Cute Notebooks

RESEARCH

I currently have two broad research projects. The first is what I call the ethics of thinking. I'm interested in questions about whether certain thoughts or beliefs are morally wrong, and whether we could be blameworthy for having them. This project started with my dissertation, in which I argued that we can be blameworthy for using defective concepts or for being ignorant of apt concepts, particularly with regard to concepts of social kinds. I've published papers on epistemic injustice and moral responsibility in connection with this project, and I have plans for further work on the ethics of belief and intellectual responsibility. In the near future, I would like to write a book on the ethics of thinking, defending the idea that there are moral wrongs that can be committed at the level of thought, which positions philosophical reflection as a central method for taking responsibility for our own thoughts.

 

The second is the philosophy of computer science and the computing professions. This project started when I first taught Dalhousie University's computer ethics course; while at Harvard, it will be my main research focus. I am currently writing on topics such as the ethics of crowdsourced datasets, trust and Big Tech, and whether artificial intelligences can commit epistemic injustices. I'm also collaborating with Dalhousie's Computer Science Education research cluster on a study of gamified participation activities, and doing ethics consulting for Ethically Aligned AI, an AI ethics social enterprise startup.

I also have secondary research interests in feminist philosophy, the philosophy of education, and the philosophy of games, which each inform my main projects.

You can learn more about these projects and my previous research publications below.

Current SubProjects

These subprojects each intersect with my main projects detailed above.

EPISTEMIC INJUSTICES

Epistemic injustices occur when someone is wronged in their capacity as a knower. As discussed by Miranda Fricker, epistemic injustices can take two forms: testimonial, when a speaker is unjustly viewed as less credible than they are on the basis of a prejudice held by the hearer, and hermeneutical, when the conceptual or linguistic tools needed to make sense of someone's social experiences have been unjustly excluded from the mainstream of society. I'm writing papers on the following issues in this area:

  • An analysis of miseducation as a distinctive form of epistemic injustice. (Outlined.)

  • Whether AI systems can commit epistemic injustices. (Outlined.)

  • Discussion of whether we are ever morally responsible for being ignorant of the concepts needed to interpret others' social experiences (In progress.)

  • Whether extremists could face hermeneutical injustices when their strange and politically dangerous views fail to be understood by the mainstream of society, and what we may owe them as a matter of epistemic justice. Collaboration with Charlie Crerar. (Under review.)

  • Introducing a distinction between hermeneutical injustices that occur when the subject fails to understand their own social experience (the type most commonly emphasized in the literature), and when the subject is unable to communicate their social experience to someone differently situated in society. (Completed, see "Hermeneutical Dissent," below.)

RESPONSIBILITY

I'm interested in both moral responsibility (when are we responsible for the actions we take and the attitudes we acquire? what does it mean to act responsibly?) and intellectual responsibility (when are we responsible for the beliefs we acquire and the concepts we use? what does it mean to think and inquire responsibly?), as well as connections between the two. I'm also interested in issues that arise when the answers to these questions are unclear due to good or bad luck. I'm writing papers on the following issues in this area:

  • Discussion of whether we are ever morally responsible for being ignorant of the concepts needed to interpret others' social experiences (In progress.)

  • Why rebuke is an inappropriate way to express epistemic blame. (Under review.)

  • Vicarious responsibility (when someone is responsible for the behaviour of another agent or non-agential process) and its relationship with the notion of taking responsibility for something. (Completed, see "Moral Entanglement," below.)

  • Whether we are ever morally responsible for using defective concepts. (Completed, see "Conceptual Responsibility," below.

EDUCATION

I'm interested in the philosophy of education in general, as well as in the higher education context specifically. Currently, I'm developing a research project that will study the use of a gamified discussion board in online computer science classrooms. I'm writing papers on the following issues in this area:

  • An analysis of miseducation as a distinctive form of epistemic injustice. (Outlined.)

  • The surprisingly long history of the debate over whether universities should be devoted to basic research or practical education, and why both sides are wrong. (Completed, see "The Concept of a University," below.)

  • A research project with Eric Poitras and Yellowdig to study the use of a gamified discussion platform in the virtual computer science classroom, with particular interest in this learning technology's effects on students' understanding of fundamental programming concepts and students' feelings about collaborating with their peers and their confidence in their communication skills.

  • A programming project to make it easier for instructors to run peer evaluation exercises in their learning management system.

