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Is CS Philosophically Weak?

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A recent paper by Mitcham considered philosophically "strong" versus "weak" professions depending upon whether a profession aspires to good-in-themselves values such as "health" or "justice" or not. …

A recent paper by Mitcham considered philosophically "strong" versus "weak" professions depending upon whether a profession aspires to good-in-themselves values such as "health" or "justice" or not. Accordingly medicine and law would be considered strong and computer science, business, and the military would be considered weak. Mitcham goes on to suggest that the "weak" professions would do well to emulate the strong and seek analogous aspirational ideals. This talk takes Mitcham's strong-weak distinction and his ethical urgings seriously, first analyzing the former linguistically and then considering the latter institutionally.

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  • 1. Is CS Philosophically Weak? A Linguistic & Institutional Analysis
    David E. Goldberg
    Illinois Foundry for Innovation in Engineering EducationUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignUrbana, IL 61801 USAdeg@illinois.edu
  • 2. Causing a Stir at WPE-2008
    Carl Mitcham keynoted Workshop on Philosophy & Engineering at Royal Academy of Engineering in 2008.
    Paper entitled “The Philosophical Weakness of Engineering as a Profession” caused stir.
    Analyzed 5 “professions” & labeled some as “strong,” others as “weak.”
    Take that analysis seriously and probe in following directions:
    What is philosophical weakness (PW)?
    Recover Mitcham’s key distinctions.
    Consider in light of complexity of (1) ideals & (2) institutions.
    Originally presented the argument for “engineering” at SPT 2009.
    Carl Mitcham (b. 1941)
  • 3. Roadmap
    Justification for engineering CS shift.
    Recap argument: Mitcham 5, a criterion, and a classification.
    Considering the language in play:
    What is philosophical weakness? An alternative formulation.
    Reclassifying the 5. CS still weak but for different reasons.
    Recapturing classification: End-in-themselves versus instrumental occupations.
    Occupations and their institutional setting:
    From is to ought & concerns regardinginstitutional, values, and socialcomplexity.
    An ideals approach to the military: Lessons for CS.
    Institutional redesign: 2 bounding attempts.
    neoProfessionalism: Déjà vu all over again.
  • 4. Justifying Engineering to CS Shift
    Believe “CS” is misnamed discipline of “engineering,” but will not defend that controversial thesis here.
    Weaker claims:
    Mitcham’s argument for “engineering,” but his critique applies to “computer science” as well.
    My argument applies equally well to “CS” and “engineering.”
    OK if you agree to two things:
    Computer scientists make complex technical stuff (programs, systems, artifacts, processes) for people &
    Computer scientists often aren’t in charge of what to make or whether to make it.
  • 5. Mitcham 5, a Criterion & a Moral Urging
    Use term “occupations” to avoid debates about whether they are “professions.”
    The 5:
    Medicine
    Law
    Business
    Military
    Engineering (CS)
    Mitcham: Medicine and law are philosophically strong (PS) as they serve good-in-themselves ideals (health, justice).
    Others philosophically weak (PW) as they do not.
    Is to Ought: CS would be better off and serve larger good more directly.
    Query: Is Philosophy PW?
  • 6. Preliminary Concerns
    Greek philosophy & virtues are Mitcham’s starting point.
    Their methodology still relevant.
    Their values, values of idle elite of a slaveholding society 2.5kya, are not?
    Is anything good in itself (Pitt, 2000)? Pragmatic concern for community and usefulness.
    Philosophically “strong” or “weak” as tied to ideals & ethical aspirations?
    Difficulties in rooted normative in 20th & 21st century.
    Ayers, Rorty, Foucault.
    Weak stuff: Tied to tradition or community practice.
    Set these larger concerns aside and accept terms of the debate:
    Assume there are ideals that are good in themselves.
    That original classification has meaning.
  • 7. Philosophical Strength & Weakness
    Mitcham’s notion turns on ethics, one of five elements of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics.
    Considers ideals or aspirational ethics as turning point.
    Here analyze the five according to first 3 of the elements:
    Metaphysically reflective if occupation considers its history.
    Epistemologically reflective if conscious of storing its knowledge in forms appropriate to subject.
    Ethically reflective if occupation has codes of ethics.
    Philosophically strong (PS’/PW’) if strong on 2 of 3 dimensions.
  • 8. Comparative Analysis of the Five
  • 9. Different Categorization
    3 PS’ occupations: Medicine, law & military
    2 PW’ occupations: Business & CS
    Mitcham scheme downgrades military, business & CS for being insufficiently aspirational.
    But military and CS are reflective about ethics in fairly strong way.
    Ironic: Call CS “philosophical weak” on only dimension of philosophy it considers.
