October 30, 2012

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Medicine and Morality

On November 14, David Lacks will speak at Whittenberger Auditorium. He is the son of Henrietta Lacks, the woman who was the origin of the HeLa cell. Rebecca Skoot's book  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks discusses the ethical issues surrounding the use of HeLa cells. Here, Professor Jill Robinson, who uses the book in her "Ethics in Science" class, discusses its relation to Themester.

How does The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks fit into this year’s theme of "Good Behavior, Bad Behavior: Molecules to Morality"?

Rebecca Skloot’s bestseller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of the woman and scientific discoveries behind the HeLa cell line which has become one of the most important medical research tools ever discovered.  Henrietta Lacks was a black woman treated at Johns Hopkins for cervical cancer whose cells, taken without her knowledge in 1951, went on to become the first immortal human cells ever grown in the laboratory. 

The book highlights many topics ranging from medical ethics to race to the commercialization of human tissue.  These are well suited to an in depth discussion of behavior and what can be classified as good or bad.  Medical research ethics is a main theme of the book and the behavior and actions of the scientists are described in terms of accepted practice at the time and compared to legal restrictions in existence today.  There are clear examples of bad behavior in the dark history of experimentation on African Americans such as the brutal experiments conducted at the Crownsville hospital for the Negro Insane where Henrietta’s daughter Elsie was a patient.  In contrast, many good outcomes have resulted from the harvesting of Henrietta’s cells.  The book addresses big issues such as bioethics, and the legal battles over “informed consent”, patient confidentiality, and individuals sharing in the profits of biotech products made from their own tissues.  Human behavior is also explored through an in-depth description of actions of those involved.  

What are some of the major ethical issues raised by the book, and what solutions are offered, if any?

The major ethical issues are related to medical experimentation on humans, treatment of patients based on race, and tissue rights.  Solutions are not directly offered, but the issues are raised in a way to initiate thoughtful consideration from both a moral and legal perspective.

Have you used this book in your courses before this semester? What issues are most of interest to students?

I have not used this book before.  Issues that are of greatest interest to students are related to patient rights, medical discoveries, and race and class issues.

David Lacks will be coming to campus to discuss the book and his experiences. How did the loss of Henrietta Lacks affect his life?

From reading the book, it is evident that the family is very proud of their mother’s contribution to science.  At various points family members were very angry as they were not told their mother’s cells were alive and then researchers took samples from her children without consent.  They did not understand the science behind an immortalized cell line and could not believe that companies were making millions of dollars while they did not have enough money for basic health care.  In the end, it is clear that they simply would have liked to know their mother as a person and have her in their lives.  I hope to learn more through the interview.

For more information on this event, visit 
For more information on the book, visit http://rebeccaskloot.com/the-immortal-life/.

Rebecca Kimberly
Themester 2012 intern

October 25, 2012

Sylvia Plath Symposium: Q&A with Kathleen Connors

Kathleen Connors ,a visiting scholar to IU's Department of English, is a co-director for the 2012 Sylvia Plath Symposium, which will be held October 24-27. The symposium features a dozen major Plath scholars, twenty eminent poets and artists, and over 40 panelists from ten countries. Here, Ms. Connors discusses Sylvia Plath in the context of "Good Behavior, Bad Behavior."

1. How does the topic of Sylvia Plath fit into Themester's theme of "Good Behavior, Bad Behavior"?

A number of lectures, films and the IU Art Museum and Lilly Library exhibits address controversial issues around Plath's famous Ariel poems the Symposium commemorates: the use of the Holocaust, war imagery and torture in art versus pacifism; Plath's self-personas presented in letters and journals that are "contrived/phony" versus "honest"; marital fidelity and traditional family values versus infidelity and selfishness; women’s education and oppression in mid-20th century culture versus female inclusion and empowerment; and Plath as an inspirational role model versus the poster child of madness and "dangerous influence."

