Finding the Moral Compass at MIT

3 11 2015

The MIT community is full of people who care deeply about the world we share.

In January, when I heard about Elon Musk funding the Future of Life Institute to mitigate existential risk to humanity, I was not surprised to find MIT’s Max Tegmark at the helm.


In June, when I heard about “Silicon Valley’s Bold Call for Reform,” I was not surprised to find out that the idea for the Open Letter on the Digital Economy began with the MIT Sloan School Initiative on the Digital Economy’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andy McAfee.

With the SolveMIT Conference in October, MIT began promoting itself as a force for the good. MIT President Rafael Reif threw down the gauntlet: “We will do more than talk about the greatest problems facing our world. We will set the course to solve them.”

And these are just a few examples from the national news headlines of 2015.

What Do We Stand for as an Institution?

Over the last few years, there have been calls from various corners of the MIT community to up-level the moral and ethical discussion beyond individual conduct to institutional conduct.   Many students, faculty and alumni feel that the Instituteʻs current code of conduct does not go far enough.

The issue of institutional morals and ethics came to a flashpoint on October 22, 2015 with Fossil-Free MITʻs sit-in to protest the Administration’s Action Plan on Climate Change.  As the positive press from SolveMIT wafted its way around social media, sentiment was different on the home front: some of its students and more than 100 faculty publicly gave MIT’s plan a failing grade.

It was the sit-in that first engaged my attention to the subject of institutional ethics at MIT.  I have learned that a calls for change have been coming for years, and that there appear to be at least three threads in the discussion of institutional morals and ethics:

  • How do we engage with the world?  To what ethical standards do we hold ourselves and our partners to account?
  • How do we educate our students?  What moral basis coheres our remarkably diverse community?
  • Should MIT’s moral compass be based on an appeal to authority or an appeal to principle?

Ethical Engagement

In the May/June 2007 issue of the MIT Faculty Newsletter, outgoing Faculty Chair Steve Lerman asked a key question about the Instituteʻs core values: Does MIT need a statement of ethical principles to guide our teaching, research, business practices and professional interactions?

A call for an investment ethics policy at MIT was first raised in the January/February 2008 issue of the MIT Faculty Newsletter.   Authors Ali S. Wyne and Alice H. Amsden argued that MIT should establish a Standing Committee on Investment Responsibility. They envisioned “(s)hareholder engagement includ(ing) – among other measures – proxy voting, letter writing, and resolution filing, none of which involves altering investment strategies or moving money.”

Was this suggestion adopted?  A look at the Endowment Survey in MIT’s Green Report Card for 2011 (the last year of publication) reveals that MIT reported there is a committee that includes student representatives deliberates and makes recommendations or decisions on proxy votes.  I believe this is an ad-hoc committee, not a standing committee.  (Nothing would make me happier than to hear I am wrong about this!)  MIT also reported that it uses the guidelines in The Ethical Investor to make investment decisions with regard to environmental/sustainability factors.  This statement refers to the guidelines developed by Yale University.

Fast forwarding to 2015, the MIT Faculty Review published letters with a good discussion of the ethics of divestment.  In the January/February 2015 issue,Professor Charles Harvey encouraged faculty members to sign the divestment petition.  The March/April issue contained a rebuttal from Alexander Slocum and a response to the rebuttal from Professor Harvey.

On June, 15 2015, the Climate Change Conversation Committee submitted the report, MIT and the Climate Challenge, that encouraged the Institute to establish an Ethics Advisory Council and to start standing up visibly for science and truth. The authors of the report “reject the notion that ethics should play no role in investment.” (p.13) In a post-script to the report, Fossil-Free MIT’s Geoffrey Supran personally challenged the notion that it is acceptable for MIT to support business models that would lead to humanitarian catastrophe in the name of short-term profit.” (p. 50)

According to The Action Plan on Climate Change published by the administration on October 21, 2015, the solution to climate change:

“(D)emands an aptitude for hands-on problem solving, the power to convene leaders from many disciplines and sectors, a willingness to engage with diverse communities in designing the future—and a humane grasp of our moral responsibility to the Earth and its creatures, including our children and our fellow, and future, human beings.” (page 5)

There is no further mention of morals or ethics in the Action Plan.

