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What is Ethics Washing?

Google’s Failed Attempt to Create an Ethics Advisory Panel

No, it is not about washing your clothes in a responsible way. 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 – also called “ethics theater” – is the practice of fabricating or exaggerating a company’s interest in equitable AI systems that work for everyone. Organization’s that practice it follow 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.

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 has since said it will stop 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. Ethics

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.

Criteria for Ethical Decision Making

Professor Ben Wagner wrote a research paper that establishes six basic criteria which could inform ethical decision making as follows:

  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.

These criteria do outline a plan of action that gives more than lip service to ethics and negates the possibility of ethics watching. Still, the devil is in the details so we will have to wait and see whether companies like Google go beyond creating an advisory group, which can be for show only, and instill a sense of ethical behavior that permeates everything it does. At a minimum, top management must set an ethical tone at the top that reinforces the ethical values embodied in responsible decision making.

Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on April 1, 2021. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: Follow him on Facebook at: and on Twitter at: