Thinking about ethics in system design

By Marc Resnick
This is a topic I have been very passionate about lately.  I have been studying the research on how people make ethical decisions in the real world (as opposed to philosophers debating hypotheticals).  The problem isn’t that people are selfish or stupid.  The problem is that there are tradeoffs.  Sometimes, a decision that satisfies one ethic challenges another.  As systems design professionals, we need to design systems and user experiences to either minimize the tradeoffs or make it clear which option is better.
So where is the greater good?  How do you decide which ethic wins out?
For example, what if a doctor has to violate hospital rules or fudge an insurance form to get his or her low-income patient the correct care?  Is that OK?  Whatever your answer, how did you decide what ethic took priority?  Can we create some generalizable rules for deciding? Or do we need to develop context-specific guidelines for driving, health care, manufacturing, retailing, military, etc.
Military is a common domain for ethics research.  When designing UAV interfaces, do we need to think about the possibility that making war very easy to conduct might increase the chance of it occurring in the first place?  Do we need to think about the fact that by creating social distance between the UAV pilot and the target, we are making it easier for him/her to accept collateral damage?
Health care is the domain where I have personal research experience.  My focus is on when doctors and patients have different opinions about which treatment is best.  It could be because the patient is misinformed.  But it could also be because they tradeoff the benefits and side effects differently.  It is usually combination of both.  Also thrown in is the way people make decisions under fear and time pressure is different than absent these things.  But that doesn’t mean the decision is wrong, it’s just different.  Maybe the fearful rushed decision is actually the right one because it follows our gut instinct.  Sometimes, overthinking is worse.
The problem many of us have is that we weren’t trained in ethics as part of our engineering curriculum.  Luckily, I minored in religious philosophy in college so I got this on the side.  I have also continued to read the academic research on ethics over the years as kind of a hobby and trying to apply it to my work.  But I am certainly no expert on this.