As part of my work with the University of Toronto’s Embedded Ethics Initiative, I am very pleased that I get to meet so many computer science students who are curious about ethics. Here are my longer answers to some questions that I am often asked.
If you were a math major, why did you decide to go into philosophy?
As I sometimes mention to students in my embedded ethics modules, I actually have two undergraduate degrees: one in mathematics, and the other in philosophy. I first became interested in philosophy because I wanted to know more about the foundations of mathematics, like how mathematics can or cannot be represented in formal logic. Towards the end of my undergraduate degrees, I became interested in the overlap between logic and language. I wrote an honours thesis under Richard Zach at the University of Calgary about representing certain linguistic phenomenon (like presupposition and implicature) in terms of the logics of belief revision. From there it was not that big of a jump to metaethics – thinking about the logic and language of ethical claims. And from there, it was not a big jump to “first-order” moral philosophy and political philosophy, which is what I think about today.
More generally, I think there is a very big overlap between the kind of thinking you do in mathematics, computer science, and philosophy. Philosophy is a “big tent”, and a lot of different cognitive styles can be successful in it, but I think there is a lot of similarity between proofs in math/computer science and arguments used by philosophers. Moreover, like computer scientists, philosophers care a lot about ontology – being very clear about the formal definitions and properties of objects under investigation.
If I’m interested in philosophy, are there any courses you would recommend?
There are a lot of really good philosophy and ethics courses at the University of Toronto. In my view, PHL233 (philosophy for scientists), PHL295 (business ethics) and PHL377 (the ethics of big data) would be particularly interesting to computer scientists. If you think you might want to take more than one ethics class, it would be well worth taking PHL275 (the classic introduction to ethics) and/or PHL265 (the classic introduction to political philosophy). If you want to take a course with me, I often teach PHL271 (philosophy of law) and PHL370 (issues in philosophy of law) – see my “teaching” page. I also know that a lot of computer science students profit from philosophy of mind courses, cognitive science courses, and history/philosophy of science (HPS) courses.
How are philosophy courses different from the ethics modules in computer science courses?
In our embedded ethics modules, we really do try to expose students to a little bit of serious philosophy – conceptual definitions, analyses and arguments from important philosophers. However, it is limited because we don’t assign full readings, and you very seldom get to see how there are many different philosophical views on a question. Typically in a philosophy lecture, there will be a reading, and the professor will (a) give you enough background to understand the reading, (b) explain the reading, and (c) help you criticize the argument of the reading. Often a syllabus will be constructed so you read articles that disagree with one another, and you have to figure out which philosopher you agree with. And of course, in a philosophy course, you are evaluated primarily on longer written assignments in which you would get to make arguments of your own, which a philosophy professor or philosophy graduate student would give you (hopefully detailed!) feedback on.