In a guest column published in The Tech on October 29, 2015, MIT’s Climate Plan doesn’t add up. So we’re sitting-in, Fossil-Free MIT reminded the Administration that the Report of the Climate Change Conversation Committee “unanimously endorsed the creation of an Ethics Advisory Council to ‘explicitly combat disinformation and avoid inadvertently supporting disinformation through investments,’ with the possibility of ‘disinformation-based divestment.’”

In addition to explaining the ethical basis by which MIT will engage as a shareholder and disengage with those who spread disinformation, it may also be useful for the Institute to consider explaining the ethical basis of engagement in basic research. For example, under what circumstances does the world need more nuclear weapons?

Ethics Education

Education is the second of three elements in the moral conundrum at MIT. In a letter to The Tech on November 15, 2013, Gregory Kravit ’15 asked, Mens et Manus…but what else? He called for an explicit approach to ethical education and moral development at MIT.

On November 21, 2013 the Preliminary Report of the Institute-wide Task Force on the Future of MIT Education echoed this sentiment. The report noted a need to better develop students’ ethical skills, not only in academe – possibly via an MIT honor code – but also in the context of their work as industry researchers and as business practitioners. MIT graduates “should understand the societal impact of their decisions and appreciate the ethical considerations that guide those decisions (via) an education that remains rigorous but emphasizes the connection to and the value of humanities.” (p.31)

On November 22, 2013, President Reif responded with a letter to The Tech on Ethics Education at the Institute.  He wrote:

“We owe it to our students — and the world we send them out to serve — to provide a deep, effective ethical education. Can we really say we are teaching problem solving, if we leave ethics out of the question? Surely right and wrong should be among the explicit boundary conditions in solving any important problem. If we aim to give our students the intellectual tools to solve real-world problems, we must also give them the ethical tools to understand the real-world consequences of their choices — and the moral tools to do the right thing.”

Should MIT’s Moral Compass be Based on an Appeal to Authority or an Appeal to Principle?

Where do ethics come from? From on high or from human hearts? This question is the third element of the moral conundrum at MIT.

In a letter to The Tech on April 18, 2014 Aaron Scheinberg, PhD ’15 stated The Case for Removing Official Prayer from the MIT Graduation. He argued that the dogma of any one religious tradition is not an acceptable substitute for a moral charge from a secular institution to its remarkably diverse graduating community.

On October 6, 2014, MIT opened the SOLVE Conference with an invocation by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The invocation covered both bases, appeal to authority and appeal to principle:

“To MIT President Rafael Reif and all who played a role in conceptualizing SOLVE, I want you to know that you are doing God’s work.

Your work is infused with what I believe to be the most fundamental human truth: our inter-dependence. We have a special name for it in South Africa: Ubuntu. It says a person is a person through other persons. “

(Ubuntu, the African approach to humanism, asserts that community, not a transcendent being, gives human beings their humanity.  As a corollary, it is community, not a transcendent being, that holds people to moral account.)

Faith-based communities have a lot to contribute to a discussion of moral and ethical development at the institutional level. For example, MITʻs Baha’i Chaplain Brian Aull, a scientist at MIT Lincoln Labs, advocates a focus on service, learning and community building in his book, The Triad: Three Civic Virtues That Could Save American Democracy.

The Ethics Initiative of MIT’s Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values, hosts “a series of free-spirited conversations between students and leading experts and faculty, that center on ethical issues, the societal responsibilities of scientists and engineers, and the complex problems we face in technology, economy, education, engineering and science in today’s modern world.”

