case and the section of the ACM Code that applies to it. Note that in some cases, the system or software developers may be complying with the code; in some cases, they might be in conflict with it. 
  4. What are the interests of the various stakeholders? How should those possibly competing interests be weighed  (note that the ACM code addresses this)?  
  5. Consider what could have been done to prevent the problem. Think about technical solutions as well as social/human approaches.  These possible solutions do not need to be fool-proof, since real life problems generally are complex.  
  6. Consider what could be done to mitigate the problem after it has been discovered.  Again, the possible solutions do not need to be perfect.  
  7. Provide a strong conclusion in which you summarize the case, the ethical violations, and how harm could have been prevented or mitigated (in other words, what could or should the developers have done differently …) . This conclusion should be at least a paragraph in length.
  8. Your paper must provide in-text citations for any direct quotes or paraphrases of ideas.  When in doubt, cite!!  If you do not appropriately provide in-text citations, this could be reported to the Committee on Academic Standing.

Note that it is required that you explore what could have been done to prevent the violation, mitigate the damage or recover from the violation.  Your solutions should include technical fixes as well as social or behavioral changes.

Please use good academic writing style (including complete sentences) and standard American English spelling when writing your analysis. You must have a bibliography with your paper, even if it is very short and use in-text citations in IEEE style.  If you would like feedback or assistance, consult our wonderful Writing Lab or consult Purdue’s Online Writing Lab (known affectionately as OWL) for citation styles and resources. 

This assignment is to be done individually.  You may discuss your ideas with others, in which case, you should give them credit in your bibliography, a footnote, or an endnote.  


Introduction and Case Study Summary
4 to 5 points 2 to 3 points 0 to 1 point
Introduction briefly identifies and summarizes the case study (should be less than one page) and the purpose and structure of the paper; end with specific and debatable thesis statement; thesis statement fits prompt Minimally introduces case study but does not provide enough background information; misses stating the purpose of the paper or does not foreshadow the structure of the rest of the paper; thesis unclear, not debatable, and/or does not fully address prompt Minimal information about the case study; little to no summary of the situation; does not state the purpose of the paper; does not indicate the structure of the rest of the paper; paper lacks thesis statement
Discussion of Ethics Violations
6 to 8 points 3 to 5 points 0 to 2 points
Identifies (by number) at least three sections of the ACM code that apply; identifies the stakeholders; identifies the harm (potentially) caused by the ethical violations; identifies who benefits and how; discusses balancing the interests of various stakeholders; identifies how developers may have been trying to code ethically Identifies fewer than three relevant sections of the ACM code; minimal discussion of stakeholders, how they benefit and how their interests conflict or interrelate; minimal discussion of harm or attempts to act ethically Minimal tying of case to the ACM code sections; is not clear how the developers in the case acted unethically; does not identify stakeholders or how they benefited in this case; does not consider how different interests balanced or how developers may have been trying to act ethically
Discussion of Prevention and Mitigation
12 to 16 points 6 to 10 points 0 to 4 points
Identifies ways that developers could have prevented harm through improved design, creation or testing of the software or systems under discussion.  Identifies ways that developers could have prevented harm by understanding the social situation in which the software would be used.

Identifies how developers or companies could have responded and mitigated the harm caused by changing the technology itself or by modifying how the software or system fit into its social situation (including pulling it from use).

Discussed either prevention or mitigation in depth.  Or discussed only the social or technical ways to address prevention or mitigation of the ethical violations.   Minimal exploration of what the software developers or companies should have done to prevent an ethical violation or to mitigate the damage after the problems surfaced.  
Organization and Clarity
6 to 8 points 3 to 5 points 0 to 2 points
Clear, well-organized paper; paper includes a conclusion that summarizes the conclusions; paper flows logically, reader doesn’t get lost; paragraphs begin with topic sentences related to thesis Generally sound organization; conclusion does not wrap up the main points; reader occasionally confused by awkward organization, unclear sentences, fuzzy ideas Poor organization, lacks clarity; paper lacks a conclusion; paper not organized around coherent paragraphs; prose is hard to follow and understand
Editing and Manuscript Form
6 to 8 points 3 to 5 points 0 to 2 points
Flawless paper, or an occasional minor error. Looks like a professional paper; paper contains section headers; follows chosen style and format; contains bibliography and in-text citations Distractions due to spelling, punctuation, grammar errors; writer seems a bit careless. Varies from chosen style; missing bibliography or in-text citations* Paper seriously marred by mistakes in grammar, spelling and punctuation; lack of editing. Paper does not follow chosen style and format; paper missing bibliography and in-text citations*

* NOTE: if you do not provide an in-text citation for a quotation or if you omit a bibliography, your final paper could be referred to the Committee on Academic Standing.  You should use IEEE style citations unless you discuss other styles with your instructor first. For details, see the Academic Honesty booklet.

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