This course will introduce you to key ethical debates in the area of digital technology. As such, you will learn about the key debates on a range of issues from artificial intelligence to digital privacy that equip you with the knowledge to delve deeper into these topics and connect them to each other, as well as debates on technological developments beyond the classroom.
Importantly, this course will help you learn to think philosophically about these topics. You will develop the skills necessary to construct rigorous critical arguments, and will apply them both orally and in writing. Developing those arguments requires you to think and write both creatively and precisely, and to engage with critical challenges and feedback. The course is structured to help you improve these skills: you will write regularly and on a wide array of topics, engage with and respond to your peers’ critiques. By the end of the semester, you will have written two thoroughly-argued short papers and completed one longer writing-project on a topic of your own choice.
We will look at one topic each week. While each of the sessions will mainly focus on the specific dimensions raised in the text or texts assigned to that session, they are often intertwined. You should therefore have read all of the texts assigned for that week before the first session. This is also important for the two writing assignments that you will complete each week. All the assigned texts will be available on Canvas.
Comments and responses (25%)
This course requires you to read, write, and comment on philosophical ideas. As such, each week you will:
- 1. read assigned readings; and
- 2a. write a short comment; or
- 2b. respond to a classmate’s short comment.
Every other week, you will write a short critical comment (≈200 to 400 words) on the readings assigned for the week. There are very few constraints here: your comment could, for example, point out problems with one of the arguments in the text, discuss a conclusion you find puzzling, draw parallels between ideas from the readings and real-world situations. The only thing it cannot be is a summary of the readings. In addition to the comment, you will also submit one question every week. The question can be based on your comment, focus on a different aspect in the reading material or more generally related to topic of the upcoming session. Your comment is due by mid-day the day before the first session on that topic; in other words, your essays are due by noon on Monday.
Every other week, you will write a brief but polished response (≈100 to 200 words) to one of your classmate’s comments which has been assigned to you. The responses should engage with the core idea or argument advanced in the comment, and offer critical feedback to the writer. As in discussion in class, all critical feedback should be in good faith, courteous, and constructive. The comments are due by mid-day on the day before the second session of the week; that means, they are due by noon on Wednesday.
Please upload your comments and responses to the submission system here.
Comments and responses are graded for completion: you will get full credit as long as you submit all of them and they reflect a reasonable attempt to engage with the topic and texts.
Two short papers (15%+15%)
You will write two short papers of around 1,500 to 2,000 words.
It is important that your paper focuses on answering the question in the prompt, and for it to defend your position by offering a well-structured argument that anticipates potential objections and engages with them. Given the brevity of these essays, I do not expect your discussion be exhaustive. A very good essay demonstrates that you understand the structure and substance of the arguments you invoke, as well as their limitations, and the extent to which they support a particular view. We will talk about what makes a good essay in our first session.
Final project (25%)
For your final project, you will write a text of 3,000-3,500 words. The format and details on a philosophical question of your choosing.
You should choose a question that lends itself to a substantive normative argument. However, unlike in the short essays, the topic is relatively unconstrained. It should relate to one or several topics we discussed in class, and I encourage you to look beyond the abstract, technical debates in the literature to search for interesting questions, puzzles, or problems in your everyday life. Ethics and political philosophy are driven by the clashes of ideas, ideals, and values that we encounter in society and the political sphere. In the long paper, I want you to show that you can relate the debates you encounter in this class to a new question, and that you can make a rigorous argument advocating a philosophical position on that question. In our first session and throughout the course, we will talk about how to identify philosophical questions as you go through your everyday life and about what makes a good question for a seminar paper. Throughout the semester, we will also discuss how to write a good seminar paper.
This is a lecture course but it will nevertheless be interactive, so please be prepared to get involved in the discussion. The Friday sessions will typically be dedicated discussion sessions, but there will be ample room for conversation in the lecture sessions on Monday and Wednesday.
One note on the culture of debate which I would like to foster in this course: discussions in philosophy are not about winning an intellectual battle, but about engaging with others’ views on their merits. They are also about taking intellectual risks, putting forward a potentially controversial argument, as well as receiving and offering constructive criticism. This is only possible in a class environment in which we build trust. In class, I therefore expect us all to treat each other courteously, engage with each other’s arguments constructively and in good faith no matter the topic.
You can expect to spend approximately 3 hours per week in class (40 hours total), and around 3 hours preparing readings (40 hours total). Assignments and the final project will take upwards of 8-10 hours per week (112-140 hours total).
Since this is a reading-centric discussion course, there are no formal provisions for late submission. I expect you to attend every session, but let Malte know if you have any special requirements. For sickness and other issues of wellbeing, please obtain a note from health services and I will accommodate them.
This course will involve substantial reading for each meeting, and you will need to stay on top of the assigned readings to keep up, as we quickly move between topics. However, the research papers are relatively standalone, so finding one paper difficult to read will not disadvantage you going forward.
Questions and assignments are due at 11pm (Eastern) before the relevant session, and owing to the small amount of credit they contribute individually, there will be no late submission. If you do encounter particular, unexpected hardships however, send an email to Malte.
Brown University is committed to full inclusion of all students. Please inform me if you have a disability or other condition that might require accommodations or modification of any of these course procedures. You may email me, come to office hours, or speak with me after class, and your confidentiality is respected. I will do whatever we can to support accommodations recommended by SEAS. For more information contact Student and Employee Accessibility Services (SEAS) at 401-863-9588 or SEAS@brown.edu.
Being a student can be very stressful. If you feel you are under too much pressure or there are psychological issues that are keeping you from performing well at Brown, I encourage you to contact Brown’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). They provide confidential counseling and can provide notes supporting extensions on assignments for health reasons.
From the Brown academic code: “Academic achievement is ordinarily evaluated on the basis of work that a student produces independently. Students who submit academic work that uses others’ ideas, words, research, or images without proper attribution and documentation are in violation of the academic code. Infringement of the academic code entails penalties ranging from reprimand to suspension, dismissal, or expulsion from the University.
“Brown students are expected to tell the truth. Misrepresentations of facts, significant omissions, or falsifications in any connection with the academic process (including change of course permits, the academic transcript, or applications for graduate training or employment) violate the code, and students are penalized accordingly. This policy also applies to Brown alums, insofar as it relates to Brown transcripts and other records of work at Brown.
“Misunderstanding the code is not an excuse for dishonest work. Students who are unsure about any point of Brown’s academic code should consult their courses instructors or an academic dean, who will be happy to explain the policy.”
Please review the Brown Academic Code here.
Thanks to James Tompkin and Tom Doeppner for the text on accommodation, mental health, and incomplete policies.