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Ethics in Mathematics and Society: Problems and Perspectives

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Toby Clifton.

A traditional problem of ethics in mathematics is the denial of ethical responsibility. Mathematics is viewed as neutral and value free, and therefore free of ethical responsibility. Yet many mathematicians develop theories that are hugely powerful in their applications. However, the refusal to let external values intrude into research serves to protect the directions of mathematical development from outside interference.. Is there any way of protecting mathematics from such encroachments while acknowledging the ethical issues and responsibilities involved? Macintyre’s virtue ethics provides one such approach.

Granting autonomy to mathematical researchers is in no way a validation or screen with which to hide problematic applications of mathematics across society. The abuses and misuses of mathematics have reached an all time high, and I will consider three types. 1. The use of mathematics in persuasion of the public by governments and corporations (mathwashing). 2. Overtly problematic or unethical applications of mathematics. 3. Performative applications of mathematics that change how people are treated and can incorporate hidden injustices and harms in the enaction of policies and practices.

I will mention two possible avenues of protection and improvement. First, the introduction of a Hippocratic-type oath for all mathematicians. Second, the introduction of ethical considerations into mathematics teaching at all levels (primarily via examples and case studies)

This talk is part of the C.U. Ethics in Mathematics Society (CUEiMS) series.

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