2. What can students learn from the study of Sylvia Plath?

While often viewed in light of her illness and suicide, Sylvia Plath was an excellent student with a wide range of interests that she pursued in the face of hardships, obstacles and personal problems. Her life story and work demonstrate what can be achieved by hard work and employment of intellectual curiosity. Plath's prolific literary works address a wide range of cultural, personal and intellectual issues that are still relevant in the 21st century, ranging from analysis of gender in society, Cold War Culture and politics, the role of the artist and intellectual as cultural critic and teacher, female sexual and professional roles and identity in patriarchal society, and the role of self-examination and exploration of the psyche in self-understanding.

For more information about this event, visit http://sylviaplathsymposium2012.indiana.edu/. 

Rebecca Kimberly
Themester 2012 intern

Richard III: Too Bad to Be True

Gavin Cameron-Webb’s production of Richard III uses both the text and the stage in transformative ways.

A scene from Richard III at the Wells Metz Theatre
This Shakespearean production has reversed the Wells-Metz theatre and uses all three of its levels.

This production also challenges the historical accuracy of the text. It will show that Richard III was actually a great king who is grossly misrepresented in this play. Themes of slander and propaganda will be explored just in time for campaign season. Periodically the truth of what actually happened is revealed to the audience through a luminous screen above the three levels of stage. Cameron-Webb said that this device serves as the “theatrical equivalent of factcheck.org.” 

In allowing the truth to be displayed, this production not only exhibits the indisputably bad behavior of Richard III, the fictional king, but also discloses the bad behavior of those who slandered Richard III, the actual king. Shakespeare likely wrote the play so as not to fall from the favor of Queen Elizabeth, who occupied the throne at the time. This is an interesting example of morally questionable behavior.

As captured in Shakespeare’s text, Richard III is the most monstrous, most dastard of all villains. “He epitomizes bad behavior,” said Cameron-Webb. When asked what qualities potentially redeem this outrageous character, the director could only suggest “his charm, his presence, his ambition.” Richard III, played in this production by M.F.A. acting student, Aaron Kirkpatrick, is an excellent orator, who both enthralls and appalls his audience.

It may be alarming to the audience just how devilishly charming this murderous villain is. “Villains are usually the most entertaining,” said Cameron-Webb. “We certainly enjoy watching [Richard] be so bad.” It speaks to an interesting inclination: to be so fascinated by the magnetism of a character that is unquestionably bad and leaves no room for moral growth. “He is so out and out evil,” said Cameron-Webb. “He’s not a morally complex or tortured character. Unlike Mister from the Scottish play, [Richard] is bad, and he knows it.”

Although it is important to expose how mysteriously drawn we are to “bad” characters, Cameron-Webb feels that the most important thing to teach the audience is “how susceptible we are to propaganda.” We must challenge ourselves to discredit things that are “too bad to be true.”

Production Dates: 
October 19, 20, 23-26 @ 7:30 p.m.
October 27 @ 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

Amber Hendricks
Themester 2012 intern

October 22, 2012

Human Trafficking Film Series and Panel Discussion Q&A

A scene from Anjos do Sol
Stepanka Korytova (Magstadt), Ph.D., from the International Studies Program & Center for the Study of Global Change, discusses the films chosen and the selected topic of discussion for the human trafficking series.

1.    What inspired you to put together this series?

I think that I am able to reach more people through art than through a lecture. I hope anyway...

2.    How did you choose these particular films, Lilya 4 Ever and Anjos do Soul?

Professor Hashmanova, who will be one of the panelists on October 25 "HT in/and Media," has done a great analysis at a conference I went to at Ohio State University. She will be talking about that on the panel, so I wanted the audience to see the whole film. The other one I saw when I was in Brazil this summer, and I had thought that there was not enough coverage of trafficking in South America. Also, it shows how a soul of a person who is a survivor of trafficking is killed by the experience without being murdered physically.
  3.    How did you choose the panelists?
Well, I have answered my choice of Professor Hashmanova's selection. I met an undercover detective about 6 months ago, invited him to one of my classes, and I thought that he could address the issues of media's impact on trafficking, especially regarding the Super Bowl. The journalist from UK will add an international dimension to the program and will be able to talk about the (non) coverage of trafficking in human being in Europe.

