Visiting scholar: Colleen Murphy from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

This spring Colleen Murphy visited the 4TU.Centre for Ethics and Technology as a visiting scholar at the Technical University of Delft. Colleen is a professor in law and philosophy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who is most well-known for her work on the Capability Approach for Risk Assessment. In this interview I asked Colleen about her work, her experiences in academia, and the importance of risk assessment (or as she tells us “All of life is about risk.”).

Who is Colleen Murphy?

“I am a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with a joint appointment in law and philosophy. And I also direct a program called the Women and Gender in Global Perspectives Program housed in Illinois international. I studied philosophy as an undergrad at the University of Notre Dame, and spend a year at Oxford before going on to receive my PhD at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.”

You have been in the Netherlands for a few weeks now. How did you experience your 4TU visiting scholarship?

“It’s been terrific. I have been based in Delft, but have been able to visit quite a number of places. I went to The Hague, Eindhoven, Utrecht, and Twente. So, what have I liked about it? First of all, it’s just an easy place to live and to get around. There is lots of walking; coming from the US I especially appreciate that.

And then you have here at 4TU probably one of the highest concentrations of philosophers working on questions of risk and technology in the world. That’s very exciting. It is also nice because it is a really vibrant academic community. A lot of people are engaged in collaborations that are interdisciplinary in their orientation. That’s exciting. I have had really productive and interesting conversations, as well as feedback on my papers. And I have received inquiries from graduate students who were interested in using some of my work (in particular on the capability approach) to think about technology and risk. So it has been great!”

What did your average day look like?

“It varied depending on whether I was traveling or giving a talk. Typically, I had time to do writing, which is really valued and appreciated, in the morning. Then I attended planned meetings or had informal conversations with at least one of the scholars or professors, if not every day then every other day. I developed an idea for a collaborative paper with a TU Delft faculty member, and have gotten involved in a grant project with other colleagues at TU Delft.”

How do you experience collaboration with engineers? And is there anything special about teaching ethics to engineers?

“I have collaborated with engineers for about a decade now. And I give lectures to engineering students back in Illinois.

In one way, it is not challenging at all to teach ethics to engineering students. Engineering students by and large are terrifically smart. So you’ve got very bright students who catch on relatively quickly to the progress of argumentation. Also, you’ve got a certain similarity in thinking: engineers are interested in coming up with general models and solutions, philosophers are interested in understanding and coming up with general principles or accounts. So there is a natural kind of affinity there.

When it comes to challenges for teaching engineers, I would say there probably are three.

The first one is getting engineering students to appreciate the importance of linguistic precision. Engineering courses tend to be more quantitatively oriented and often work with mathematical equations, figures and tables. By contrast, in philosophy much of the work is done in the process of writing, which is an integral part of philosophical thinking, and it matters what words you use to express your ideas.

The second challenge is getting engineering students to appreciate that ethics is not just about professionalism; that technical questions are not value neutral. Engineering ethics is not just relevant for their roles as employees or as professors, but it actually matters for their research.

The last one is what I have to do explicitly when I teach engineering students. And that is to set out the expectations for the course, especially the expectation that I won’t be giving them answers. Philosophy is not about telling you the correct answer to a question, but teaching you how to think about the question and appreciate the varying answers people have proposed and the limitations with them.

Some of these challenges seem less pronounced in the Netherlands. You have an integration of philosophy already in the engineering curriculum that we don’t have in the same way in the US.”

Can you tell us a little bit about what projects are you currently working on?

“I am working on two main projects right now. One is a continuation of the work I’ve been doing for the past decade on the capability approach to risk analysis. What I’m specifically doing with Paolo Gardoni, who is a Civil Engineering Professor at Illinois, is trying to operationalize a capability approach to risk analysis. We try to develop predictive models to be able to assess how capabilities would be affected, impacted, or changed given a particular hazardous scenario like an extreme natural event. We try to come up with ways of assessing not just achievements, what individuals would be doing or won’t be doing, but also ways of assessing opportunities, also called capabilities, because that’s what we are ultimately interested in. Assessing capabilities requires making inferences from what people are actually doing to what they could be doing. We have been making the theoretical case for why the capability approach is a better way of thinking about risk. But if it’s going to get traction, both within the engineering community and within the policy community, we have to show this is something that you can actually assess and make predictions about with. We are also looking more seriously at questions of regulation.

The second project I just finished is a book on transitional justice, called The Conceptual Foundations of Transitional Justice (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2017). Transitional justice concerns how societies that are emerging or attempting to emerge from extended periods of conflict or repression should deal with legacies of human rights abuses and atrocities. There’s a range of processes that transitional societies have used, like truth commissions, criminal trials, amnesties and/or reparations. There’s a lot of debate about whether or not justice is actually achieved or facilitated by these different ways of dealing with past wrongs. So my book is articulating an account of what justice requires when dealing with past wrongs is in the midst of a transition from conflict and repression.”

Do ‘real’ philosophers question what you are doing is philosophy?

