The ethics of software

November 23, 2014 · Posted in Blog · Comment 

I have tweeted (@bobbowie) a couple of times recently about the ethics of software. Increasingly, we see examples of software controlling machines that can be involved in life or death situations. This could be the weapons that choose which target to strike (see the New York times piece here or autodrive cars that might have to decide between a manoeuvre that leads to the death of the driver (hitting a wall) and hitting a person in the street. (See the BBC Radio 4 programme, The digital human)

This hits a number of ethical issues.
(1) What is the moral culpability of programmers? If you programme the software that makes that decision are you responsible for any deaths?
(2) Should those codes be determined by a en ethics committee, such as you find in hospitals, that approve or prevent the programme? Who should sit on that committee?
(3) What does this say about the nature of freedom and morality in ‘pre’ conscious robots?
(4) Should life taking be reserved for human action? Is there any moral difference between the soldier controlling a drone by remote and the technologist programme the remote to seek out targets?

This weeks ethics starter for ten!

More Musings on Ethics and the consultation

November 16, 2014 · Posted in Blog · Comment 

I am making a case for depth of study – the sustained study of a subject that has intrinsic value in RE and more widely is for the common good, irrespective of the destination of the 24000 students that do it. Philosophy of Religion and Religious Ethics are two different disciplines. Combining them weakens them. To do ethics properly you need to be able to be able to do enough different theories to understand the main features of the theoretical landscape (acts, ends, virtue, free will, conscience and authority, self interest) to be able compare them (one of the higher level skills). This allows a student to critically evaluate the theory in conceptual terms.

Then you can compare how they might apply to different kinds of moral problems (personal, societal and global), so at the very least you want to study three kinds of ethical problem. All of these interconnects completely with religious systems of ethics but also include non religious humanistic systems.

Incidentally, the current question frames used by exam boards have not helped to draw out these expectations of depth and analysis adequately, in my view. Greater attention to how questions are set and how specifications are framed is the key issue here.

A student progresses not just by studying more topics but by studying things that create new patters of meaningful interconnection and this is what happens in a disciplined study. I am not sure what kind of depth you can get to in jumping to a multi disciplinary study, but I am pretty confident you can’t get depth by combining topics from different disciplines. To me the PoR / Ethics combination undermines depth of study and rigour.

I think that the text paper has a lot of potential for depth of study and rigour and the Religion paper might (many different disciplines and kinds of topics are being combined here too but I am thinking that one through). The Philosophy/Ethics/Social Sciences paper does not, as it stands, have depth of study and rigour, in a way that will improve on the current separate modules on PoR and Ethics.

I also think it raises a key question about the kind of specialist who might be able to teach both of these topics. I wonder how many of our teachers have studied both PoR and Ethics at degree level. I would speculate that many of our subject specialist difficulties and indeed many of the pressures felt by teachers in general, come from having to teach subjects they are not so confident in. I worry that we might be deskilling our workforce by an unfortunate exercise in “combining”.

Recommendations to improve the proposal for a new A Level

November 10, 2014 · Posted in Blog · 1 Comment 

My proposal is based on my analysis that the ethics component is really weak (see my earlier blog) indeed in the second section. It is weaker than philosophy of religion at AS and much weaker at the full A Level. The “Philosophical, Ethical and Social Scientific Studies of Religion” section at the moment is much less well developed than equivalent bullets in the other two areas. The whole section feels lighter than the others in demand and coherence.

Changes in the AS provision

Add a new first bullet to paragraph 11

“An introduction to philosophical and ethical language and thought through key concepts and foundation thinkers, illustrated in issues or debates in philosophy of religion and ethics.”

This would provide some ground rules for then exploring the theories and issues listed in the ethics line and the philosophy of religion line. This would allow for the teaching of a bit of Plato and Aristotle, say, a bit of absolutism and relativism, a bit of teleological and deontological ethics, so students had the language set to then explore issues and theories in the next two paragraphs. It would make clear what the ‘rules’ are. We would have more coherence. Without this addition students will have to jump into some theories and issues with no disciplinary framework. In my judgement this would weaken the intellectual credibility of the subject.

