Ethics for Technologies Seminar

  • Gates Hillman Centers
  • Reddy Conference Room 4405
  • Clara L. West Professor of Ethics and Philosophy
  • Director of the Center for Ethics and Policy
  • Carnegie Mellon University

One Hour, One Chalkboard, and a Comprehensive Structure of Ethical Theories

Non-specialists seeking to learn more about ethics are often confronted by a bewildering variety of ethical theories that often seem to be answering different questions. Combined with the fact that common terms are often defined differently by different scholars, the appearance of disconnected diversity can foster a sense of relativism or ethical nihilism (the view that ethical theories don’t really matter). In this lecture I present a taxonomy for moral theories that shows how a wide range of standard ethical theories can be constructed as a the result of different responses to a small set of related questions. The framework that emerges provides a comprehensive map of actual and possible consequentialist theories and a rough set of heuristics for constructing non-consequentialist theories. The lecture highlights where a variety of technical issues (such as the nature of rationality and rational choice in computational systems) intersect with fundamental ethical questions. It also exposes a broad set of common views about ethical theories as either false or misleading. The goal is not to defend a particular position but to present a taxonomy that displays the concrete questions over which different theories disagree, so that debate in this area will appear more systematic and amenable to rational argument.

Learning Objectives:

  1. To be able to generate a wide range of ethical theories from a small set of related questions.2.
  2. To identify concrete issues that differentiate alternative theories.
  3. To identify where a range of technical issues intersect with basic ethical questions.
  4. To develop a better sense of how to reason about the relative strengths and weaknesses of different ethical theories.

Alex John London is the Clara L. West Professor of Ethics and Philosophy and Director of the Center for Ethics and Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. An elected Fellow of the Hastings Center, Professor London’s work focuses on ethical and policy issues surrounding the development and deployment of novel technologies in medicine, biotechnology and artificial intelligence, on methodological issues in theoretical and practical ethics, and on cross-national issues of justice and fairness. His papers have appeared in Mind, The Philosopher’s Imprint, Science, JAMA, The Lancet, The BMJ, PLoS Medicine, Statistics In Medicine, The Hastings Center Report, and numerous other journals and collections. He is also co-editor of Ethical Issues in Modern Medicine, one of the most widely used textbooks in medical ethics.

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