“Not as much as I would have expected. I was very fortunate when I was doing my Ph.D. to have Jerry Postema as my advisor. I wanted to work on political reconciliation. At the time I was writing my dissertation the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission had just finished up its work and there was a lot of discussion about that the amnesty provision for perpetrators. The justification for granting amnesty ultimately appealed to political reconciliation. I was fascinated by what was meant by reconciliation and why we should think it was important morally whether or not a society achieved reconciliation. There was not much philosophical discussion about the concept of reconciliation at the time. Jerry had a lot of faith in me to be able to write a dissertation on this topic. And since then I’ve been dealing with questions that are not some of the classical questions in political philosophy or philosophy of law, but which I think are really important questions both normatively and practically. Ultimately I think philosophy needs to engage with concrete questions. You only get good theory if you have a theory tied to something that is going on, that has happened or is happening in the world.”

So what is your motivation for doing this?

“My philosophical interests have grown from the ground up, from a concern with understanding the various ways in which individuals’ and communities’’ lives can be disrupted, when and why disruptions are bad, and how we should think ethically while navigating through disruptions and transitions, whether it’s in the aftermath of an earthquake or tsunami or the aftermath of civil war. That’s what interests me.

And a lot of the concerns that people dealing with disruptions raise, whether it’s about the inadequacy of a government’s response in the aftermath of a hurricane or the injustice of forgoing punishment, raise important questions of moral and political philosophy.  That motivates me to actually do the work to think through these issues.”

Let’s talk about the Ethics of Philosophy and the Ethics of Ethics. Do you see a special responsibility for people like you who offer advice on risk management and disaster relief operations? What if the ethical way of doing things is not the most efficient?

“One special responsibility is not to oversell expertise; to say explicitly ‘here are the questions or the issues that we can offer some input on, and here are the questions we can’t’. Second, any sort of ethical advice has to be grounded in the knowledge of disaster relief practice or risk management practice. Before you can make any prescription to particular individuals, you have to know something about what the relief operations look like. Otherwise your advice, even if it is well intended, can have bad consequences. When I think about offering advice, I am always cautious. Knowing how to apply general prescriptions or general principles to particular cases requires a lot of knowledge about the case.

What if the ethical way of doing things is not the most efficient? We can recognize that tension in a wide range of contexts.  The ethical way of conducting war is not always the most efficient, but we take the ethical way to be what we are required to do nonetheless.”

How do you still have time to keep up with all the different work?

“Here is my approach: I have had to become very familiar with literatures on disasters and natural hazards and risk on the one hand, and transitional justice on the other. In order to say anything salient and of value philosophically about these cases I also need to keep up on the philosophical discussions that matter for those issues. There is a rich literature in the philosophy of risk. Questions of transitional justice raise issues of the rule of law, trust, reactive attitudes, and the morality of dealing with past wrong, all subjects of moral and political philosophy. These discussions I keep up on.

Then I just recognize that there are other discussions that I won’t be able keep up on in the same way and that’s inevitable. Even if you’re not doing interdisciplinary work there’s only so much, so many conversations you can keep abreast of. I’m very honest with what I don’t know. And if there’s a question I know there must be literature on, and I’m fully aware of that I’m not well versed in that literature, then I just rely on people whose knowledge I trust to point me to what it is I need to be reading. And I also trust my collaborators when I am doing interdisciplinary work.”

Would you recommend a student or PhD candidate to work on Risk Ethics?

“All of life is about risk. I think public policy is fundamentally about dealing with risk; thinking about what are the harms we want to try to mitigate, and what are the actions that we’re willing to take in order to prevent those risks. What are the commitments we have to dealing with the aftermath of those harms, should certain harms be realised? And obviously with the development of new technologies there are all sorts of uncertainties about what might be the consequences for individuals and communities of the adoption of certain technologies. What’s fascinating about working in risk is that it always keeps in the forefront of your mind the idea that nothing is certain. And no society can be perfectly safe. Sometimes risks will be realized and individuals will be harmed. I think there’s a wide range of directions that students who are interested in thinking about risk can go. I think it is an area that’s ripe for further development. It’s not limiting in that way.”

What work would you recommend?

“Sven Ove Hansson, all of his work is just terrific, and his publications cover almost every area of risk. In terms of scholars, start with him.  For students interested specifically in risks from natural hazards, I would recommend a volume I co-edited with Paolo Gardoni and Arden Rowell, Risk Analysis of Natural Hazards: Interdisciplinary Challenges and Integrated Solutions (Springer, 2015).”

What keeps you up at night? And what makes you excited?

“What keeps me up at night is human suffering, because most of it is avoidable and morally impermissible, and yet completely predictable given certain individual choices or policy decisions.

Whether it’s in terms of malnutrition; or in terms of death, injury, and trauma stemming from war; or loss of homes and livelihoods from the aftermath of natural hazards, none of these are natural or inevitable. I think about how philosophical tools can be deployed to articulate when and the many ways in which suffering is morally bad, as well as the reasons why it’s feasible and morally obligatory to avoid in many cases.

I also think about how to counter indifference to suffering. That’s the other thing that makes me so troubled. Things are better in many ways: we are living longer lives, and the standards of living of many have improved. And, yet, there are millions of kids out of school because of conflict. And there is a lot of indifference to that and other facts. Countering indifference to or the normalization of suffering, and contributing to arguments that are aimed at countering indifference so that people care also keep me up at night.”