Latest posts by Susan Silver (see all)
- Everyone Hates Moral Philosophy Professors - January 14, 2020
- The Juxtaposition of Two Math Dreams - December 24, 2019
- Struggling With Mathematics is the Difficult Problem Students Bravely Face - November 12, 2019
If you don’t get the title that is okay. Now that The Good Place is coming to the end you can catch up and binge the whole series in one go! But yes, today, I want to talk about ethics. I’m not an expert by any means. Plus, there are so many approaches out there that I don’t want to say that I favor one more than any other. I want to talk about what it is and why it is important in mathematics
My Father Isn’t Always the Villian
I know that my family is sometimes the villains in my story. Without a doubt, I had a rough childhood. Many people experience some trauma growing up. I’ve been trying to understand my own past. My conclusion is that most are still dealing with their own issues. We are not alone by any means.
What I want to talk about today are the values that I learned from my family. My father very explicitly told me growing up to be an ethical person. At that time, I didn’t know what that meant.
My father worked for one of the top accounting firms. He would come home and tell me stories about his clients. The things they would ask him to do and he always drew the line at the ethical principles of accounting. He never violated his CPA oath.
There was a time when he caught another partner doing something that wasn’t above board. He faced some retaliation for calling him out. His punishment was removal from the Beverly Hills office. Over the years, he slowly worked himself back. I always admired that he stuck to his principles.
In college, we get a chance to choose electives. I choose to take a class in ethics because I wanted to know what it meant. What was it all about?
The Formal Definition of Ethics
This is the answer from Encylopedia Britannica:
Ethics, also called moral philosophy, the discipline concerned with what is morally good and bad and morally right and wrong. The term is also applied to any system or theory of moral values or principles.
That is a very brief answer to a topic of conversation that is very dense. I wasn’t prepared for the types of discussion that would come from it. It is so much more than what is right or wrong.
In fact, the first time I took ethics, we only worked from one book.
In this book, there was a discussion of virtue, vice, friendship, and happiness. The whole book is actually about one thing. What is the ultimate good for a human being! It is an argument of how to live the best life. And that is when ethics became more to me than some adage my father told me growing up. I realized that it goes beyond right or wrong to the very question of life purpose! That is something that I am more than a little obsessed with. A line of inquiry that I’ve explored since childhood. (You should read research from positive psychology on life flourishing too.)
I actually flunked ethics the first time. I got a D. For whatever reason, I took the course again to get a passing grade. This new teacher took a different approach. We encountered all the great texts in ethics including Kant and Mill.
I am not surprised by the fact that Les Miserables would become my favorite book. Jean Val Jean embodies the qualities of a man redeemed vs. the dogma that traps Javert into a black and white world. The book has a lot to say about society, politics, religion, and yes, ethics. That is why I keep coming back to the novel year after year.
I actually did have a conversation with my father about Les Mis. We were sitting at the table. I brought up the trial scene, one of my favorites in the whole book. This is when Jean Val Jean faces a dilemma. A man brought to trial accused of being Jean Val Jean. Javert who has been suspicious of the mayor accepts that this is the man he has chased. If they convict the man, he will suffer in Jean Val Jean’s place although he is innocent. Jean Val Jean uses his privilege as mayor to attend the trial. He reveals he is prisoner 24601 further complicating the plot.
Cynically, I told my father that most people would not make Jean Val Jean’s choice. He contested this and said they would. What do you think?
This is the scene from the 1998 movie starring Liam Nesson as Jean Val Jean and Geoffery Rush as Javert. It is a faithful adaptation in parts like this one. If you missed it give it a rent.
You can also listen to the song from the musical.
A Discussion of Mathematical Ethics
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. In fact, I started down this road after reading A Mathematician’s Apology by G..H. Hardy. It is often cited as the most accessible work on the beauty of mathematics. It is also one of the only auto-biographical texts we have on Hardy’s life. Was this was Hardy’s intention?
No, No, No.
It is a text on mathematical ethics. It answers the question, “What is the best life for a mathematician?” For Hardy, that is the pursuit of pure mathematics.
He wrote for an audience like me. An undergraduate in mathematics deciding if they want to become a mathematician.
If I were to teach comp lit, I would compare Nicomachean Ethics and A Mathematician’s Apology. There are moments that speak to me. Like when Hardy says, “Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.” He is laying down his argument for why pure mathematics is the best life. The same way Aristotle lays down his arguments about the ultimate good.
If you want further proof that this is a philosophy text then we have to talk about the allusion in the title. The Apology is Plato’s recounting of the trial of Socrates. Hardy would have been well versed in philosophy. His parents were teachers and his best friend was Bertrand Russell.
There is a quote that I come back to:
I have never done anything “useful”. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world.
The thing is, he did something that has very good use in biology. The Hardy–Weinberg principle in genetics.
When I learned this, I had an important epiphany. Scientists don’t get to determine who uses their work. This is because science builds from the collective work of others. Yet, it isn’t other mathematicians reading those journals. It is available to the public who could use it in a myriad of ways. A mathematician can’t say no to that although they may protest it.
The only way to protect mathematical work is by filing a patent. Claiming it as proprietary information. An example of this is the Google Algorithm. We have some sense of how it works for sure. The technology itself is under lawful protection.
It is a crucial question of mathematical ethics! Who gets to use that information and for what purpose? How should we advance scientific knowledge without doing harm?
I wasn’t quite sure how to end this discussion. I tried to find some papers through a Google Search but couldn’t find any good resources to cite. I will come back to this subject in the future after I have done some research in journals.
I will leave you with my favorite quote from Les Miserables to think about.
Deep hearts, sage minds, take life as God has made it; it is a long trial, an incomprehensible preparation for an unknown destiny. This destiny, the true one, begins for a man with the first step inside the tomb. Then something appears to him, and he begins to distinguish the definitive. The definitive, meditate upon that word. The living perceive the infinite; the definitive permits itself to be seen only by the dead. In the meanwhile, love and suffer, hope and contemplate. Woe, alas! to him who shall have loved only bodies, forms, appearances! Death will deprive him of all. Try to love souls, you will find them again.
Featured Image: THE GOOD PLACE — “Category 55 Emergency Doomsday Crisis” Episode 109 — Pictured: (l-r) William Jackson Harper as Chidi, Kristen Bell as Eleanor — (Photo by: Ron Batzdorff/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)