What is the Goal of Ethical Decision Making?
Civility is in Decline

Ethics Washing and Regulation

Google’s Experience

I have previously blogged about Ethics Washing. In this blog I will update some of the characteristics of the practice and how to address the issue.

Ethics Washing refers to the practice of ethical window dressing. It is where an organization gives lip service to ethics to make it seem as though it acts responsibly but does not do anything to make sure that, in fact, it is occurring in practice. Ethics is mainly for show. In other words, the organization adopts the position: “We are an ethical organization. Just look at these policies.”

Ethics washing might be a fabrication or exaggeration of a company’s interest in equitable AI systems that work for everyone. An organization that practices it follows a concept that can best be characterized as promoting ethics for the good of all. Some point to Google’s experience in 2019 of creating an Artificial Intelligence (AI) ethics board only to disband it less than two weeks later.


Dr. Ben Wagner, Assistant Professor and Director of the Privacy & Sustainable Computing Lab at Vienna University of Economics and Business, wrote a paper, Ethics as an Escape from Regulation: From ethics-washing to ethics shopping? He says that there are a lot of good approaches to ethical tech development, but there also seem to be ethical approaches to artificial intelligence serving as a substitute for stricter regulatory approaches, specifically in the corporate world but also in the technology policy world.

He offers 6 basic criteria which we could conform to as a minimum for ethics approaches to be taken seriously:

  1. External Participation: early and regular engagement with all relevant stakeholders.
  2. Provide a mechanism for external independent oversight.
  3. Ensure transparent decision-making procedures on why decisions were taken.
  4. Develop a stable list of non-arbitrary standards where the selection of certain values, ethics and rights over others can be plausibly justified.
  5. Ensure that ethics do not substitute fundamental rights or human rights.
  6. Provide a clear statement on the relationship between the commitments made and existing legal or regulatory frameworks, in particular on what happens when the two are in conflict.

While this list may seem simple, many existing initiatives are not able to respond to these challenges, he concludes. Ethics washing

What Went Wrong at Google?

The board, called the Advanced Technology External Advisory Council, was intended to build responsibility into Google’s work with AI systems. Its goal was to inform Google’s AI work and to ensure it was following its AI Principles, set out by CEO Sunder Pichai after revelations the company was participating in a Pentagon drone project that made use of the company’s machine learning research. Google stopped working on the project and has pledged never to develop AI weaponry or work on any project or application of AI that violates “internationally accepted norms” or “widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.

Another problem was the outcry over the appointment to the advisory group of Kay Coles James, the president of thinktank The Heritage Foundation, Thousands of Google employees signed a petition calling for her removal, over what they described as “anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ and anti-immigrant comments.”

Google board member, Alessandro Acquisti resigned after the appointment, tweeting: “While I’m devoted to research grappling with key ethical issues of fairness, rights and inclusion in AI, I don’t believe this is the right forum for me to engage in this important work.”

Google suffered from what can be called “ethical blind spots”. It failed to see how the ethical dimension played an important role in its decision making. Moreover, the company seemed oblivious to the optics. How could they ever have thought that someone who posted offensive comments should be appointed to an ethics advisory board. Where have they been these past few years where the “cancel culture” springs into action once it has been determined that someone’s words or actions are offensive to one group or the other.

Going Beyond Mixed Messaging

Ethics washing is a problem not just because it is inauthentic or sends a mixed message. It also distracts from whether actual steps are being taken toward building a world where professional standards demand AI that works for everyone including historically marginalized groups.

Ethics washing emanates from a series of missteps or lack of willingness to tackle ethical challenges in a real way. Since it is largely window dressing, such policies are artificial at best and hypocritical at worst. The problem for companies like Google is they come to realize too late that there is a reputational risk when actions do not match policies, which is true in any endeavor. With ethics, the consequences may be more subtle such as losing the trust of employees over time.

Some organizations come to the belief that ethics can be used as a way of getting around regulation. However, without a commitment to ethical behavior from the highest levels of the organization, ethics policies will continue to be mainly for public consumption and do not infiltrate all decision-making as they should.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on April 25, 2023. You can sign up for Steve’s newsletter and learn more about his activities on his website (https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/). Check out professional recommendations on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/steven-mintz-aka-ethics-sage-98268126/.