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I would like to edit this question/answer to provide specific guidance for asking and answering questions related to ethics on Software Engineering:

Ethics questions are on-topic, given that direct relevance to one or more SDLC activities is provided and the question falls within the scope of this community as defined in the Help Center.

Questions that are about the law or require the expertise of a lawyer are off-topic here, but may be a suitable fit on Law Stack Exchange. Ethical questions that stray into the realm of "primarily opinion based" or "too broad" will also be closed. Anyone asking questions about ethics in software engineering should keep in mind the criteria for good subjective questions:

  • inspire answers that explain “why” and “how”
  • tend to have long, not short, answers
  • have a constructive, fair, and impartial tone
  • invite sharing experiences over opinions
  • insist that opinion be backed up with facts and references
  • are more than just mindless social fun

Good answers should include facts and references, including to accepted ethical theories and frameworks. Great answers would be framed with respect to one or more codes of ethics directly related to software engineering or computing.

Any discussions on if this subject should be on-topic can be held, but that is a separate concern. Right now, this is on-topic. We just have no guidance as to what is acceptable in this boundary case.

I've elaborated on several points below, and feedback would be much appreciated.


1: At least some ethics questions are a good fit for the Stack Exchange format. Ethics is one of the top tags on Philosophy and there are three questions about ethics on Engineering, none of which are closed and all of which are positively scored.

2: We already have over 100 questions tagged . 46 of these questions are not closed. Minimally, this tag should be cleaned up to provide a good picture of acceptable questions.

3: We do not need to consider a range of questions that would be considered primarily opinion based or too broad. The Help Center provides 6 criteria for good subjective questions and any question asked should meet most, if not all of these criteria. Questions and answers that don't meet their respective criteria should be down voted and/or removed.

4: The field of software engineering has a number of relevant codes of ethics or professional conduct, including the Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice jointly maintained by the ACM and IEEE Computer Society. Professional organizations such as the ACM, the IEEE, the BCS, and others also have relevant codes for any members. Any good answers would be minimally grounded in acceptable ethical theories (likely coming from normative ethics or descriptive ethics), if not one or more relevant codes of ethics.

5: Any ethical questions must be tied to the SDLC. Consider some recent news stories: Volkswagen's software that was used to cheat on emissions tests or Uber's Greyball. One could frame questions about systems concept development, requirements analysis, design, development, or operations & maintenance about these or similar cases. This is the same standard applied to history questions - there must be relevance to and direct questions regarding at least one SDLC activity.

6: No changes to the guidance in the Help Center will be required. The scope of on-topic questions continues to be issues found while working in the systems development life cycle. In addition, questions about the law or requiring the expertise of a lawyer will continue to be off-topic. Additional guidance will be added to this question / answer which provides some supplementary notices on these edge cases.

7: In order to be a community that responds to the needs of professionals, academics, and students working in software engineering and related fields, we need to adapt to the changing fields. The changing landscape of cybersecurity, privacy, autonomous vehicles (including cars and aircraft), and others are raising questions about ethical decisions in technology, and specifically in software development. We should be willing to accept questions in this area, as long as they meet our other criteria for good questions.

  • related: Can I ask programming ethics questions on Stack Overflow? (at MSO) – gnat Mar 21 '17 at 7:08
  • @gnat Related, but irrelevant. The scope of Stack Overflow has almost no bearing on our scope. Plus, our question is not "Can I ask ethics questions here?" (because the answer to that is yes, unless there's a discussion to make them off-topic), but "What is the best guidance for people asking ethics questions to ensure that they understand how to avoid closure?" – Thomas Owens Mar 21 '17 at 8:51
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    Thomas I think it is relevant because the suggestions to dump this stuff at us looks popular over there: "How about SoftwareEngineering.SE? That should be the proper place to ask these questions." "If "SoftwareEngineering" is what "Programmers" is being called now, ethics questions should be on topic there." – gnat Mar 21 '17 at 8:53
  • ...if hordes of SO lemmings will dump their usual brainless comments "belongs to programmers" at every senseless ethical poll it will be really hard to say that what is discussed at MSO is irrelevant – gnat Mar 21 '17 at 8:56
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    @gnat Let me be clear: Ethics questions are on-topic here and have been for as long as I can remember. We have over 100 asked, over 40 still open. Of those closed, the only ones closed for off-topic are legal questions masquerading as ethics questions. The others are closed as too broad or primarily opinion based. This is not a place to discuss the topicality of ethics questions, but the guidance to put in the linked question for people to ask an ethics question that will not be closed as too broad or primarily opinion based. – Thomas Owens Mar 21 '17 at 9:13
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    I would be fine with the the guidance as long as it will have an unambiguous requirement for the question to directly relate to SDLC – gnat Mar 21 '17 at 9:27
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    @gnat Fully agree. I'd like to paste the quoted block from this question under a heading in the linked answer. Do you think the is clear enough? If not, should anything there be changed? – Thomas Owens Mar 21 '17 at 9:31
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    "demonstrate relevance" seems somewhat weak, I would prefer to have it a bit stronger. "Clearly demonstrate", unambiguously demonstrate, maybe demonstrate direct relevance, something like that. Closed ethics questions probably need some attention too, to prevent broken windows. De-tag these where possible, maybe edit etc – gnat Mar 21 '17 at 9:42
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    @gnat I think I tightened up the wording. Hoping to have a cleanup of not just the tag, but all questions that contain "ethics" done by the end of the weekend. – Thomas Owens Mar 21 '17 at 10:29
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    this way looks better, although you will likely have to do something about double "provided" in one sentence. :) Would be interesting to see how you cleanup, I attempted a few questions myself but discovered that it's not easy... softly speaking – gnat Mar 21 '17 at 10:53

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