Ethics for Nerds Kevin Baum, Holger Hermanns, Sarah Sterz

Registration for this course is open until Wednesday, 08.04.2020 23:59.




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Ethics for Nerds

Because the Covid-19 outbreak, the begin of the semester has been postponed to May 4th. You will, however, be given some material to work with before this. More inforation will follow in due time.

Wednesdays, 14-16, HS001 in E1 3 
Time: whenever you want
Place: online

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),
  • and more.


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 either German or English that is equivalent to a strong B2 or better a C1 level (see here for further details). We do not need any formal proof that you fulfil the requirements, but we strongly recommend taking them seriously. If you are in any doubt whether this course is suitable for you, please do not hesitate to get in touch with us.


Upon request, you will find some literature that may be interesting to read before the course. Reading this, however, is not mandatory! We will cover everything that you will need to know during the course (except for the presuppositions above). You will not have a disadvantage if you do not read any of the literature that follows:

  1. Moor, J. H. (1985). What is computer ethics?. Metaphilosophy, 16(4), 266-275.
    A rather old paper that is nevertheless still very relevant today. Available here.
  2. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
    This is the wikipedia of philosophy with lots of high-quality articles. Among others, the following articles are relevant for Ethics for Nerds and are relatively easy to understand without a philosophical background:
  3. Another resourse of material can be the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, in particular the following articles:
  4. Rosenberg, J. F. (1984). The practice of philosophy: A handbook for beginners.
    If you are very much into philosophy, you can also dive a little deeper into the daily business of philosophers by having a look at this all-time-classic introduction to being a philosopher. Sadly, the English edition of this book is usually very expensive, but you will find the book in the SULB and in the philosophy library.

Earlier editions of this lecture series have been made possible by support from the Excellence Cluster MMCI and the Saarbrücken Graduate School of Computer Science. The lecture takes place annually in the summer term.

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