How to be an ethicist - managing imposter syndrome




If you’re on this site the chances are you’re all too aware of where technology can go wrong. It can create societal inequalities, increase surveillance of citizens and damage the environment. But there are techniques to increase the good that technology can do in society. We advocate the role of a technology ethicist. But it is a challenging position - particularly because there isn’t too much information about what to expect as a new technology ethicist, how you should start and how you progress.


We’re kicking off a new content series at Hattusia where we follow the journey of a new ethicist in an organisation. We want to find out first hand what they are struggling with, where they succeed and how they navigate various challenges.


Their name is Autumn Beaudoin (they/them) and they have been working in tech indirectly since their first full time role. With an education focused on where personal finances meet economic systems, they’ve been applying justice-centered systems thinking to their roles in innovation, design, and curriculum across the public and private sectors. Autumn works for a public-interest technology startup out of Brooklyn, NY, but lives in Providence, Rhode Island with their CrossFit, hiking, and D&D playing friends.

Please note, Alice Thwaite is offering mentoring to Autumn in exchange for the time they spend writing these pieces.


Month One - April 2022


I’ve been informally practicing ethics for my entire career.


I’ve successfully balanced stakeholder needs in highly regulated industries. I’ve led rigorous and methodologically sound research. What’s more, I’ve always started answering questions by thinking through context and understanding systemic impacts. That said, I don’t feel qualified for a “Head of Ethics & Research” position. Let me tell you why.


Facilitate conversations on ethics which will then directly lead into product design


This position sits in an “up-to-debate” location in the organization, with an “up-to-debate” set of expectations and an “up-to-debate” list of responsibilities. All of this is “up-to-me-to-debate-by-myself”. While I’m eternally grateful to have a boss and founder who trusts me to make these decisions in a way that serves the organization and our ethical values, I’m overwhelmed by the responsibility and am facing no small amount of imposter syndrome. I’m especially cognizant of the fact that these decisions will be foundational to our ethics practices, and that my personal opinions won’t always be best.


With Alice’s assistance, I’ve identified that the ethical values I had previously identified as our north stars didn’t feel rigorous enough. I’m setting up interviews with my co-workers over the next few weeks to synthesize our organizational values and cross-compare those to our personal values as employees.

The most important step I’ve taken in preparation for this transition has been to ask for help. This means that I need to put systems in place to ensure that it won’t be just me making decisions on ethics, but rather that I can facilitate conversations on ethics which will then directly lead into product design. With Alice’s assistance, I’ve identified that the ethical values I had previously identified as our north stars didn’t feel rigorous enough. I’m setting up interviews with my co-workers over the next few weeks to synthesize our organizational values and cross-compare those to our personal values as employees. I’ve also been working on building a committee of advisors to provide feedback on prioritization in the development of the ethics department. These advisors represent ethicists with focuses in fields related to our organization’s activities (AI/ML, anthropology, design, etc.) as well as clients.


By making ethics a process as opposed to a set of decisions, I hope to decentralize power over ethical decision-making. With that shift in thinking, I’m already feeling more confident.



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@AutumnBeaudoin




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