COMPUTING

Since teaching computer ethics at Dalhousie University, I have started several projects on the philosophy of computer science. Most of these concern the ethics of cybertechnology. I'm also working with Darren Abramson on a project exploring and critiquing popular natural language processing datasets, which you can follow on GitHub. I'm writing papers on the following issues in this area:

  • Whether it is even possible to trust big tech companies, given that their power makes them difficult to hold accountable. (In progress.)

  • Social media, extended cognition, and epistemic agency. (In progress.)

  • An argument that reliance on large, crowdwork-generated datasets is ethically risky because of labour injustices in the microtask economy, which also have implications for the quality of the resulting data and models trained or challenged thereon. We also raise a worry about the level of corporate power in natural language processing/understanding research that inevitably results from a reliance on datasets so large that the required computing resources can only be accessed via Big Tech firms. Collaboration with Darren Abramson. (Published in the proceedings of the 2021 ACM Web Science Conference.)

 

Publications

ANTICIPATION, SMOTHERING, AND EDUCATION: A REPLY TO LEE AND BAYRUNS GARCÍA ON ANTICIPATORY EPISTEMIC INJUSTICE

September 2021. Online at SERRC.

Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 10 (9): 36-43.

     Abstract: When you expect something bad to happen, you take action to avoid it. That is the principle of action that underlies J. Y. Lee’s recent paper (2021), which presents a new form of epistemic injustice that arises from anticipating negative consequences for testifying. In this brief reply article occasioned by Lee’s essay, I make two main contributions to the discussion of this idea. The first (§§2–3) is an intervention in the discussion between Lee and Eric Bayruns García regarding the relationship between anticipatory epistemic injustice and Kristie Dotson’s concept of testimonial smothering. The second (§§4–5) is to expand the concept of anticipatory epistemic injustice into the educational context, and to illuminate yet another form of anticipatory epistemic injustice, which I call anticipatory zetetic injustice. (§6) concludes.

BIGGER ISN'T BETTER: THE ETHICAL AND SCIENTIFIC VICES OF EXTRA-LARGE DATASETS IN LANGUAGE MODELS

June 2021. Online at ACM Digital Library.

WebSci '21: Proceedings of the 13th ACM Web Science Conference (Companion Volume): 69–75.

Co-author: Darren Abramson.

     Abstract: The use of language models in Web applications and other areas of computing and business have grown significantly over the last five years. One reason for this growth is the improvement in performance of language models on a number of benchmarks — but a side effect of these advances has been the adoption of a “bigger is always better” paradigm when it comes to the size of training, testing, and challenge datasets. Drawing on previous criticisms of this paradigm as applied to large training datasets crawled from pre-existing text on the Web, we extend the critique to challenge datasets custom-created by crowdworkers. We present several sets of criticisms, where ethical and scientific issues in language model research reinforce each other: labour injustices in crowdwork, dataset quality and inscrutability, inequities in the research community, and centralized corporate control of the technology. We also present a new type of tool for researchers to use in examining large datasets when evaluating them for quality.

MORAL ENTANGLEMENT: TAKING RESPONSIBILITY AND VICARIOUS RESPONSIBILITY

April 2021. Online at Oxford Journals.

The Monist 104(2): 210–223. Issue on 'Vicarious Responsibility and Circumstantial Luck'.

     Abstract: Vicarious responsibility is sometimes analysed by considering the different kinds of agents involved—who is vicariously responsible for the actions of whom? In this paper, I discuss vicarious responsibility from a different angle: in what sense is the vicarious agent responsible? I do this by considering the ways in which one may take responsibility for events caused by another agent or process. I discuss three senses of taking responsibility—accepting fault, assuming obligations, and fulfilling obligations—and the forms of vicarious responsibility that correspond to these. I end by explaining how to judge which sense applies in a given case, based on the degree of (what I call) moral entanglement between the agent and what they should take responsibility for.

CONCEPTUAL RESPONSIBILITY

February 2021. Online at Taylor & Francis.

Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 64(1–2): 20–45. Issue on 'Themes in Conceptual Engineering'.