    PW vs. PW’ not just academic. CS pathologies mainly due to ontological & epistemological lacunae.
    Aside: Philosophy is PS’ (but only 2 of 3), not as clear whether it is PS or PW.
  • 10. Recovering Mitcham’s Division
    Consider whether occupations are instrumental or end-in-themselves occupations.
    Objection, tautology or prescriptive:
    Captures grouping
    Complex exchange  division of labor.
    Some occupations expected to be instrumental
    This gives us Mitcham’s grouping:
    Doctors heal & lawyers seek justice for clients.
    Businessmen, engineers & military are instrumental to accomplishing goals determined by others.
    Only works at level of individual practitioner.
    Adam Smith (1723-1790)
  • 11. At Aggregate Occupational Level
    Does health care system provide health?
    Fixing disease versus wellness.
    Doctors unconcerned with lifestyle, nutrition, exercise, social engagement: major keys to longevity.
    Does legal system provide justice?
    Getting known criminal off is not directly just.
    Tort pursuit of the deepest pockets.
    Law/Med are rough institutional approximations to health & justice, at best.
  • 12. Institutional Settings: Clue to the Problem
    Occupations work at level of individual practitioner and in institutional setting.
    Not a bunch of free agents.
    Institutions arise to shape & constrain work.
    Organizations arise because using free market is not free.
    Institutional frameworks different among the five.
    Ronald H. Coase (b. 1910)
  • 13. Institutional Comparison
    Lawyers: Officer of court, monopoly on practice by state. Work in private firms and in government.
    Doctors: Member of regulated profession, in regulated institutions, monopoly on practice of medicine by state. Work in private practice, HMO, or government.
    Military: State has monopoly on force, military members are employees/conscripts of state, follow direct orders of civilian leaders through chain of command.
    Businessperson: Free agent to contract with others, obeying laws of the state. Works in private enterprise.
    CStist/Engineer: Free agent to contract with others, obeying laws of the state. Some licensed for some types of work. Work in free enterprise or public sector.
    Philosopher: Free agent to contract with others obeying laws of the state. Academic practitioners require PhD for tenure-track position. Work in private or public sector.
  • 14. Institutional Framework: Strong
    Institutional framework creates situation for Mitcham’sstrong occupations:
    Practitioner advances the client’s interest.
    Doing so promotes (presumed to promote) societal interest (justice, health).
    Call first condition local ethical alignment.
    Call second presumption of global ethical alignment.
    Philosophically strong merely ethically simple.
    Institutional setting generally permits local action to lead to good global result.
  • 15. Institutional Framework: Weak
    Institutional framework of weak occupations does not ensure alignment:
    Practitioner advances client’s interest.
    No guarantee of good result.
    2 ways:
    Client may have malevolent intent.
    Good intentions leading to unintended consequences.
    Mitcham’s philosophically weak merely institutionally & ethically complex: local alignment does not yield global good.
    Health & law less simple with increased i-complexity.
  • 16. From Weak vs. Strong to Simple vs. Complex
    What Mitcham calls strong is merely ethically simple: Good local action yields presumption of good global result.
    What Mitcham calls weak is merely ethically complex: Good local action indeterminate.
    Can we transform weak strong (complex  simple)by urging better aspirations by practitioners?
  • 17. Some Ethical Urgings
    Move from “is” to “ought.”
    CS ought be more like law/med.
    Adopt ideals corresponding to health and justice.
    Ostensibly to fix ill effects of technology.
    2 questions:
    Is simple CS ideal feasible?
    What institutional modifications necessary for presumption of global ethical alignment?
  • 18. Simple Ideals Hard for Biz/CS
    Technological artifacts can satisfy many positive (& negative) values (value complexity): From human survival to εὐδαιμονία.
    Societies have many individuals who oftentimes value things differently (social complexity).
    Simple formulations seem problematic (biz/engin).
    Happiness, sustainability, social justice, problematic because of the impossibility theorem.
    Kenneth J. Arrow (b. 1921)
  • 19. Another Weak Occupation: the Military
    Consider military instead:
    Aspirational ideal for military like law/meds?
    Survival doesn’t seem good enough.
    What about peace?
    Reasonable people fight to preserve or increase peace.
    Given this, Mitcham would urge military actors (soldiers) to individually aspire to peace.
  • 20. Peace, the Military & CS
    Soldier seeking peace puts CS problem in perspective, 3 problems:
    Predictability problem
    Effectiveness detection..
    Social effectiveness problem.
    Predictability problem: When does a little war here and now promote peace later?
    Effectiveness detection: Can we actually detect good military outcome when it occurs.
    Social effectiveness problem: Individual soldiers pursuing peace individually would not be an army.
