Pearls we are!

Written on 31.01.19 by Holger Hermanns

Fabulous news: The module Ethics for Nerds has been declared Hochschulperle des Monats by the Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft.


Ethics for Nerds

The impact of computer science and related fields on our society and everyday life has increased tremendously over the last decade. There is no evidence that this process will end anytime soon. We thus believe that computer scientists should be aware of the societal and morally relevant impact of the artifacts they build and of the systems they contribute to. This awareness can be trained and sharpened. Furthermore, computer scientists ought to have the necessary competences for making morally acceptable and professional decisions in the development processes they are participating in. However, the thoughts and insights of academic ethics – i.e. the field professionally concerned with ethics and morals – are a necessary precondition for these competences, but usually not part of computer scientists' studies and education.

This course aims at bridging this gap. It will introduce both, relevant knowledge from the field of academic moral philosophy and soft skills needed to argue clearly, precisely, and convincingly (i.e. beyond the level of everyday discussions at bars and parties). We will teach you how to apply these skills to problems most likely just lurking around the corner in your career –  be it in research, be in industry. After all, we will explain and train these skills by discussing several current issues live and in color – from filter bubbles over predictive ML-algorithms to autonomous cars. 

But be aware: Philosophy is fun and can be highly addictive.


This course covers: 

  • an introduction to the methods of philosophy, argumentation theory, and the basics of normative as well as applied ethics;
  • starting points to evaluate practices and technologies already in use or not that far away, like for instance: Filter Bubble Effects/Echo Chambers, ML-algorithms as predictive tools, GPS-tracking, CCTV and other tools from surveillance, fitness trackers, big data analysis, autonomous vehicles, lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) and so on;
  • a guide through the jungle of moral codices of professional associations, enabling and encouraging you to distinguish convincing and coherent codices from bad and incoherent ones;
  • an outlook on more futuristic fields like machine ethics (longing for implementing and ensuring ethical behavior into software and robots, e.g. autonomous vehicles) and roboethics (concerned with the morally adequate behavior of humans toward technical systems).


The weekly lecture will be accompanied by weekly tutorial sessions. We will provide a (work in progress) script as a useful source of reference. Furthermore, we will send around news and findings from the web related to computer ethics. At the end, we will test you in an exam and you will have to write an essay if you gained the admission.


A tutorial is offered on Mondays from 8:30 to 12:00. You can drop by at any time and stay as long as you want. More information on the tutorials will be made available during the first lecture. If you plan to attend the tutorials, but think that you cannot make it in these two slots, please contact Sarah Sterz.


To be admitted to the exam and the essay, you have to reach at least 100 points during the semester. You can reach:

  • 150 points from assignments (10 assignments for 15 points each)
  • 50 points from attending the tutorials (10 out of 14 weeks for 5 points each, i.e. not more than 50 points in total)

This means you have to earn 2/3 of the overall achievable points from the weekly assignments if you never attend a tutorial and only 1/3 of the points from the assignments, if you attend 10 tutorials. To achive the points for a tutorial, you need to attended the tutorial for at least 1,5 hours.


The final grade is made up of 75% from the exam and 25% from the essay. If the re-exam or re-essay marks are better than the exam or essay marks, resprectively, the better mark counts. To pass the course you need to achive 50% or more overall.

It is possible to get a bonus of 0.3, if you write an excellent essay.


Even though this is an Advanced Course, we expect hardly any previous knowledge except for basic knowledge about propositional and first-order logic. What nevertheless is a vital precondition, is an open mind and an interest to look at computer science in a way you are not used to.
The lecture and all its materials obviously are in English, but if you feel more comfortable to write assignments and exams in German, you are invited to do so. Nevertheless, for this course you should have a level of at least B2 in either German or English (see here for further details).

This lecture is made possible by support from the Excellence Cluster MMCI and the Saarbrücken Graduate School of Computer Science. It takes place annually in the summer term.

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