Ethical decision-making apps damage our ability to make moral choices.

Do Apps Promoting Ethical Behavior Undermine Our Sense of Right and Wrong?

Do Apps Promoting Ethical Behavior Undermine Our Sense of Right and Wrong?

The citizen’s guide to the future.
July 13 2012 6:33 AM

Digital Jiminy Crickets

Do apps that promote ethical behavior diminish our ability to make just decisions?

Digital Ethics Cartoon.

John Mix.

As if we didn’t already have enough reasons to distrust Wall Street, a new study finds that a troubling number of financial services professionals would rather bury a moral compass than use one. Twenty-four percent of participants attested that “unethical or illegal behavior could help people in their industry be successful.” Would Main Street be better off if this greed were curtailed by behavioral-steering technology—digital Jiminy Crickets?       

In the classic story Le avventure di Pinocchi, Pinocchio learns that the essential difference between machines—an animated puppet—and real people is moral conscience. Though insignificant in Collodi’s novel, Jiminy Cricket serves as an external moral compass for Disney’s Pinocchio, following our hero through his adventures to tell him right from wrong. Pinocchio only develops moral maturity when he frees himself from the cricket’s advice and grasps how to make ethical decisions on his own.

Smartphones regularly function as extended minds that supersize recall, perform mathematics, and correct spelling. So why not go a step further down the enhancement highway and make your phone your own personalized, digital Jiminy Cricket?


A recent crush of smartphone and tablet apps claim to make hard decisions easier, and the range of ethical dilemmas they can weigh in on will only increase. At this rate, Siri 5.0 may be less a personal assistant than an always-available guide to moral behavior. But depending on a digital Jiminy Cricket may be a regressive step away from what makes us all real.

Want to raise your green game beyond the superficial grocery store choice of paper, plastic, or cloth? Use iRecyle and find out where to dispose of electronic goods, paint, metal, and hazardous material. Want to consume conscientiously? Use the GoodGuide mobile app or Shop Ethical! 2012 and you’ll put your values where your wallet is, without getting swindled by misleading corporate greenwashing. Have an on-the-job quandary that you don’t want to share with colleagues? Just look for a niche app. The New York State Bar Association Mobile Ethics App gives “judges, lawyers and law students access to instant ethics advice from their smartphones.”

Ethics apps do more than present users with relevant, sometimes hard-to-obtain information. Like a coach, they also directly influence our choices, motivating us to eat better, exercise more, budget our money, and get more out of our free time. Users don’t see these tools as threats to free will, self-esteem, or sustainable habits. Instead, they’re downloading increasing amounts of software containing a “good-behavior layer” that helps users avoid self-sabotaging decisions, like impulse buying and snacking. Capitalizing on three inter-related movements—nudging, the quantified self, and gamification—the good-behavior layer pinpoints our mental and emotional weaknesses and steers us away from temptations that compromise long-term success.

In many cases, good-behavior technology gets the job done by bolstering resolve with digital willpower. By tweaking our responses with alluring and repulsive information, while also shielding us from distracting and demoralizing data, digital willpower helps us better control and redirect destructive urges. Apps like ToneCheck prevent us from sending off hotheaded emails, while GymPact inspires us to go the gym. Students are getting into the act, too, and developing apps to make their classmates more responsible, e.g., get to class on time and be less distracted. Arianna Huffington's project “GPS for the soul” promises to analyze a user’s stress levels and provide overwhelmed people with rebalancing stimuli, like “music, or poetry, or breathing exercises, or photos of a person or place you love.” We’re already willing to delegate self-control to technology—and future developments will likely give devices even more ethical decision-making power.