I would amend another bullet point in paragraph 11

“two ‘contrasting’ normative ethical theories such as such as utilitarianism, Kantian ethics or virtue ethics and their application to issues of importance to religious belief such as matters of life and death, poverty and world development, or scientific and technological development.”

This makes sure the ethics studied as AS are normative whilst the ethics studies at A Level are meta-ethical. It also allows for crucial ethical contemporary debates in science to get a hearing such as the ethics of surveillance and online privacy.

I would amend the final bullet too

“two contrasting approaches to explaining issues addressed in ethics, religion and religious experience chosen from the fields of psychology, sociology and anthropology”

This is much stronger and would make space for psychological accounts of conscience for instance as well as religious experience.

Changes to the A Level section

Add a new bullet to paragraph 12.

“how ethical language in the modern era has changed; the challenges posed by meta-ethical theories; and a consideration of two different developments in ethical issues or thought that have had particular impact on religious moral thought.”

This would strengthen the place of ethics at A level to an equal position with philosophy of religion. It would engage with the ethical language development. It would strengthen the focus on religious ethical thought.

The end of ethics in Religious Studies A Level? Proposed new exam reduces the study of the good.

November 9, 2014 · Posted in Blog · 3 Comments 

Dr Bob Bowie, Principal Lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University and author of Ethical Studies (

The government has announced a consultation on the revised A Level and GCSE guidance for examinations boards. The consultation period ends 29th December 2014.

A striking feature of this proposal is the downgrading of the systematic study of ethics from the options available. For over twenty years, the English curriculum authorities have made it possible to study moral philosophy, ethical theory and application, as half of Religious Studies at 16-19 level. It has been one subject among many others, which have included sacred texts studies, theology, and studies in a number of specific religions. However, ethics has been far and away the most popular by all accounts.

The systematic study of ethics includes the study of ancient, medieval and modern philosophers, including Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Bentham, Mill, Kant, Ayer, Moore, Hare, and MacIntyre. It includes the theories of natural law, utilitarianism, libertarianism, absolutism and relativism, virtue theory, conscience and modern meta ethical debates around the nature of the language of morality and systems of religious ethics. Alongside these theories, students have been required to study personal, social and global ethical issues including medical ethics, human and animal rights, environmental and business ethics, war and peace, poverty, justice and punishment.

This describes a clearly bounded, in-depth field, with an internal coherence and discipline within Religious Studies. Students who have explored Islam or Judaism, John’s Gospel or Romans, have had the option to also study the history of western moral thought, and the application of thought to the troubles and challenges of our times.

There has never been any need to search for justification around this area of the curriculum. It is quite clearly a common good for all young people and all citizens to consider questions of morality and moral thought in preparation for future work, whether they choose to become doctors, lawyers, accountants, economists, environmental scientists or technologists, and of use for all in their preparation for the questions they face in their personal and social lives.

This subject has been incredibly popular. Whilst only 5-6000 students took A Level in the 1990s over 23000 take it now (see here for the data).

Ethics has been a unifying area of common interest across religious and non-religious populations. It has enabled students to investigate areas of life they feel passionate about. It has facilitated the education of the most ethically literature generation the nation has ever had.

It is difficult to know what impact these hundreds of thousands of ethics educated citizens are having, and no research has been done (that I know of!) on what those adults think now about the opportunity their schooling gave them to study ethics. It is interesting that so many students have gravitated to a subject that has “religious” in the title at a time of increasing secularisation and skepticism about religion (A recent Huffington Post survey of 2000 people found more than half of British people think religion does more harm than good).

It is difficult to imagine that the possibility of studying ethics as half of an A level has not contributed to this popular growth of RS among teenagers, and it seems eminently sensible that students in our schools have the option to study ethics, given the general social good we might think ethics education provides. Even if this is not the case, it is clear that this popularity is market driven, which in a time of concerns about values across whole areas of public and private life, is quite reassuring.