    3 problems interact & individual soldier cannot be individual agent of peace:
    Predictability problem requires judgment by someone in charge.
    Effectiveness detection beyond scope of individual soldier.
    Soldiers not following orders undermines whole notion of army.
  • 21. Lessons for CS & Technology
    3 problems:
    Predictability problem: Individual practitioner cannot predict unintended effects (good or bad) of technology.
    Effectiveness detection: Whether technology is working is beyond scope of lone practitioner.
    Social effectiveness problem: Individual practitioner violates notion of a hierarchical firm or organization where individuals respond to directions from those in charge.
    Affirms inherent institutional complexity of CS work.
    Can we redesign system to overcome difficulty?
  • 22. Can We Simplify Institutional Context?
    Assume simple, practical aspirational ideal exists or that engineers have sufficient judgment to practically pursue an ideal complex.
    Marketplace insufficient institutionally to ensure local ethical alignment  global ethical alignment.
    Design new institution for engineers that ensures local alignment  global alignment.
    Bounding models of institutional restructuring:
    Absolute control model
    Absolute fail-safe model
  • 23. Absolute Control Model
    Assume engineers aspire to some ideal.
    Assume predictability and effectiveness detection can be overcome.
    Then construct institutional framework to help good occurs.
    CS is iterative process: CSers orders must be obeyed in space and time to ensure good outcome eventually.
    This requires authoritarian control over private firms, decision-making, individuals, and property.
    Limits on choice by others to ensure good outcomes deemed proper by Csers/engineers in name of the state.
    Name for this technocracy. Approximated in regimes.
    Be careful what you wish for!
  • 24. Philosophers, PW & the Republic
    Institutional framework of philosopher similar to that of the engineer.
    Philosophy has ideal of “loving wisdom” and seeking knowledge for its own sake.
    But ideas and knowledge are often instrumental.
    If philosopher has idea, how does he/she know that it will be used for greater good?
    Plato’s solution in The Republic is close to the absolute control model.
    Plato (428-328 BC)
  • 25. Fail-Safe Action Model
    OK, don’t put engineers in charge.
    Keep marketplace, insist engineers invent, make, sustain things that cause no harm, Ever!
    Precautionary principle on steroids.
    Regulatory regime: Strictly liability for all outcomes of things they make.
    Minimax strategy: Minimize harm subject to adversary who will maximize misuse & mischief.
    Ensures almost no innovation. Penalties for bad outcomes too severe.
    Not really CS. Mistake making as necessary for Engineering progress (Petroski, 1992).
    What about philosophers and their ideas?
  • 26. CS in Regulated Market Intermediate
    Presently:
    Engineers not in charge of a command economy.
    Do not require them to never make mistakes.
    Allow freedom to act in marketplace with regulatory regime to constrain worst outcomes.
    Is Institutionally intermediate solution.
    Analogous to majority rule as intermediate between veto & authoritarian rule (Buchanan & Tullock, 1962).
  • 27. History: Engineers Professional Strivings
    Strivings reflect institutional & ethical variation.
    Civil Engineers more autonomous. Closer to ideal of med/law practice.
    Mining engineers employees from the get go.
    Electrical engineers start as rock stars and end up as employees.
    Variations in professional practice dictated by institutional variations.
    Historical record of ideal & institutional complexity.
  • 28. NeoProfessionalism: Déjà Vu All Over Again
    New report calls for professionalism at the center of educational reform.
    NAE story.
    Problematic for many of reasons here.
    Institutional settings for different engineers different.
    Simple aspirational ideals not practical.
    Institutional arrangements to make them similar to law/med undesirable.
    Reflect on complexity, history, and why things are.
    Complex adaptive systems: No silver bullets.
  • 29. Summing Up
    CS is philosophically weak, but not for reasons Mitcham says.
    CS needs to be ontologically and epistemologically more aware.
    CS is necessarily institutionally complex.
    Simple ideals unavailable, but even if they were efforts to reduce social complexity are absurd: Absolute control & routine precautionary principle unacceptable.
    Market embedding invisible, but crucial. Zero emphasis on markets in CS education a big mistake.
  • 30. More Information
    Slides: www.slideshare.net/deg511
    iFoundry: http://ifoundry.illinois.edu
    iFoundryYouTube: http://www.youtube.com/illinoisfoundry
    iFoundrySlideShare: http://www.slideshare.net/ifoundry
    TEE, the book. http://eu.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-0470007230.html
    Engineering and Technology Studies at Illinois (ETSI) http://www-illigal.ge.uiuc.edu/ETSI
    Workshop on Philosophy & Engineering (WPE)http://www-illigal.ge.uiuc.edu/wpe
    © David E. Goldberg 2009