We can roughly characterize two places where ethical judgements are called for, which I shall call upstream and downstream. There is some inconsistency about how these terms are used in the literature; here are my definitions.
I use the term upstream ethics to refer to
- Establishing priorities and goals – for example, emphasising precaution and prevention
- Establishing general principles, processes and practices
- Embedding these in standards, policies and codes of practices
- Enacting laws and regulations
- Establishing governance – monitoring and enforcement
- Training and awareness – enabling, encouraging and empowering people to pay due attention to ethical concerns
- Approving and certifying technologies, products, services and supply chains.
Some people call these (or some of them) “pre-normative” ethics.
I use the term downstream ethics to refer to
- Making judgements about a specific instance
- Eliciting values and concerns in a specific context as part of the requirements elicitation process
- Detecting ethical warning signals
- Applying, interpreting and extending upstream ethics to a specific case or challenge
- Auditing compliance with upstream ethics
There is also a feedback and learning loop, where downstream issues and experiences are used to evaluate and improve the efficacy of upstream ethics.
Downstream ethics does not take place at a single point in time. I use the term early downstream to mean paying attention to ethical questions at an early stage of an initiative. Among other things, this may involve picking up early warning signals of potential ethical issues affecting a particular case. Early downstream means being ethically proactive – introducing responsibility by design – while late downstream means reacting to ethical issues only after they have been forced upon you by other stakeholders.
However, some writers regard what I’m calling early downstream as another type of upstream. Thus Ozdemir and Knoppers talk about Type 1 and Type 2 upstream. And John Paul Slosar writes
“Early identification of the ethical dimensions of person-centered care before the point at which one might recognize the presence of a more traditionally understood “ethics case” is vital for Proactive Ethics Integration or any effort to move ethics upstream. Ideally, there would be a set of easily recognizable ethics indicators that would signal the presence of an ethics issue before it becomes entrenched, irresolvable or even just obviously apparent.”
For his part, as a lawyer specializing in medical technology, Christopher White describes upstream ethics as a question of confidence and supply – in other words, having some level of assurance about responsible sourcing and supply of component technologies and materials. He mentions a range of sourcing issues, including conflict minerals, human slavery, and environmentally sustainable extraction.
Extending this point, advanced technology raises sourcing issues not only for physical resources and components, but also for intangible inputs like data and knowledge. For example, medical innovation may be dependent upon clinical trials, while machine learning may be dependent on large quantities of training data. So there are important questions of upstream ethics as to whether these data were collected properly and responsibly, which may affect the extent to which these data can be used responsibly, or at all. As Rumman Chowdhury asks, “How do we institute methods of ethical provenance?”
There is a trade-off between upstream effort and downstream effort. If you take more care upstream, you should hope to experience fewer difficulties downstream. Conversely, some people may wish to invest little or no time upstream, and face the consequences downstream. One way of thinking about responsibility is shifting the balance of effort and attention upstream. But obviously you can’t work everything out upstream, so you will always have further stuff to do downstream.
So it’s about getting the balance right, and joining the dots. Wherever we choose to draw the line between “upstream” and “downstream”, with different institutional arrangements and mobilizing different modes of argumentation and evidence at different stages, “upstream” and “downstream” still need to be properly connected, as part of a single ethical system.
(In a separate post, Ethics – Soft and Hard, I discuss Luciano Floridi’s use of the terms hard and soft ethics, which covers some of the same distinctions I’m making here but in a way I find more confusing.)
Os Keyes, Nikki Stevens, and Jacqueline Wernimont, The Government Is Using the Most Vulnerable People to Test Facial Recognition Software (Slate 17 March 2019) HT @ruchowdh
Vural Ozdemir and Bartha Maria Knoppers, One Size Does Not Fit All: Toward “Upstream Ethics”? (The American Journal of Bioethics, Volume 10 Issue 6, 2010) https://doi.org/10.1080/15265161.2010.482639
John Paul Slosar, Embedding Clinical Ethics Upstream: What Non-Ethicists Need to Know (Health Care Ethics, Vol 24 No 3, Summer 2016)
Christopher White, Looking the Other Way: What About Upstream Corporate Considerations? (MedTech, 29 Mar 2017)
Updated 18 March 2019