Have a Moral Dilemma? There’s an App for That.

But can an attempt to improve ethical decision-making compete with Fruit Ninja?

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The parking garage I use downtown has a coupon online that makes for a hefty discount. So every day, I make sure I’ve printed out a copy of the coupon to present when I check out. The garage recently switched over to a fancy new automated checkout system that everybody hates, and my printed-out coupons are a wrinkle in that system. Last week, as I settled up, the attendant told me, “You know, you can download that coupon on your phone and then just hold the phone up to the scanner. What kind of phone do you have, an iPhone or an Android?”

I scrambled in my purse. “Um … ” I held up my flip-phone, and his face fell.


“Oh,” he said. “Never mind.”

I read recently that two-thirds of Americans now own smartphones. I’m not sure why. I don’t feel a void in my life because I can’t locate the closest 20 shoe stores or play Angry Birds. I did read about an app the other day, though, that almost seemed useful. Developed by Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, it’s called the Ethical Decision Making app. As described in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Ethical Decision Making app is an attempt to bring applied ethics into the 21st century. It is not so much a Magic 8-Ball as a pocket Socrates, which is to say the app asks more questions than it answers. The idea is that someone facing a decision can use it to evaluate each possible option.”

Handily, I could check out the app by accessing the Markkula Center’s website, bypassing my very 20th-century phone. The opening page announces that the Ethical Decision Making App is “a practical tool for thinking through tough choices.” This is followed by a lengthy legalese disclaimer announcing that if you utilize the app to make tough choices, Santa Clara University isn’t gonna be responsible for the consequences of those choices, which seems kind of mealy-mouthed to me. Shouldn’t people teaching us how to make moral choices be more accepting of responsibility? Also? If you have an ethical emergency and you can’t get through on the app, the university isn’t responsible for that.

Once you get past the disclaimers, there’s a box where you can input the facts of your ethical dilemma, with a helpful note that this box will disappear when you close the app, so that if, say, you’re inputting facts concerning whether you could ever be justified in cheating on your spouse, there won’t be any record of it on your computer or phone.

Next come a series of screens on which you’re asked to apply a sliding scale to the implications of the option for action that you’ve chosen to explore. Does cheating on your spouse “produce the most good and do the least harm for all who are affected”? Hmmm. “If I take this action, am I treating others simply as a means to an end?” Is my action more just, or less just? How does it serve the common good?

These are worthwhile questions to ask. They’re also not the sorts of questions I would be likely to ask if I were contemplating cheating on my spouse, chief among which would be: Will I get caught? But pondering whether said cheating would increase or decrease the common good does have the definite advantage of slowing you down enough to take the edge off your urge to do something you shouldn't. It could be that’s the true value of all philosophy.

In the end, the Ethical Decision Making app uses an algorithm to produce a number, on a scale of one to 100, representing the relative ethical-ishness of each contemplated option as determined by the values you’ve plugged in. I didn’t have a lot of patience for sliding the little scales up and down, but I was brought up short by the page headlined “Virtue,” which asks, “Does this option lead me to act as the sort of person I want to be?” Not, you’ll note, the sort of person I am. There are also buttons you can click if you want MORE INFO, which take you to even more thorny reading matter on ethical issues. Thinking on ethical issues is apparently timeless, since said reading matter is 25 years old.

I ran through the Ethical Decision Making app on a few of the hypothetical moral quandaries on a list I found of the Top 10 Ethical Dilemmas, most of which turn out to be extremely farfetched situations in which one is in a leaky lifeboat that requires constant bailing, or has the opportunity to torture a mad bomber, or causes a fatal hit-and-run accident that somebody else insists on taking the blame for. It was interesting and instructive to meander through the ethical implications of these situations and thereby exercise my moral muscles, which frankly get even less of a workout than my actual muscles most days. But the truth is, my moral dilemmas fall more along the lines of, Is it okay not to leave a note on the car whose door you've just clipped with your own car door in the parking lot at Walmart if you don't have a pen on you and the car whose door you've just clipped already has a lot of dents?

Some people have sneered at the notion of applying a mobile app to difficult ethical questions; the Chronicle quotes a Twitter skeptic as saying the app “references terms the noneducated in ethics won’t understand & is hilariously oversimplistic for those who are.” But the app has been downloaded nearly 1,600 times since it was unveiled in April, which means the smartphone user driving the car that’s tailgating you on the Schuylkill Expressway might not be checking Facebook, but might actually be weighing the ethical consequences of giving you the finger. It’s something to think about besides just giving him the finger back.

Follow @SandyHingston on Twitter.

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