4.    The panel is titled, “Human Trafficking and Media.” What role does media play in human trafficking?

Media plays a role of a double edge sword as it were - it focuses too much on Sex Trafficking - as it is a "sexy" topic, but it will not touch much of the other issues which are more controversial - labor trafficking as it conflicts with our policy on immigration, and it hardly ever touches on the issue of organ trafficking.

5.    What do you hope people take away from the program?

I am always interested in make people aware of the problem - a problem that exists also in the USA, in Indiana, and in Bloomington. Hopefully people will think about this more and make choices - looking at labels, educating others, and simply being aware.

The Human Trafficking Series takes place at IU Cinema and the IMU: 

Lilya 4 Ever: Tuesday, October 23, IU Cinema, 7:00 PM
"Human Trafficking and Media" Panel Discussion: Thursday, October 25, Maple Room IMU, 5:30 PM
Anjos do Soul (Angels of the Sun): Sunday, October 28, IU Cinema, 6:30 PM

Amber Hendricks
Themester 2012 intern

October 19, 2012

Richard III Q&A with Penelope Anderson

Photos from IU Theatre & Drama's Richard III
This semester, Professor Penelope Anderson teaches a Themester course called "Heroes and Villains in the Early Plays of Shakespeare." Her class studies the play Richard III, which will be performed by IU Theatre October 19-27. Here, she talks about the play and Richard as a character. 

1.  How is this play related to the theme of good and bad behavior?

The play Richard III covers a fairly appalling series of events, with so many murders that any attempt to summarize the plot turns into a funeral litany.  At the same time, it has its source in historical facts, albeit colorfully embroidered ones, including a highly compressed time scheme that contributes to a sense of giddy disorientation.  The factual basis makes it hard to dismiss out-of-hand; it demands that we do the difficult work of making sense of actions that seem outside the realm of normal human behavior.

2.  Does Richard III have any redeeming characteristics?

He is extraordinarily charismatic and eloquent; in fact, there are groups devoted to rescuing the historical reputation of King Richard III.  Those who want to redeem him often consider Shakespeare’s version a smear campaign, but Shakespeare’s Richard is lively and compelling:  you want to listen to him speak, and his schemes carry the audience along just as much as they do the characters onstage.  Interestingly, unlike many characters we would class as villains, he does not lack empathy – his ability to persuade by playing on other characters’ foibles shows us that he can think himself into their places – but he does present himself as having the worst of all possible lots in life.  Given his status, this has more than a bit of absurdity about it; it also limits his suasive force with those (like ordinary citizens, women, and children) who enjoy far lesser status.


3.  What's the most challenging aspect of teaching this play or any play in which the main character is a villain?

The challenge is less about understanding the central villain, especially when he is as compelling as Richard, than it is about making sense of the people around him who seem willfully obtuse or incapable of stopping him.  When a villain dominates a play, the audience finds a moral locus elsewhere, in another character or characters who seem closer to the audience’s own values.  It becomes enormously frustrating to watch our substitutes, who seem to be moral characters, refuse to see or fail to act.  The challenge of teaching such works lies both in honoring this impulse – because it is infuriating! – and getting beyond it, to a more productive conversation about the factors that limit our perceptions and choices.

4.  Your class this semester is called "Heroes and Villains in the Early Plays of Shakespeare." Which do you find more enjoyable to examine: the villains or the heroes?  What is the value in studying such a reprehensible character as Richard III?