In his book, Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, Dalai Lama Center fellow Kentaro Toyama recommends for the right way to use technology and to stress the central importance of human change. Toyama is speaking at MIT today on technology’s Law of Amplification “a simple idea that explains why gadgets alone consistently fail to deliver social progress, and why in an age of advanced technology, it’s all the more important to focus on nurturing human wisdom.”

Secular thinkers also have a lot to contribute to a discussion of moral and ethical development at the Institute. From the Presencing Institute and the Initiative on the Digital Economy to the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and the Sloan Sustainability Initiative – and others I have yet to encounter – MIT leaders can speak from deep study and experience on the moral and ethical basis of systemic change.

MIT is a secular institution. An appeal to principle would serve its diverse community more inclusively than an appeal to any particular authority.

It will require open-minded collaboration to surface the principles that should guide MIT’s engagement with the world, and real courage to put moral principles into action.  As Paul Richardson reminded the community in Moral thought brings tough choices, a letter to The Tech on December 3, 2013, “The consequence of a serious inquiry into ethics will be a heavy burden to bear.”

Thought Experiment:
First Engage with Our Best Institutional Self;  Then Invite Others to Step Up

If, for example, we agree with Einstein that, “Those with the privilege to know have the duty to act,” one has no choice but to be morally uncomfortable with the Climate Action Plan.  As Fossil-Free MIT points out in a guest column in The Tech on October 29, we are not leading the world to safety:

“If all developed countries followed MIT’s emissions reduction plan, a simulation run by Climate Interactive projects that global warming would drastically overshoot the 2°C danger limit, with a most likely temperature rise of 3.4°C by 2100.”

If MIT as a scientific community has good reason to believe that this is insufficient, what does this say to the world about our collective morality?  That we are fiddling while Rome burns, caught up in a quibble over the precision of a model vs. the importance of acting on its diagnosis?  That MIT is agnostic about the social impact of science to the point where we would knowingly allow harm to others more vulnerable than ourselves?

Worse, why are we promoting ourselves as a world leader telling others what to do when we are not setting a good example with our actions back on the ranch?  What does this say to the world?  That MIT is a coin-operated institution?  That the fox is guarding the chicken coop?  Or, quite simply, that we are hypocrites.

I do not believe for a minute this is the impression the MIT administration meant to create with the Climate Action Plan.  Nor do I believe the discomfort with the plan is isolated to some stubborn students sitting on the floor in Building 3.

Clearly, we can fix this.  If engagement with industry is not intended as a synonym for green-washing, letʻs define what our intentions actually are.  If we take some time to examine the moral compass that guides our work together at MIT and with industry partners and governments, we can indeed set the course to solve the worldʻs most challenging problems.

I also believe we should fix this.  Onto the strong shoulders falls the burden, and our burden at MIT is our disinformationist friends.   To open their minds and hearts to the inhumanity of their actions, we must be morally strong as well.   If we do not step up to this challenge, who else can?

Letʻs begin to connect our many points of light.




2 responses

18 02 2016
Nina Lytton

From philosophy professor Sally Haslanger’s letter, “Is this who we really are?” in the January/February 2016 issue of the MIT Faculty Newsletter:

“Every institution usually considered a peer – Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, etc. – has the equivalent of an Ethics Advisory Council. Shouldn’t we respect the knowledge and expertise of our whole community – as our peers clearly do – and draw on our collective insight to make morally sound decisions? We certainly aren’t coming close to that. Refusing to establish such a Council is a public repudiation of moral reasoning and is of a piece with the distorted affirmation of science and engineering, “This is MIT.””

23 02 2016
Nina Lytton

The National Academy of Engineering has honored MIT’s Terrascope program as an Exemplar in Engineering Ethics Education. Professor J. Kim Vandiver, dean for undergraduate research and a professor of mechanical and ocean engineering, directs MIT’s Office of Experiential Learning, under which Terrascope is organized. The NAE Award, he said, “confirms the value in training freshmen to think broadly, creatively, and justly.”

This great training is one of the reasons why Fossil-Free MIT is such a determined group of young people, and #ScientistsSitIn is now on Day 108.

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