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[liberationtech] [cpsr-activists] CPSR Curriculum?

Charles M. Ess c.m.ess at
Sat Feb 2 21:09:45 PST 2019

A fascinating - if deeply depressing - thread: many thanks to all.

Let me add:  the relatively sudden interest among Harvard, Stanford et 
al in attempting to introduce some element of ethics into CS (and 
related) instruction is also quite striking to many of us who have been 
doing this for 30 years or longer.  James Moor at Dartmouth, for 
example, was pushing in these directions in the 1980s - and enough 
U.S.-based philosophers and CS (and related) folk were interested to 
begin the Computing and Philosophy (CAP) conferences in the late 1980s, 
based in Carnegie Mellon and whose venues included Stanford.  The topics 
included AI, logic, hypertext/hypermedia - and ethics, both in 
application and teaching.
Very briefly: those of us who have thus been engaged in these domains 
for quite some time see information and computing ethics (ICE) as 
grounded in Norbert Wiener's _The Human Use of Human Beings_ 
(1950/1954): "cybernetics" is from _kybernetes_, the steersman or pilot 
which in Plato stands as the exemplar of _ethical_ judgment and the 
capacity for _ethical_ self-correction.  (Admittedly, there are 
strikingly few people, even in the ICE communities, seem to be aware of 
Especially as CAP morphed into the International Association of CAP 
(IACAP) in the early 2000s, all of this blossomed in many and various 
ways - including three additional professional organizations and 
conference series devoted to various dimensions of ethics vis-a-vis 
computational and computer-mediated communication technologies (the 
latter with roots back to the 1980s, if not earlier, as well). Namely, 
the CEPE (computer ethics: professional inquiries) series begun by Simon 
Rogerson in the UK and INSEIT (International Society for Ethics and 
Information Technology), both starting up in the late 1990s.  Likewise, 
the Society for Philosophy of Technology (SPT) started up in 1995, 
beginning with its now flagship journal, _techné_.

 From my perspective, the most remarkable developments have emerged over 
the last four or five years, as our colleagues in CS and related fields, 
including network engineering, for example, have themselves begun to 
argue for and exemplify the importance of ethical reflection in their 
work.  There are some striking examples - at least on this side of the 
pond - and I'd be happy to share references if anyone's interested.
Most remarkably in these directions: the IEEE project to develop ethical 
standards for the design of Autonomous & Intelligent Systems, now 
concluding its second phase, draws centrally on the virtue ethics 
tradition first staked out by Norbert Wiener as central to their 
frameworks for "ethically-aligned design" (
In parallel: the most recent philosophical and policy-related documents 
on ethical frameworks for AI in the EU centrally stress virtue ethics as 
well as Kantian deontology (autonomy / dignity) as core pillars.  (The 
most prominent and influential work is connected with Luciano Floridi at 
the OII, who is also a member of the European Data Protection 
Supervisor's Ethics Advisory Group: 

The EU folk recognize that these ethical emphases distinguish them from 
both the US and China in a number of critical ways.  Vis-a-vis this 
thread: given the significance of both the IEEE project and developing 
EU policy on ethics in conjunction with the development of AI, the IoT, 
etc. - the, um, indifference, if not hostility towards ethics in 
primarily the US context, as represented in this thread, is at best 
startling and at worst deeply disturbing. (Think: the US version of the 
Chinese Social Credit System, in which any notion of human dignity and 
rights take a distinctive back seat to utilitarian emphases on economic 
efficiencies and benefits - where utilitarianism tends to be the default 
ethical framework in the US in any case, as the focus on the Trolley 
Problem in conjunction with autonomous vehicles exemplifies.)
At the same time, both this history and these recent developments make 
the current "discovery" of ethics and computation by Harvard, Stanford, 
MIT (e.g., "the moral machine") seem woefully ill-informed and ethnocentric.
Correct me if / where I'm wrong.

On the other hand, perhaps better late than never and everything should 
be done to encourage further developments in the US context especially. 
Those of us engaged in these domains have some strategies for doing so - 
but suggestions and comments in these directions would be greatly welcomed.

Many thanks for reading this far -
charles ess

On 01/02/2019 20:02, Yosem Companys wrote:
> My comments inline below in blue...
> On Fri, Feb 1, 2019 at 10:49 AM Richard Brooks <rrb at 
> <mailto:rrb at>> wrote:
>     Reminds me of a proposal I wrote for an ethics course to NSF.
>     My proposed course looked at the economics of the industry, as
>     pointed out by Ross Anderson, that the market rewards bad
>     and insecure software. This means that structurally it is
>     almost impossible to be ethical and survive. The course included
>     finding regulatory and market modifications that would support
>     producing secure systems and economic survival.
>     I find something wrong with a system that supports making
>     insecure products.
>     My course proposal was turned down. My favorite review
>     of the proposal said it is wrong to combine ethics and
>     economics.
> That was the question Oliver Williamson asked before his being awarded 
> the Nobel Prize in Economics.
> Research by Dale Miller 
> <> 
> and others shows that students who take economics courses in college 
> become more selfish and less altruistic after taking the course.
> My Harvard advisor Jeffrey Sachs once told me the story about how the 
> President of the University of Chicago -- then an economist -- heard 
> Jeff go on and on about the importance of technologies to what was then 
> called "developing economies." When Jeff was done, the President turned 
> to him and said, "Jeff, you know that there's no such thing as 
> technology because we haven't modeled it mathematically yet."
> When I came to Stanford and turned to the natural and behavioral 
> sciences, one of my professors would introduce me at parties as a 
> "recovering economist," which I always found amusing.
>     We should teach them to do the ethical thing, especially
>     when it means that they will go bankrupt.

Professor in Media Studies
Department of Media and Communication
University of Oslo

Postboks 1093
Blindern 0317
Oslo, Norway
c.m.ess at

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