Year Alpha

Ethical Thinking – Feedback Letter

By February 25, 2020 No Comments

Dear thinkers,

Thank you for making last Thursday a day to remember – with your unrelenting inquisitiveness, sharp focus and critical investigative spirit. You are already true thinkers!

We covered quite a lot of ground “theorywise” during our time together, and still there is much, much more to discuss when it comes to ethics… However, as I mentioned in the class, my main objective was not so much to heap a ton of ideas upon you (although I guess I did), but to give you an inkling of how various perspectives are interrelated, as I believe the practice of ethical thinking – or reasoning – flourishes when one is able to move through different levels of abstraction and look at matters from a distance, from (many) different angles. Whether one wants to think teleologically or not, look at the actor or the action, zoom in on virtue, consequences, or duties, …: these conceptual instruments enable one to take a bird’s-eye view and reflect systematically on an issue – after which it is perfectly permissible (and mostly, advisable) to move deeply “into” the issue again, but now with a fresh perspective and (hopefully!) more solid ground for action and decision.

I’m glad we were able to briefly talk about ethics of technology at the end of the class, but I also still had some material on ethics of AI (which is still more specific in terms of application), which we didn’t cover. I include those slides; they might make sense on their own. Also, I had a discussion case prepared, situated in the realm of ethics of technology/media/AI (although the phenomenon in question didn’t have much to do with AI, but in the future similar systems might be AI-driven).

Just to situate the case a bit, for those of you who are curious: it was about Realo, a Belgian app that stirred some debate a couple of years ago (similar services had been developed before in the United States). Realo is a real estate app that enables you to browse for houses for sale or for rent. Nothing special there, were it not for the fact that one can also consult the so-called ‘social profile’ of a certain neighborhood: one can look up one’s potential future neighbors’ average income, their age, how many singles live in the neighborhood, and how ‘multicultural’ the area is. The app is certainly not doing anything illegal; all data comes from publicly available databases (so no question about law). The application just brings together this data and presents it in a convenient interface. Nevertheless, pertinent ethical questions can be and have been asked about possible discrimination. With apologies to those of you who don’t read Dutch (the debate took place in Flanders), here are a couple of links to opinion pieces:

The reactions in a way present a nice chart of some of the “big” ethical perspectives around. While some stress the convenience of the tool, others rather emphasize principles (e.g., knowledge must be available to everyone). Still others see the service as a mirror of our “daily discrimination” … I leave it up to you – if you feel like it – to engage into your own ethical thinking about the issue.

It was a pleasure and an honor to teach to you – and be taught by you, as I in turn learned a great deal from your critical questions and comments. I wish you the best of luck with the remainder of the course and with all your future (thinking) endeavors!

Yoni Van Den Eede