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Rawls’ Social Contract Theory and Software Engineering Ethics

Introduction

John Rawls defined the characteristics of a just society through his social contract theory. In his theory, four conditions characterize a stable society: equal and free individuals, justice being open to public scrutiny, just sharing of surplus, and a responsibility to the social contract to ensure continued cooperation. Rawls’ society must strike a balance between three values, namely, equality, compensation for services given for the common good, and liberty. All the members must begin from an original position of equality, but they all understand their agendas. Rawls proposes two hierarchical principles of justice as

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  • All persons have an identical claim to a scheme of basic liberties that remain compatible with the basic liberties of others.
  • Any inequalities of the social order that are a byproduct of the order itself must be:
    • Due to positions accessible to all with a fair equality of opportunity;
    • Able to satisfy the difference principle, meaning they shall benefit the least-privileged members of society.(Ramee, 2021, p. 20).

The fundamental liberties are of conscience, person, property, and political freedoms.

Merit

Rawls’ social contract theory relates to the ethics of software engineering. First, software engineers enjoy more access to primary goods than others by the merit resulting from efforts to develop their skills and talents. Therefore, better access to the primary goods meets Rawls’s reciprocity criterion. In addition to skills development, software engineers design and create software that serves the greater good. Natural liberty is a political system described by Rawls that offers open offices based on talent. Software engineering also meets this criterion, as management is available to all engineers with the required qualifications. Therefore, a relationship exists between Rawls’s social contract theory and software engineering ethics on the need for merit in acquiring management positions.

Public Interest

Public autonomy and scrutiny are essential to the social contract proposed by John Rawls. To meet this criterion, software engineers must be open to public regulation. However, software engineering might threaten the public’s autonomy due to their professionalization. Since non-engineers do not understand the field enough to enable regulation, software engineers must regulate themselves through a professional code of ethics or governing body (Odinokaya et al., 2019). The Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice, which was proposed and recommended by ACM and IEEE-CS, is a starting point for engineers (Gotterbarn et al., 2001). Through its eight principles, the code calls upon software engineers to commit to the public’s welfare, health, and safety.

The principles include public interest, clients and employers, product, judgment, management, profession, colleagues, and self. The code also holds public interest at the highest priority (Gotterbarn et al., 2001). For example, acting in the client or employer’s best interests must align with the public good. In addition, there should be a meaningful continuous dialog between software engineers and the public to reaffirm their self-regulation. As software engineering knowledge cannot be taught to everyone, such dialogue will maintain the public’s trust in engineers.

Conclusion

Software engineering ethics must relate to social contract theories because engineers depend on society’s stability. Software engineers enjoy more access to primary goods than others by the merit resulting from efforts to develop their skills and talents, which meets Rawls’s reciprocity criterion. Software engineering might threaten the public’s autonomy due to their professionalization because non-engineers do not understand the field enough to enable public regulation. Hence, software engineers must regulate themselves through a professional code of ethics or governing body.

References

Gotterbarn, D., Miller, K., Rogerson, S., Barber, S., Barnes, P., Burnstein, I., & Werth, L. H. (2001). Software engineering code of ethics and professional practice. Science and Engineering Ethics, 7(2), 231-238. Web.

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Odinokaya, M., Krepkaia, T., Karpovich, I., & Ivanova, T. (2019). Self-regulation as a basic element of the professional culture of engineers. Education Sciences, 9(3), 200. Web.

Ramee, M. F. (2021). The social contract theory in the face of empirical morality: Integration and its consequences [Bachelor’s Thesis, Baruch College]. CUNY Academic Works. Web.

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StudyCorgi. (2022) 'Rawls’ Social Contract Theory and Software Engineering Ethics'. 1 November.

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