The popularity of this particular module has had an interesting impact on RE departments in schools. The growth of A Level numbers at 16-19 level, has meant that many RE departments have thrived at upper school level, at a time of decline in religious participation and all the associated questions around the purpose of a subject that could be viewed otherwise as marginal. This has strengthened the position of RE throughout the rest of the school as it has meant the subject could attract secondary teachers and have bigger departments with stronger groupings of professionals than would be the case without those A Level numbers. The possibility of teaching at A Level is a common motivator for students to apply to train to teach RE. It is commonly mentioned in the many thousands of PGCE RE interviews I have undertaken in my time as an RE PGCE tutor. In a time of significant subject turbulence, this has given the subject some stability.

In Higher Education we can also see a knock on effect. At a time when philosophy departments have struggled to survive in English universities, theology and religious studies departments have changed and placed ethics in the titles of those degrees (See Lancaster, Birmingham, Heythrop, Bath Spa, Canterbury Christ Church, Nottingham, Gloucester, Winchester, Chichester, Manchester and Exeter, for examples). It would appear that philosophy is surviving in those Theology or Religious Studies departments, and those departments are surviving because the word ‘ethics’ pushes buttons among the student population.

Given all of this, it is quite striking that the English long running experiment in ethics education is apparently about to come to an end, if the proposed changes to A Level come to pass. The new guidance on A Level specifically remove the possibility of the systematic study of ethical theory and practice and absorb it in a generalised section called “Philosophical, ethical and social scientific studies of religion”. The breadth of study of western ethical and moral theological thought has been reduced to two ethical theories, two areas of ethical issue, and the thought of two scholars in ethics. This reduction has been to allow some social scientific study of religion instead. The proposed new curriculum has selected ethics, unquestionably the most popular part of the A Level Religious Studies portfolio of modules, for substantial downgrading.

There have been concerns voiced at subject conferences about the decline in the proportion of students doing the other modules that focus on, say the study of the New Testament, or the study of Hinduism. I have never been sure if those numbers have actually declined or whether the study of the more philosophical subjects have grown. In other words, perhaps A Level RS has attracted new audiences in addition to the old ones?

It is certainly worrying that so many students choose to study both philosophy of religion and ethics and do not engage in a non-philosophical study of religion at A Level. One response to this is to accept the choice of the market (ruefully) and ‘encourage’ combinations that keep a foot in another study of religion. A more instrumentalist approach would be to change the structuring of options to only allow only one philosophical study of religion. To hollow out the most popular module in the subject is strikingly brutal.

It is hard to imagine that this change will not have a major impact on recruitment to A Level, especially in the current time of skepticism about religion. For university Theology and Religious Studies departments, their reorganization, revalidation of courses, rebranding and attempt to remain relevant might now be undermined. Will they sustain their numbers? Will the A Level growth the subject has seen continue with this new vision? WIll people still come forward to teach the subject if A Level student numbers revert to the pre 2000 situation? Will we benefit from a less ethically educated population? Could we not imagine a new, better A Level Religious Studies that still allows a pathway for half of it to be a systematic study of ethics?

Just a quick message

June 18, 2014 · Posted in Uncategorized · Comment 

Welcome to all the newcomers who have registered in the last few days and weeks. For those not in the know, I work at Canterbury Christ Church University in the UK where I teach ethics, human rights, religion and religious education. I tweet a lot about religion, religious education, faith schools and stuff like that. You can follow me on Twitter @bobbowie. I have recently tweeted a lot about the Trojan Horse report in Birmingham, about the allegations of the danger of radicalisation in schools.

I also wrote a piece at the Faculty of Education Blog here Consider-ed

You can find out more about my academic writing at Academia here

How ethical is your religion?

April 13, 2014 · Posted in Blog · Comment 

I sometimes feel that there is a basic divide between Christians. Some see their faith principally as defined by the acceptance of a set of propositions and the main debate in their religion is about what those propositions should exactly be. This could be characterised in terms of whether or not your Christian faith is defined by the “I am the way the truth and the life” quote and the “who do you say I am?” Question. I might, a little unfairly, characterise this as playing the ‘have you got the right ideas in your head?’ game. I am being a little unfair as of course these Christians live a life committed to those ideas and there are all sorts of implications for what that lived life looks like because of those ideas.

