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  September 29, 2003

Stamford Campus Professor Applies
Philosophy To Everyday Life

S usan Leigh Anderson has spent much of her career trying to bring the subject of philosophy, particularly the study of ethics, down from the ivory tower into everyday life. And now she is going a step further. She wants to apply it to machines.

Anderson, a philosophy professor at UConn's Stamford campus, has received a grant from NASA to work on the notion of whether machines should be programmed to follow ethical behavior, and whether machines can assist humans in making better ethical decisions. Her husband, Michael Anderson, a computer science professor at the University of Hartford, is working on the project as well, along with Chris Armen, a professor of computer science from Trinity College.

Image: Susan Anderson

Susan Anderson, a professor of philosophy, specializes in ethical issues.

Photo by Michael Anderson

This is just one of the major projects she's working on. She is also writing a book exploring the issue of how individual rights and collective rights can be reconciled into a new guiding philosophy to achieve the American Dream. The book, called Equal Opportunity Individualism: An Interpretation of the American Dream, includes a fictional story Anderson wrote about what it might be like to live in a society that melds both extremes.

All this, she says, is part of her continued attempt to apply philosophical theories and ethical thought to contemporary issues.

"When I began doing philosophy, I didn't do ethics. It was considered soft," recalls Anderson, who began teaching at UConn in 1972. At that time, most of her colleagues in the department were male. "I taught metaphysics and logic," she says. "I wanted to prove myself."

Anderson, who received her Ph.D. from UCLA, specialized in 19th-century philosophy, logic, and critical thinking; philosophy of literature; and the self. She has published books on Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and John Stuart Mill for the Wadsworth "Philosophers Series."

Anderson says when she started examining Mill's work, she began thinking more about the American Dream and the debate between individualism and collectivism.

"I see this as such a huge issue," she says. "I wanted to work out my feelings on it."

Country at a Crossroads
Anderson says America is at a crossroads, especially after Sept. 11, when we realized as a country that there are many in the world who hate America and would like to destroy it.

"We are a country in search of a consistent philosophy. We are no longer comfortable with the philosophy of rugged individualism toward which our country has historically leaned, a philosophy which enabled many to prosper but left many more people behind; yet we are reluctant to embrace a completely collectivistic philosophy that so many other countries have adopted," she writes in her introduction to the book.

"We're at a turning point in our country's history. We need to decide what we stand for ... We need to prove to the world that we are a country that treats its own citizens well and is concerned about the plight of those living under oppressive regimes."

Anderson says that while Mill's attempt to reconcile the philosophy of individual rights with collective rights was admirable, she feels his argument was backwards. She said that collective philosophies may in the end help achieve individual goals, not the other way around. Instead of advocating individualistic policies to achieve what's best for society as a whole (collectivism), she recommends adopting a number of collectivist policies to achieve what's best for individuals.

"Society has a responsibility to make sure everyone has the equal opportunity to reach his or her potential,'' she says.

Anderson is hoping to finish the book in the fall.

Machine Ethics
As she continues to work on her interpretation of the American Dream, she is also turning her attention to the machine ethics project. This summer, she and her husband presented a paper on the issue in Nova Scotia, at a conference on "Philosophical Issues in Contemporary Science."

The paper lays the theoretical foundation for adding an ethical dimension to machines.

Although machine ethics might seem like a great topic for a sci-fi movie, Anderson says the time is ripe to seriously confront the issue. Machines in contemporary society do more than calculate math. They monitor spacecraft, diagnose pathology, drive cars, and fly combat jets.

"Behavior involving all of these systems may have ethical ramifications , some due to the advice they give and others due to their own autonomous behavior," she wrote in the paper. "Clearly, relying on machine intelligence to effect change in the world without some restraint can be dangerous ... As we increasingly rely upon machine intelligence with reduced human supervision, machines will need to become increasingly accountable for their actions."

Anderson says machines should be programmed to choose ethically correct actions if they are autonomous robots. Also, she says, software can be developed that will allow computers to help people decide what is the most ethical way of resolving a dilemma. Machines, she says, may even be better suited to resolving ethical problems, because they are unemotional and don't, like humans, tend to favor themselves. The struggle, however, is to figure out which ethical theories to rely on when programming machines, so as to achieve the best solution for everyone involved.

"Working in the area of machine ethics could have the additional benefit of forcing us to sharpen our thinking in ethics and enable us to discover problems with current ethical theories," she says. "This may lead to improved ethical theories."

Anderson, her husband, and their research colleague, Armen, are now pursuing more grants so they can continue the machine ethics project. While she agrees the issue may be controversial, it is not the first time Anderson has taken on contentious issues. She has presented papers on the status of frozen embryos, cloning, abortion, and suicide.

And after Sept. 11, she wrote an opinion piece that ran in The Stamford Advocate newspaper and her hometown newspaper in New Milford, that won the top award for an op-ed article from the American Philosophical Association. The piece, which won the Centennial Prize, focused on lessons learned from the terrorist attack. In the article, Anderson said challenged the view that every society is entitled to have its own code of morality.

The Value of Values
"Let us stop being afraid of making absolute value judgments, but make sure that we are open to considering criticisms of those judgments and be prepared to revise them if necessary," she wrote. "Then we must act in accordance with those judgments."

Anderson says it is important for philosophers and ethicists to speak out, especially on current issues. In her classes, she says, she challenges students to use philosophical theories to address everyday issues.

Last year, she also met weekly with senior citizens in a nearby retirement community to discuss ethical issues.

"We are our values," she says. "Exploring them is one of the most important exercises we have in life."