Ethics beyond principles

20.2.2023 by Salla Westerstrand


Discussion around AI ethics has rapidly evolved in the past few years. We have seen many developments that support shifting towards more harmless technologies: Companies, organisations, and governments are drafting principles for ethical, responsible AI (for reviews, see e.g., Aylin & Chapman 2022; Jobin et al. 2019). NGOs and working groups are bringing together people from different sectors to discuss responsibility. Operationalisation models are being developed to bring principles into practice.


We are almost done, right? Well, not quite.

The regulatory landscape is constantly evolving, and new technologies bring challenges difficult to predict. Most of us have no strategy, resources or roles to keep up with the changes. Who do we call when a we run into a conflict between company values when developing a new machine learning algorithm? How do we evaluate the impacts of our products on people and societies at large without any training? How do we know we have done the right thing and created valuable products as ethically and sustainably as we possibly can?


This is where ethicists come in handy.


What is ethics actually about?


Talking about ethics has become trendy in the field of AI, but few people have truly grasped the essence of what it is about. Many tend to first think about AI ethics principles and guidelines, or even values, human rights and law. Doing so risks missing an enormous potential, the true value of ethics for AI industry, which could solve the most complex and bugging issues organisations face today:


Ethics is a process.


“Blaming ethics for having no teeth to ensure compliance with whatever it calls for is like blaming the fork for not cutting meat properly: this is not what it is designed to do. The objective of ethics itself is not to impose particular behaviours and to ensure these are complied with. The problem arises when it is used to do so.”

— Rességuier & Rodrigues (2020)


Ethicists are trained to reflect processes, consequences and values, and to justify actions. They know how to apply these tools to changing environments and different contexts. AI ethicists know what is happening in the field and usually have an understanding of where the regulatory landscape is currently heading.


Drafting principles can be a useful tool for communicating the value base and strategic goals of an organisation. They can help with igniting discussion and reflection over what we actually want to achieve with our technology, and what is not intended. However, as no company can operate only based on strategy, no technology becomes ethical only by drafting a set of principles.


What is the next step?

Globally, some have already noticed the value of ethics in tech business and invested in their own capacity. The Ethics Study conducted in 2021 by Principia Advisory shows that ethics is an important asset in assuring competitiveness in the coming years. Companies such as IBM and Google work with ethicists, and, for example, IKEA recently looked for digital ethicists to join their ranks.


Yet, many companies with good intentions are struggling with building, training and communicating ethics and sustainability with their existing resources. After discussing with several Finnish IT companies, we could see the trend forming: ensuring ethical, sustainable and/or responsible use of AI and other technologies relies on voluntary efforts of people working in, e.g., technical or managerial roles.


Company-wide awareness of responsible tech is vital for long-term success. Meanwhile, leaving the strategy, training and communication in the hands of non-ethicists risks turning the good intention into ethics washing, or ethics bashing (Bietti 2020). This can cause serious loss of value in product and employer brand as well as reputation damage in the eyes of potential clients and partners.


The truth is, ethics does not need to be a burden.


Just hire an ethicist.




References and further reading:


Ayling, J., Chapman, A. (2022). Putting AI ethics to work: are the tools fit for purpose?. AI Ethics 2, 405–429.


Bietti, E. (2020). From ethics washing to ethics bashing: a view on tech ethics from within moral philosophy. FAT '20: Proceedings of the 2020 Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency,


Iansiti, M., Lakhani, K. R. (2020) Competing in the Age of AI. Harvard Business Review Press.


Jobin, A., Ienca, M. & Vayena, E. (2019). The global landscape of AI ethics guidelines. Nat Mach Intell 1, 389–399.


Rességuier, A. Rodrigues, R. (2020). Ethics should not remain toothless! A call to bring back the teeth of ethics. _Big Data & Society_ 7(2),


van Maanen, G. (2022). AI Ethics, Ethics Washing, and the Need to Politicize Data Ethics. DISO 1.