     Abstract: Conceptual engineering is concerned with the improvement of our concepts. The motivating thought behind many such projects is that some of our concepts are defective. But, if to use a defective concept is to do something wrong, and if to do something wrong one must be in control of what one is doing, there might be no defective concepts, since we typically are not in control of our concept use. To address this problem, this paper turns from appraising the concepts we use to appraising the people who use them. First, I outline several ways in which the use of a concept can violate moral standards. Second, I discuss three accounts of moral responsibility, which I call voluntarism, rationalism, and psychologism, arguing that each allows us to find at least some cases where we are responsible for using defective concepts. Third, I answer an objection that because most of our concepts are acquired through processes for which we are not responsible, our use of defective concepts is a matter of bad luck, and not something for which we are responsible after all. Finally, I conclude by discussing some of the ways we may hold people accountable for using defective concepts.

THE CONCEPT OF A UNIVERSITY: THEORY, PRACTICE, AND SOCIETY

May 2019. Online at Brill.

Danish Yearbook of Philosophy 52: 61–81. Special Issue on 'Revisiting the Idea of the University'.

     Abstract: Current disputes over the nature and purpose of the university are rooted in a philosophical divide between theory and practice. Academics often defend the concept of a university devoted to purely theoretical activities. Politicians and wider society tend to argue that the university should take on more practical concerns. I critique two typical defenses of the theoretical concept—one historical and one based on the value of pure research—and show that neither the theoretical nor the practical concept of a university accommodates all the important goals expected of university research and teaching. Using the classical pragmatist argument against a sharp division between theory and practice, I show how we can move beyond the debate between the theoretical and practical concepts of a university, while maintaining a place for pure and applied research, liberal and vocational education, and social impact through both economic applications and criticism aimed at promoting social justice.

HARMS AND WRONGS IN EPISTEMIC PRACTICE

November 2018. Online at Cambridge Core.

Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 84, Cambridge University Press.

Edited book (co-editors: Simon Barker and Charlie Crerar), reviewed.

Contributors: Alison Bailey, Olivia Bailey, Heather Battaly, Simon Barker, Havi Carel, Quassim Cassam, Charlie Crerar, Miranda Fricker, Trystan S. Goetze, Heidi Grasswick, Keith Harris, Casey Rebecca Johnson, Ian James Kidd, Alessandra Tanesini.

     From the Back Cover: How we engage in epistemic practice, including our methods of knowledge acquisition and transmission, the personal traits that help or hinder these activities, and the social institutions that facilitate or impede them, is of central importance to our lives as individuals and as participants in social and political activities. Traditionally, Anglophone epistemology has tended to neglect the various ways in which these practices go wrong, and the epistemic, moral, and political harms and wrongs that follow. In the past decade, however, there has been a turn towards the non-ideal in epistemology. This volume gathers new works by emerging and world-leading scholars on a significant cross section of themes in non-ideal epistemology. Articles focus on topics including intellectual vices, epistemic injustices, interpersonal epistemic practices, and applied epistemology. In addition to exploring the various ways in which epistemic practices go wrong at the level of both individual agents and social structures, the papers gathered herein discuss how these problems are related, and how they may be addressed.

HERMENEUTICAL DISSENT AND THE SPECIES OF HERMENEUTICAL INJUSTICE

Winter 2018. Online at Wiley Online Library.

Hypatia 33(1): 73–90.

     Abstract: According to Miranda Fricker, a hermeneutical injustice occurs when there is a deficit in our shared tools of social interpretation (the collective hermeneutical resource), such that marginalized social groups are at a disadvantage in making sense of their distinctive and important experiences. Critics have claimed that Fricker's account ignores or precludes a phenomenon I call hermeneutical dissent, where marginalized groups have produced their own interpretive tools for making sense of those experiences. I clarify the nature of hermeneutical injustice to make room for hermeneutical dissent, clearing up the structure of the collective hermeneutical resource and the fundamental harm of hermeneutical injustice. I then provide a more nuanced account of the hermeneutical resources in play in instances of hermeneutical injustice, enabling six species of the injustice to be distinguished. Finally, I reflect on the corrective virtue of hermeneutical justice in light of hermeneutical dissent.

BOOK REVIEWS

  • Games: Agency as Art, by C. Thi Nguyen (Oxford University Press, 2020). In The Philosophical Quarterly (Advance Online Article). DOI: 10.1093/pq/pqab021

  • The Limits of Knowledge: Generating Feminist Pragmatist Cases for Situated Knowing, by Nancy Arden McHugh (SUNY Press, 2015). In Journal of Applied Philosophy 33 (2016): 344–46. DOI: 10.1111/japp.12156