Another group see their faith principally in terms of how they are to other people. They see the moral relationships they have with the world around them as the heart of the Christian message. For them, the critical quotes are more likely to be “whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters you do to me” and the Good Samaritan parable.

If the first group are centred focussed on whether people do or do not say Jesus is Lord, the second group are focussed on the people who society ignores and need most help. Being good to your neighbour is recognising Christ standing before you. Helping those in need is seeing Christ in them. These are not metaphors. God really is in them. The main debate is, therefore, how to be good.

To have one of these without the other is a problem given the centrality of the social dimension to the gospel and the Christology is the link. Being good to others is recognising the lordship of the other in need and through them, the Christ before you. So I would like to see a Christianity that brings these two together more often.

However, it does mean that there is an interesting question about whether I see Christianity as a moral thing over and above anything else. Being Christ like is about being good and I am with St Paul on the point that faith without love is no use at all. This is how I get to the conclusion that the study of morality and ethics is of primary importance in RE. It is not an add on or an optional extra. The whole edifice of the Church and theology rests on this and is the gateway to it.

The new A Level RS: what about ethics?

April 13, 2014 · Posted in Blog · Comment 

The UK government has announced that there are going to be changes to Religious Studies A Level to make it more challenging in line with other A Level developments. So what do I think we should be thinking about regarding ethics?
Ethics has long been a mainstay of the A Level offering a theoretical and practical rigour but there have been some clear problems in recent years that need addressing:
1) Crude simplification of ethical theories that dislocate them from the philosophy and leave them as a seeming random list of principles. So, for example, many learn to recite Kant’s categorical imperative without realising how it relates to his philosophy of the person and that it is his philosophy of the person that leads his thought to reject utilitarianism. So we need to have questions that really dig into to the theory and not simply seek to test theory through application.
2) Crude use of testing theory through application. This is the kind of question that says apply utilitarianism to war, for example. Of course a particular war or other ethical issue with some details would make an interesting case, if we had case studies, but the tendency to simply name an issue topic in a question encourages the issues outlined in 1, above, and also leads to a poor treatment of the ethical debate surrounding ethical issues in their own right.
The only way to deal with 1 and 2 is to have better questioning in the exam papers and better marking by people confident in the literature, beyond the summaries of revision guides. We need questions that get candidates to explore the frameworks in ethical theories critically, as well as look at issues.
3) what about ethical problem solving? To encourage innovative deeper thought, I propose an element of the exam which poses ethical problems to solve for candidates to draw from across their religious and philosophical thought to resolve. This would help avoid the boring reciting of standardised answers and reveal depth of understanding.
So case studies, case studies, case studies…. This would be a fine innovation for a levels.
4) should we keep ethics? Of course! But I would say that as I write ethics books. But more importantly than my own self interest, with so much RE devoted to what I see as phenomenological features of religion, and so many problems in life related to moral problems, I believe ethics is simply too important not to keep centre stage as an option for A Level RS. Personally I would love to see more scripture studied at A level, and schools do have the option to combine a philosophy paper with a textural one. So that option balance should remain.

