Course Overview

In this course you will explore and apply critical analysis of classical and contemporary ethical theories to computing contexts and designs. You will also develop your ability to critically analyze, construct, and discuss different forms of argument in order to advance your professional work and design goals. In class discussion, assignments, and interactive lectures form the basis of this course and focus on a variety of issues including artificial intelligence, predictive policing, data science, and research ethics.

Learning goals

In this course students will learn about:

Ethics & Design: What do "right" and "wrong" mean anyway? How is "ethical" different from "legal"? What makes a design ethical, unethical, or consequential?  You'll learn to compare and contrast several philosophical approaches to ethics including utilitiarianism, Kantianism, social contract theory, and virtue ethics. The goal is for you to be able to address dilemmas and to evaluate computational artifacts/systems with reasoned arguments, grounded in a combination of these ethical theories, while subjecting your own views to critical examination.

Professional Ethics: What special responsibilities do we have as computing professionals? What new responsibilities should we have? What do the Software Engineering Code of Ethics and ACM Code of Ethics say, and how can we use these in our daily practice?

Computing & Society: In what ways does computer technology impact society? We'll talk about a host of issues including artificial intelligence, the politics of algorithms, predictive policing, privacy, and intellectual property.

Argumentation: How do you construct and listen to a well-reasoned argument? How is technology changing the way we are able to construct and listen to arguments? Whatever you go on to do in your professional career, your success will arguably depend more on your oral, written, and visual communication skills than on your technical skills. This class is one of your few and precious opportunities to work to improve those skills.


Ethics for the Information Age, Seventh Edition, by Michael Quinn

Writing Arguments: A Rhetoric with Readings, Ninth Edition (2016) by John D. Ramage, John C. Bean, and June Johnson.

Visual & Statistical Thinking: Displays of Evidence for Decision Making by Edward R. Tufte. Graphics Press, 1997.

* You may rent electronic copies rather than buying each of these books

We will also read articles made available on electronic reserve and online

Assignments & grading

* All assignments/papers/reflections are described and will be submitted on Canvas

Class Attendance & Participation - 20%

Assignments (5 total) - 40%

  • Assignment 1:  Reading the argument of a current article (5%)
  • Assignment 2: Term paper proposal (10%)
  • Assignment 3: Term paper outline (10%)
  • Assignment 4: Defining Consequential Design (10%)
  • Assignment 5: Term paper presentation (5%)

Midterm Exam - 20%

Term Paper: 20%

A sample exam is here, and a sample term paper titled "Ethics of Workplace Surveillance" is here (shared with the student's permission).

Class Attendance. Class attendance is required. If you need to miss class for a legitimate reason, please speak with the instructor and TA, preferably before class.

Class Participation.  This is about more than attendance but about contributing to learning in class through asking questions, giving suggestions to your classmates or generally being part of the discussion. Participation involves both your careful preparation for class of readings and tasks, and your genuine support of peers in the learning process. This is a reading-intensive course particularly in the first few weeks. You are not asked to memorize what you read. Rather, you should come to class prepared to discuss and raise questions about the readings on the day they are listed in the weekly schedule (below).

Reference Format. Unless otherwise specified in the assignment, written work must follow APA format described here.  Basic guidelines include that all written work should be double-spaced in Times New Roman, and have 12-point font. Citations should be used for ideas, statements, comments, etc. that are not common knowledge or your own original thought.

ESL. If English is not your first language, you may request to not be graded on your writing for a particular individual assignment, including the term paper. This means you won't be penalized for bad writing, but you also won't get credit for good writing. To take advantage of this option, you must mark "ESL" (English as a Second Language) on the first page of your assignment/paper. Instructors still of course expect you to try to write in correct English, and will do their best to offer useful feedback on your writing.

Late Policy. Students need to submit all of their materials on or before the deadline to qualify for 100% credit. 24 hours delay will result in 25% penalty; 48 hours late submissions will incur 50% penalty. Materials submitted past 48 hours will not be accepted, and will entered a zero grade.

Honor Code. This class abides by the Georgia Tech Honor Code. All assigned work is expected to be individual, except where explicitly written otherwise. You are encouraged to discuss the assignments with your classmates; however, what you hand in should be your own work.





Assignments Due


Introductions & course overview


Case studies: Therac 25, Henrietta Lacks, Introduction to reading/writing arguments


Introduction to Ethics I

Assignment 1


Introduction to Ethics II


Design & ethics, Structuring arguments, Case study: Predictive Policing


Professional Ethics, Discussion of term paper proposals

Assignment 2


Holiday/No Class


Privacy, Personal mobility activity (guest Andy Hostetler)


Privacy & the Government, GDPR Tools & Facebook Activity

  • Quinn Chapter 6
  • TBD (Facebook)


Midterm Exam


Visual Argument, Peer review term paper outline

  • Visual & Statistical Thinking  (Tufte)
  • WA Chapter 9

Assignment 3


Evidence & writing workshop, Begin Assignment 4


Interactive Screening of United States of Secrets Part 1: The Patriot Act, NSA and Edward Snowden


Assignment 4


AI, Robots and automation (guest speakers Doug Fisher & Haerin Shin), Review AI & Law Matrix


Debrief assignment 4, Computer security, intellectual property

  • Quinn chapter 4 (except 4.6)
  • Quinn chapter 7


Term paper presentations & Summing Up


Term Paper

Topics and readings are subject to change. Please always check the online schedule.

Acknowledgments: Class materials build on those who have taught it before especially Amy BruckmanMunmun De ChoudhurySauvik Das, and Kayla DesPortes as well as work from Michael Sandel (Harvard), David Owens, Rogers Hall, and Andy Hostetler (Vanderbilt)

Additional Resources:

Computer ethics links by Cindy Meyer-Hanchey.

MIT Course on the Ethics & Governance of Artificial Intelligence