About PM4Web

The PM4Web blog was born as an outlet to return knowledge back to the web development community. My goal is to share my experiences as a project manager from over the years in a manner which helps you succeed with your own projects.

11 April, 2009

Ethics, Morality, and Principles in Web Development

What projects some web developers wont take and why

The topic of morals and ethics in business can be a tricky one since it’s so subjective. To the majority of people, there is an obvious pool of projects they wouldn’t touch with a ten foot barge pole (e.g. ones which are clearly illegal). However, it gets interesting once you start poking around the gray areas, where things transition from blindingly unethical to just morally questionable.

Before we begin, a brief definition of some key terms is required:

Ethics – the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation.
Morality – conformity to ideals of right human conduct.
Principles – guiding sense of the requirements and obligations of right conduct.
(Source: www.merriam-webster.com and www.dictionary.com)

They all look kind of the same don’t they, especially ethics and morality? You could say morality and ethics are more universal or over-arching systems applicable to society at large. Principles seem to be a more personal thing, and this is often where the ‘gray area’ exists.

Why is it that some web developers will take on a project which others won’t? Let’s explore this question by taking a look at a few real-world examples, or ‘mini-case studies’ if you will. Some of these cases are drawn from my own personal experience, whilst others have been relayed to me by peers.

The vegetarian and the abattoir – this is something that happened to me a couple of years ago. I was offered a contract to produce a website for a meat abattoir (i.e. slaughterhouse). What’s the problem you may ask? I’m a vegetarian. This isn’t a big dilemma, none-the-less I politely declined the contract and referred the client to someone equally capable. This is clearly a case of my own personal principles in action; most carnivorous developers would have no problem taking the project.

The designer and the sex toys – this happened to a graphic designer I know. The company she was working for at the time was contracted to develop an e-commerce website for a sex-toy retailer. She asked to be excluded from the project because she felt that it couldn’t be known for sure weather the products being sold on the website were in some way supporting exploitation of women.

Debt collectors and domain squatters – I’m aware of a case in which a developer declined to take a project from a debt collection agency, and another contract from a ‘domain squatter’ (i.e. a person who buys a web address with the intent of ransoming it to its legitimate owner). Turning-down a debt collector is interesting considering it is a legitimate business. His reasoning was that some debt collectors are reputed to use nefarious means to achieve their ends.

Blood and wrestling – this story is about a game programmer. Part of his work involved coding particle effects in a wrestling game. When a wrestler’s avatar was struck, droplets of blood would fly out and stain the canvas floor where it landed. Soon after working on the game he departed the company. He took this experience as a sign of things to come.

The entrepreneurial slave-trader – a developer was offered $15,000 USD to create a website for the purpose of trafficking in humans. Needless to say, he turned down the project and never dealt with that particular ‘businessman’ again.

Many other projects of a questionable nature were mentioned during the course of my research for this article, including; work from home schemes, spam mailers, government grants scams, MSN ID harvesters, website clones, viruses, adware, stock options trading systems, religious websites, etc.

The fact that there’s so much questionable software out there means there are developers who have no problem producing it. In their mind there is probably an acceptable reason for undertaking the work, or perhaps they simply don’t care.

There is also this argument: “for enough money, you’d it”. This basically says that, barring any illegal activity, a person would take a project for the right price. This argument is spurious at best since a situation would never arise where it could actually come true. Why? Because there would always be someone willing to do it for less then the exorbitant rate required to bypass a person’s ‘ethical barriers’.

Dilbert - ethics

There is some irony and even hypocrisy to some of these stories. For instance, I turned down a website which sold animal flesh, but would have no qualms about building a site which uses ‘human flesh’ as a marketing tool (i.e. an online shop for a sex toys retailer). Personally, I see no issue as long as no one has been harmed, duped or taken advantage of as part of the production or selling of the product. I guess this just goes to show that what’s morally abhorrent to one person is logically justifiable to another.