Reading Badiou’s ethics in City Lights

August 20, 2012 · Posted in Blog · Comment 

As part of a study tour-cum-family break, I find myself in the most wonderful bookshop I have ever visited: City Lights in San Francisco. This is a little gem associated with the 1960s free speech and revolutionary movements that continues to provide an astonishing selection of inspirational creative and philosophical thought. And here I finally cross a threshold and read some Badiou. I pick up his book Ethics: an essay on the understanding of evil (Verso, 2001) and find it immediately engaging. An important (the most important?) French philosopher of the present age, he is both informed by and a critic of Kantian ethics so at once my hunch is confirmed – I really should have read him earlier. So now I am beginning to recompense for my former failings. Peter Hallward’s good introduction (he is also the translator) pin points some interesting features of the links between Kant and Badiou. Badiou, like Kant, separates moral decision making from sensibility. We should not be relying on sentiment, feeling or emotion to inform our moral decisions. Also like Kant, Badiou thinks moral actions are only legitimate when they are based on the universal. However, Badiou and Kant part company. Badiou sees every ethical obligation as particular, exceptional and subjective. This flows from his general philosophy that knowledge is objective, but structured by those who dominate the particular situation and that moral actions, those linked to a fidelity to truth, seek to subvert that dominance. There is no general ethic, but instead an ethic of singular truths. The particularity of an ethical obligation results from human experience which is situational and particular. So while Kantian ethics has a legalistic ethics linked to duty, obligation and conformity, which means moral behaviour is for the sake of the law, such connections are rejected by Badiou. That’s how Hallward describes Badiou’s ethics so now I need to read it and try to unpack what all this means!
There is of course a lot more – notably that Badiou rejects ethics of otherness, an ethic based on respect for the other. I think Badiou takes an interesting position of critique against human rights, as they are often interpreted.

Are better people less likely to be motivated by money?

July 30, 2012 · Posted in Blog · Comment 

One of the debates after the opening ceremony of the London Olympics centres around the fact that the 7000 propel who performed all did so for nothing. So the question of motivation is quite striking. The UK economy has been thrown into damaging recession in large part to irresponsible behaviour by people motivated by personal profit bonuses. The London Olympics opening ceremony shows that people can do great things without such motivation. During a news discussion programme, one writer for the ceremony suggested that perhaps some people are motivated by money, but there are better people who can do better things. These people need higher motivations. The ceremony made this point with its bow to the creator of the Internet, British inventor Tim Berners-Lee, who wanted the whole world to benefit from his creation, and so gave it away for nothing.

The political philosopher Sandel, points to an interesting experiment which raises a similar question. During a fundraising event in Israel some young people are given an inspirational speech before being sent out to raise money. Others are told they will be given a portion of the total amount their raise themselves. You might expect those motivated by self reward to have been more effective at raising money. In fact, those who received a motivational talk raised far more than those who had a performance bonus.

This leads to a fascinating possibility – for human beings, belief in the virtue and value of what you are doing motivates people to do and be better than individual acquisition.

ethics free banking

June 28, 2012 · Posted in Blog · Comment 

Today we hear that a number of leading banks, notably Barclay’s bank, have been lying to the markets about their inter-bank lending rate, a key rate to give a false impression of the strength of the bank. This has gone on throughout the financial crisis. This manipulation was done to make money for the bankers at the expense of the businesses and individuals who took loans. It was a greed driven activity.

It would appear that banking is ethics free. No resignations today, no sign that this is deemed illegal. No comment from the head of Barclay’s. It is hard to imagine such malpractice being allowed to go unpunished in the public sector and hard to imagine that a teacher or a headteacher being allowed to keep their job after systematically lying, fixing their pupils or school grades for instance. At a university if a student lies about their work, for instance claiming something about their work which is not true, they can be censured or even thrown out. A lecturer who manipulates student grades to help with a promotion can be disciplined, perhaps sacked. Today we hear of fines but who has taken responsibility for this? No one so far.

The professional expectations found in public sector professions seem to be absent from the financial sector, and yet it is education and health among other public sector bodies that are bearing the brunt of government cutbacks because of the bailout of the banks. It seems there is one rule for the public sector and another for the world of banking. It would appear that the world of banking is free from being encumbered by ethics. Is there any sign that the Government intends to change this? What major reforms have been put in place to bring about a more ethical and responsible financial sector? I can think of none. There seems to be a great deal of change in the public sector instead. What major reforms have been announced? Hardly any.

There is an ethical crisis at the heart of our most important industry. For a long time the mantra that what ever makes a profit is acceptable has dominated the industry. ‘Greed is good’ as Michael Douglas said when playing the corrupt trader in the 1980s film Wall Street. Greed has been encouraged and rewarded and it has led to the crisis of our generation.

At present, there seems to be little alternative to this mantra and that explains the silence about how to change the financial sector. It is as if we have run out of ideas. Perhaps we need a new big idea.

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