Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 2 hours / session



Course Description

In this weekly seminar we will inquire into the problems of ethics by starting with engineering cases that raise ethical quandaries and bringing to light the deep issues that underlie them. We will then go on to investigate these deep issues through a careful and close study of some of the great thinkers, statesmen, and imaginative artists on ethics. This course takes the approach that engineering is not merely about design and implementation. Engineering aims at goods for both the individual and for society, and the thoughtful pursuit of engineering necessitates an understanding of those goods and therein an understanding of both the individual and of society. The readings that we will study are by people who achieved this understanding to the highest degree.

This version of the popular Ethics for Engineers course focuses on the ethics issues involved in the latest developments of computer science. Artificial Intelligence (AI), and the algorithmic judgment at its core, is developing at breakneck speed. Our society’s economics, ethics, politics, and law—in short, our way of life—is being significantly and rapidly transformed as AI systems are embedded in more and more facets of our lives. This discussion-based seminar is devoted to the philosophical and ethical issues that current and future AI systems pose. Questions to be considered include the following: How can we best align our own aims with that of autonomous AI systems? Has social media made us better? How do we prevent learning algorithms from acquiring morally repugnant biases? Should AI be used to kill in warfare or to “predict” crime in police work? How best to embed AI systems in our social relations—to what ends? Is it permissible to fall in love with an AI system? Or take one as a lover? What ethical codes should guide AI like self-driving cars? Is “data” a new form of labor, and private platforms a new form of capitalism? And does it matter? How and why? What forms of pressure, if any, do the new forms of surveillance put on privacy, freedom and democracy? Are AI systems moral agents? Can they be? If they are, how do we hold them responsible? Can they suffer ethical harms? What counts as such? How should we live with intelligent minds alien to our own? Should we enhance ourselves by melding with computers? Is the future of AI an existential threat to humanity?

Key Learning Goals

  • Gain familiarity with the problems of ethics and some of the possible solutions specifically related to computer science and AI
  • Enhance your understanding of ethics broadly
  • Apply your ethical understanding to analyze cases involving
    • AI
    • Social media and data
    • Engineering and society broadly
    • Engineering and politics broadly
    • Engineering and democracy
  • Explore the connection between ethics and nature
  • Learn about the foundations of the modern and ancient approaches to ethics and their differences
  • Obtain an appreciation of the proper application of quantitative versus qualitative reasoning
  • Explore connections among ethics, politics, law, economics, and the engineering project
  • Explore the connections among the social, cultural, and political aspects of engineering
  • Appreciate the extreme care by which foundational ethical works are written and the approach to reading them


You are required to do the readings before class; you will be called upon to participate in class discussions, for which you will be graded.

Weekly written assignments Each week starting the second week of class, students must answer each study question in a paragraph or so in the body of an email. These assignments are due each week at 11:59 pm the night before class. 55%
Classroom participation Students are required to attend class and are expected to make contributions to class discussion. 30%
Oral final question and discussion Students will present a brief analysis of a chosen question with discussion (see last class period). 15%

Note: Please print out all materials that you might need in class. No electronic equipment may be used in class. Absolutely NO TEXTING allowed in class.

Requirements for Students Taking Higher-Credit Versions of the Course

Two higher-credit versions of the course (6.9041 and 20.005) are offered in addition to the regular 6-credit version. Students enrolled in these versions of the course are required to complete extra work. For details on the expectations for this work, see the Assignments page.