Academic Course

Experiential Ethics

24.133 Experiential Ethics is a 3-unit class that can be taken by itself or alongside popular summer experiential learning programs, introducing hundreds of MIT students to the fast-changing, real-time ethical landscape in industry, science, and technology while developing important interpersonal, professional, and leadership competencies along the way.

Discussions of the ethical implications of science and technology have reached a new level of prominence on MIT’s campus with the founding of the Schwarzman College of Computing. Leaders in industry, academia, and the public sector all acknowledge the ubiquity of technology and the vital role that ethics must play in the creation of new technology. MIT graduates have the opportunity to become pioneers in fields like inclusive AI practices and cybersecurity policy, but only if they possess both technical expertise and an understanding of how technology impacts various groups of people.

These conversations are not new. More than 50 years ago, a group of MIT faculty, students, and alumni came together to speak out against nuclear warfare and formed the Union of Concerned Scientists. As our society wrestles with those challenges that the UCS founders foresaw, as well as many new challenges that they could not yet imagine, we need MIT graduates who are not afraid to ask the tough questions.

MIT students can now gain the skills and knowledge they need in a 3-unit class, taken by itself or alongside popular experiential learning programs. This approach to ethics education is not imagined or intended as a substitute for philosophy courses taught by MIT faculty; rather, the experiential setting can be a supplemental exposure that contextualizes and reinforces more traditional or theoretical approaches to ethics. Classes will offer thought-provoking readings, videos, and case studies; small group in-person or online discussions; simulations with practitioners, alumni, faculty, and peers; guided critical reflection on personal values and professional purpose; and a culminating showcase event/presentation.

Student Testimonials

Students who took Experiential Ethics in the summer of 2020 overwhelmingly reported high satisfaction with the course, increased knowledge and ability to engage with ethics, and increased interest in ethics. Most students said they now envision themselves pursuing extracurricular or volunteer opportunities related to ethics, taking ethics classes, continuing to learn about ethics independently, and/or engaging in ethical discussions with friends and classmates. Here are a few of their comments:

Being in Experiential Ethics completely changed the way that I view ethics, transforming my relationship with the field of AI, my research, courses at MIT, and the interface between science, technology, and society.

Experiential Ethics is what motivated me to apply to be in a SERC (Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing) Action Group, an opportunity that became a highlight of the past semester. I’ve found a sense of purpose working to make MIT a more ethical place, and I hope to continue that work during my years at MIT (and beyond!).

 

Being in Experiential Ethics offered me the opportunity to explore my field of interest from a new perspective, allowing me to see the underlying ethical and safety issues. I realized these are as fundamental as the technical issues and decided to evaluate PhD programs in large part on the opportunities they would provide me to address the social issues that prevent further development in my field. I believe many students would benefit from taking this time to step back and consider a broader perspective on their field of interest.

The class expanded my definition of ethics to not just include personal definitions of right/wrong, but to also include broader ideas of institutional/systemic ethics. It made me more aware of the articles and books and social issues that usually fly under my radar.

FAQ

No; because the class includes a final project due in September, it is listed as a Fall semester class. Therefore, it only impacts your tuition costs if you are not registered as a full-time student in the Fall. Similarly, the class will apply toward Fall credit limits, rather than Summer.

We welcome applications from students all over the world and with all different schedules. Accommodating everyone’s schedules so that no one is excluded is a top priority for the class. We will consider a wide variety of discussion group times and do our very best to make sure that every student is assigned to a discussion group that fits their schedule.

In 2020 and 2021, the course was held virtually. Summer/Fall 2022 is still TBD, but will likely include primarily virtual elements in the summer and in-person elements in the fall.

The class is set up for standard A-F grading. The grade will be computed based on attendance and participation (50%), short weekly assignments (20%), and a final project (30%).

 

The class is listed in the Dept. of Linguistics and Philosophy and can count toward general elective credit. We’re working to evaluate whether the class can count for other purposes, but we, unfortunately, can’t confirm other credit uses at this time. However, the class is a great opportunity to get a taste of ethics material to help you consider future courses in this area, such as HASS electives.

The final project for this class is highly flexible, both in terms of format and in terms of topic. We will provide you with a variety of format options (e.g., a 2000-word essay, a website, an interview and commentary, a series of vlogs, etc.) You are also welcome to propose your own format. We encourage you to connect your final project to something you are working on or experiencing during the summer—an internship, UROP, or independent project, for example. However, the topic is ultimately up to you, pending approval by your teaching fellow. Scroll down for examples of past projects. 

Resources

At MIT

Expand your moral imagination and build your ethical toolkit by completing a HASS Concentration in Ethics, or develop a multidisciplinary understanding of the technical and sociocultural pracitice and human implications of computation through the HASS Concentration in Computing and Society

Engage with industry-specific ethical dilemmas in classes like Bioethics, The Ethics of Climate Change, Ethics of Technology, and more.

Get another dose of embedded ethics education and build other professional skills essential to your engineering career through GEL and NEET.

Put your moral imagination to work by engaging in public service through the PKG Center or co-designing solutions to poverty with communities around the world through D-Lab

Become an agent of change by joining the Algorithmic Justice League, an MIT-based organization combines art and research to illuminate the social implications and harms of artificial intelligence

Elsewhere

Use Envisioning Cards to help you consider long-term societal implications of your design and engineering projects. 

Stand up for ethical and impactful uses of science with the Union of Concerned Scientists, an organization formed in 1969 by student and scientist activists at MIT. 

Find articles and videos discussing the societal impacts of technology curated by Build Tech We Trust.

Student Projects

Students enrolled in the Experiential Ethics course design and execute a final project. The final project is highly flexible, both in terms of format and in terms of topic. All students have given express permission for their projects to be shared on the website.

Illustration of a walking fish