Ethics washing

Definition & Introduction

Ethics washing, like greenwashing in some respects, is the practice of feigning ethical consideration to improve how a person or organization is perceived.

From ostensible diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs to insincere environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives, ethics washing is becoming more prevalent. To quote Carnegie Council President Joel Rosenthal: “Ethics washing is a reality in the performative environment in which we live—whether by corporations, politicians, or universities. Much lip service is given to virtues such as diversity, equity, and inclusion, even as the goals and means to achieve them remain ill-defined and elusive.”

Examples of ethics washing are prevalent in many programs focused on the development and use of new technologies. In the article “Why Are We Failing at the Ethics of AI?” Carnegie Council Senior Fellows Anja Kaspersen and Wendell Wallach write: “The last few years have seen a proliferation of initiatives on ethics and artificial intelligence (AI). Whether formal or informal, led by companies, governments, international and non-profit organizations, these initiatives have developed a plethora of principles and guidance to support the responsible use of AI systems and algorithmic technologies. Despite these efforts, few have managed to make any real impact in modulating the effects of AI.”

Kaspersen and Wallach further describe ethics washing in the field of AI as “creating a superficially reassuring but illusory sense that ethical issues are being adequately addressed, to justify pressing forward with systems that end up deepening current patterns.”

Explore resources on this topic published by senior fellows and members of the Carnegie Council network below.

Ethics Washing Resources

MAY 13, 2022 Article

Ethics As We Know it is Gone. It's Time for Ethics Re-envisioned.

NOV 10, 2021 Article

Why Are We Failing at the Ethics of AI?

As you read this, AI systems and algorithmic technologies are being embedded and scaled far more quickly than existing governance frameworks (i.e., the rules of the road) are evolving. But a responsible perspective on their ethics and governance is yet to be realized. So why hasn't more been done?

DEC 23, 2021 Article

Ethics and Fairness in AI: Who Makes the Rules

In a September 2021 talk at Sparks! The Serendipity Forum at CERN, Anja Kaspersen, senior fellow for Carnegie Council’s Artificial Intelligence & Equality Initiative (AIEI), discusses issues relating to artificial intelligence and power.

Featured Reading

From Ethics Washing to Ethics Bashing

A Moral Philosophy View on Tech Ethics — "So-called 'ethics washing' by tech companies is on the rise, prompting criticism and scrutiny from scholars and the tech community."


How AI companies can avoid ethics washing

"Put simply, 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."


Deceptive Pretenses Known As AI Ethics-Washing

“AI Ethics washing entails giving lip service or window dressing to claimed caring concerns about AI Ethics precepts...”


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