Towards a "nerdocratic oath"

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It sounds like they are close to inventing the Canadian system for engineering ethics:




I always enjoy reading Scott Aaronson. I agree, this is a really good first attempt :slight_smile:

Slightly off topic: I can’t help but notice that “nerdocratic” works equally well as a word for a new form of government, and this as an oath of office. But then, highly placed nerds have as much power as many elected officials, I guess.


The Hippocratic Oath must have confused a lot of early doctors who mistakenly thought it meant “Let’s ask the horses what they think.”


This list is less a “programmer’s code of ethics” and more of a “guide on how not to be a jerk”. There’s ideas here that probably could be formalized into a general code of ethics (don’t work on morally dubious projects, for example).

My problem with a programmer’s code of ethics is that it’s useless. Comparisons to engineering aren’t very helpful, because while the Calling of the Engineer and the Obligation are very useful oaths to have, they’re also backed up by the fact that you don’t get to design a bridge in most countries unless you’re a certified, educated professional who is a member of an engineering society. Engineers have credentials and licenses. There isn’t a 16 year old playing around with bridge joists on their drafting table somewhere. But the thing that makes software development amazing is also the thing that brings the most trouble: anyone can do it. All it takes is an old laptop and some free tools, and that 16 year old could potentially change the world. Or write the next rogue cyberweapon.

If simple statements of intent and ethics worked, “don’t be evil” wouldn’t be seen as the tech industry’s biggest joke. Programming would have to become professionalized, and I can’t see that either being a good thing, or happening anytime soon.


There’s a good debate to be had about how much and to what degree they’re productive (or at times counter-productive) but I don’t think they can be dismissed as not doing anything at all. People quit jobs when they thought “don’t be evil” was a vow being broken, so while it didn’t prevent the vow from ever being broken, it had a measurable consequence.

I also don’t think a popularized vow has to be part of a strict professional class in order to affect behavior. Granted, it probably helps the percentage of “compliance” to have people socialized the same way by professional training, like engineers. But people still get pretty worked up about the Pledge of Allegiance, and wedding vows, even though we also know those don’t always “work” as intended.


This is true. I think though that while this seemed to be pretty useful in getting Google to hold back on their various nefarious schemes, I’ve noticed that this sort of groundswell of bottom-up resistance to management villainy hasn’t really emerged anywhere else. There might be some residual sense of duty to one’s fellow man at Google, but if management was really serious they could simply hire some other group of developers from some country that didn’t have that tradition or those expectations. If anyone can write software, you can just keep looking for programmers everywhere on Earth until you find people who didn’t take that oath.

The problem, as always, isn’t with the workers, it’s with the bosses. Engineers are constrained against management excess by legal and professional responsibility, for the exact reason that management will always sacrifice safety and ethics for the bottom line. The engineer can reliably say “I can’t do that”. Programmers aren’t constrained in that way.


I’ll treat it as just that—a gift, which I didn’t earn or deserve. It doesn’t make me inherently worthier than anyone else

That right there is going to put off a lot of Libertarian and Objectivist techbros.

I would like to see some set of ethical standards in the profession, as @purplecat describes above (but without the associated requirement of education and credentials). Digital technology has already radically transformed the world and how we live in ways good (e.g. the Internet in general) and bad (e.g. Facebook and Twitter), but while there’s lots of discussion of “could we” there’s not nearly enough discussion of “should we”.

Having been in the tech business for 20+ years, I can tell you that the Venn diagram overlaps more than you suggest. There’s a pervasive attitude of jerkiness and entitled privilege in the profession that needs to be rooted out, and an informal but standard oath (and the community culture it might help engender) would be one avenue toward doing so.


Just to note, I’m not cheerleading for vows. I personally think they end up being fig leaves for bad behavior far too often, or their original meaning is twisted or lawyered away by bad actors. But they definitely affect people and what they do when the people are acting in good faith.

I don’t see them as a cause of ethical action by themselves. Just something that reminds only those people who want to be ethical, how they wanted to be ethical. Engineers have strong and practical motivations to be ethical, but programmers (those that value being ethical in the first place) have some motivation too.

The main problem in all fields is instilling and rewarding good faith in people, instead of its opposite. Like you say, the bosses have a lot less incentive there. Lots of companies have emptily said they want to make the world better, but you need a culture of participants who internally want that to happen for the words to have meaning.


More widely, this is an extremely interesting set of ideas to think about.

To start with, let’s just quote 6 in full, because it gets to the heart of so many problems of the online space:

  1. Black, white, male, female, trans, gay, straight, Israeli, Palestinian, young, old. Whatever ideologies I might subscribe to about which groups are advantaged and which disadvantaged in which aspects of life—when it comes time to interact with a person, I will throw ideology into the ocean and treat them solely as an individual, not as a representative of a group

Technology, especially the internet makes it very easy to forget the person behind the screen. People of all persuasions find it very easy to slip into categorising someone in the online space into one of “them”, an enemy, who must be prevailed against. When in reality, we are all individuals with all that entails. All the joy, the mistakes, the intelligence and the stupidity of being human.

Also, when formulating a code of ethics like this, another thing that it needs is the recognition of an old principle from the days of Ancient Rome- Lex Non Cogit Ad Impossibilia - that you cannot be obliged to do the impossible. Because some of the problems that technology throws up are intractable, and beyond any one person to solve, you cannot just write a code that says that you’re unethical if you don’t solve them yourself.

Related to this , we as nerds are part of society,and have to operate within it.


Modeling this on the medical example, I wondered who would offer malpractice insurance. :thinking:

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It also highlights the challenge developers face when asked to create something generic when there’s so much diversity in the world.

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I can only assume that if this ever happens oh, it will be equally as effective as the oath for doctors.

Now this is where I was going to include a picture of Doctor Nick from The Simpsons, and that weird looking guy that Trump claims as his personal physician.

But ugh, the effort of downloading and pasting from this phone… Ugh.

I am an American, educated in the US, who has participated in this.

I had no idea it was mainly a Canadian thing until a Canadian I met pointed it out to me.

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