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Duty Ethics

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You are an expert security software programmer who works in top secret for the national government of the country of Zulu. Late one afternoon, you come across an ominous email in which you learn that a small group of sinister government officials from Zulu plan – in exactly one hour – to unleash a nuclear attack on the neighboring country of Delta.  It happens that this very same group of officials is at odds with the neighboring country because of vastly different political and economic views.  The bottom line?  You are aware that if this missile is launched, the event will spawn World War III.

Because you are the only person in the country of Zulu who has knowledge of the specific program code that will be used to trigger this devastating missile launch, you alone are the one individual who has the capacity to de-program the event — i.e., you could choose to cancel the launch altogether, or you could otherwise divert the nuclear missile to a neutral zone. In short, millions of innocent lives are now in your hands.

However, you adhere strictly to duty ethics (referred to as a “deontologist”). On the day that you assumed your role as a top-secret national security programmer, you took a solemn oath swearing that you would never intervene in any government action, no matter its consequences.  In short, your duty is limited to software programming — and to programming alone. Indeed, your oath entails that you have an explicit duty never to make a decision that extends beyond your software programming role. Moreover, you are sworn never to discuss your programs with any other human being – except for communication that may be required with a limited number of superiors. On any given day, these few superiors of yours are easily found somewhere in the building. But alas! On this day, you are unable to find even one superior for advice (are they perhaps bound and gagged somewhere in this massive building?).

Week 1:

What would a strict deontologist do? Why?

To whom or to what is your duty? This is not an easy question…but it is also what makes duty ethics so much fun!

Week 2:

What would Immanuel Kant’s “Categorical Imperative” suggest you do here?


In this situation, would duty ethics be at odds with the thinking of Immanuel Kant?  Explain.

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