Read this article from MIT Technology Review as background to the question that follows.
Kate is a programmer working for a manufacturer of autonomous vehicles (AVs). Her employer has advertised that their AVs may, under certain circumstances, decide to act in a way that is likely to result in the deaths of their AVs passengers. However, they have qualified these statements to stress that any such decision will be “heavily weighted in favour of the survival of the passengers of our vehicles“. It is a commonly held believe that this kind of qualification is required to encourage consumers to purchase AVs.
Essentially, if an AV (manufactured by the company that Kate works for) is in a situation where someone is likely to die it compares the numbers of lives that will be lost from each of its possible actions and selects the action with the least loss of life. Except that an additional weight is given to the passengers of the AV by multiplying the number of passengers by some constant value greater than one. For example, if this constant was 2.1 then the AV would choose to preserve the life of a single passenger and kill two pedestrians but would kill the passenger to save three pedestrians.
Kate noticed that the constant value is set to 1 – which is to say that the lives of the cars passengers are weighted exactly the same as anyone else involved in an accident with the AV. Given the manufacturer’s public statements, this made Kate concerned and she discussed the issue with her supervisor, Bob, who explained that she shouldn’t worry about advertising claims “since nobody ever really believes them“. Bob also explained that it was decided that it would be immoral to weigh the lives of the AV passengers higher than anyone else. Kate was not satisfied with this response so sent an email expressing her concerns to her department manager and the CEO of the company. Her only response was from the company’s legal department reminding her that she had signed an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) and that violating this NDA would result in her termination and that “the vast majority of our industry partners are reluctant to hire prospective employees who have previously been sued for NDA violations“.
Kate is trying to decide whether or not she should make this information public.
Write a short essay (900 to 1,500 words) that describes the issues involved in Kate’s decision and give a recommendation on what actions (if any) Kate should take. Your recommendation should be based on either the Kantian or the utilitarian ethical perspective. Whichever perspective you choose you should also briefly discuss whether you’re recommended course of action would differ if you chose the other perspective. In other words, if you choose to argue from the utilitarian perspective explain whether or not your advice to Kate would be different if you chose the Kantian perspective.
This article from Fortune is worth reading if only to show that this question is not entirely hypothetical