Here’s another way to think about the ethics of software, in terms of multipliers. Think back to the last major virus scare, or when Star Wars Episode II was released. Some "analyst"–who probably found his certificate in a box of Cracker Jack–publishing some ridiculous estimate of damages.
BTW, I have to take a minute to disassemble this kind of analysis. Stick with me, it won’t take long.
If you take 1.5 seconds to delete the virus, it costs nothing. It’s an absolutely immeasurable impact to your day. It won’t even affect your productivity. You will probably spend more time than that discussing sports scores, going to the bathroom, chatting with a client, or any of the hundreds of other things human beings do during a day. It’s literally lost in the noise. Nevertheless, some peabrain analyst who likes big numbers will take that 1.5 seconds and multiply it by the millions of other users and their 1.5 seconds, then multiply that by the "national average salary" or some such number.
So, even though it takes you longer to blow your nose than to delete the virus email, somehow it still ends up "costing the economy" 5x10^6 USD in "lost productivity". The underlying assumptions here are so thoroughly rotten that the result cannot be anything but a joke. Sure as hell though, you’ll see this analysis dragged out every time there’s a news story–or better yet, a trial–about an email worm.
The real moral of this story isn’t about innumeracy in the press, or spotlight seekers exploiting innumeracy. It’s about multipliers.
Suppose you have a decision to make about a particular feature. You can do it the easy way in about a week, or the hard way in about a month. (Hypothetical.) Which way should you do it? Suppose that the easy way makes the user click an extra button, whereas doing it the hard way makes the program a bit smarter and saves the user one click. Just one click. Which way should you do it?
Let’s consider an analogy. Suppose I’m putting a sign up on my building. Is it OK to mount the sign six feet up on the wall, so that pedestrians have to duck or go around it? It’s much easier for me to hang the sign if I don’t have to set up a ladder and scaffold. It’s only a minor annoyance to the pedestrians. It’s not like it would block the sidewalk or anything. All they have to do is duck. (We’ll just ignore the fact that pissing off all your potential customers is not a good business strategy.)
It’s not ethical to worsen the lives of others, even a small bit, just to make things easy for yourself. These days, successful software is measured in millions of users, of people. Always be mindful of the impact your decisions–even small ones–have on those people. Accept large burdens to ease the burden on those people, even if your impact on any given individual is miniscule. The cumulative good you do that way will always overwhelm the individual costs you pay.