My preference is always for a mix of the two:  I’m interested in the messy, flawed, complicated muddles to which we cannot find an immediate answer.  The most dangerous thing, I think, is when we feel ourselves to be unimplicated by what we read, when it seems either so virtuous or so evil that we consider it completely cut off from our ordinary experiences.  Good literature heightens events, of course:  it delineates moral character and ethical dilemmas with a sharper outline than we usually see.  But it still makes those quandaries recognizable to us, as versions of people we might know or choices we might face.  By sharpening our skills of perception and analysis on characters like Richard III, we become more aware of finer shades of meaning in all kinds of moral behaviors – even if Richard’s scheme to kill almost all his family to secure the throne is far away from our own concerns.

For more information on the performances of Richard III, visit http://www.indiana.edu/~thtr/productions/2012/richardiii.shtml

Rebecca Kimberly
Themester 2012 Intern

October 15, 2012

Sandra Chapman: Q&A with John Stanfield

Sandra Chapman, author of The Girl in the Yellow Scarf, will be speaking on October 17 at 6 p.m. about her book. Here, Professor John H. Stanfield II, who helped organize the discussion, talks about her upcoming visit.

1. What inspired you to bring Sandra Chapman to campus?

My arrival in Indiana [in 2002] coincided with the case and the hyper high-profile attention being paid to Martinsville in the media. I remember being struck by media reports that the Martinsville civic leadership was relieved that the alleged killer, turned in by his daughter, was not a local resident. Given my interest in restorative justice as healing methods in racially troubled communities, the case was somewhere in my mind when a local radio personality in Bloomington asked to interview me about race relations soon after the 2002 fall term began. While we were waiting for the show to begin, I asked the radio guy where he was from, and he said Martinsville and then as he turned red as a beet said "things are changing there, I can get you in touch with some of the community's civil rights leaders." He did just that, and I spent a year conducting behind-the-scenes focus group meetings with key Martinsville civic leaders about the history of their community and what could be done to develop a much more open community culture. I published one article on these group conversations.

2. What are some of the major moral issues that are raised by Chapman’s book?

How "bad things" parents do to their young children who they assume are not looking, hearing, or seeing can have a negative bearing on their lives as they grow up; the horrible struggle it often is to do the right thing, especially when it comes to the harmful behaviors of parents and other immediate family members; the moral responsibilities and dilemmas of therapists, investigation journalists, and law enforcement officials and systems, especially when it comes to a cold murder case involving a representative of a population usually ignored, marginalized, and even dehumanized; how solving this cold murder case provided space for Martinsville civic leadership reflection on what kind of community they wanted to be.

3. What was the impact of Shirley McQueen’s decision to bring her father to justice?

This is an interesting question since it depends on who you are referring to: impact on Shirley McQueen, impact on her father, impact on her family, impact on Martinsville, impact on media and law enforcement systems, impact on the journalist and on the law enforcement officials, the court judges, and the general public. Even though all of these different impacts are important to consider and to embrace, I think the major one of concern for this presentation is the impact on the public with the question of how can we create and sustain public times and spaces so we can in Indiana begin to have "conversations to do something about this" regarding this and other cold cases involving issues such as unresolved homicide and lynching cases, and sundown towns involving non-whites and other dehumanized populations (there is a long unresolved Indiana eugenetic history of at least one exterminated population in the late 19th century and early 20th century).

4. Why do you think the Carol Jenkins case came to national attention when McQueen came forward?

This case broke during a very interesting and critically important media trend in the United States in bringing attention to untold community and individual horrors African Americans have experienced not only during the 400 years era of slavery but during the post-Civil War Jim Crow years (1890s-1960s) which involved lynchings, pograms ( the burning out of African American neighborhoods such as Tulsa and Rosewood), race riots ( e.g. East St. Louis, Elaine, Watts), church bombings ( Birmingham), civil rights leader killings ( e.g. Medgar Evers), and attempts to bring closure in public realms to such tragic incidents through bringing victimizers to justice as we move from a Cold War to a Post-Cold War society and world--the former tolerating if not suppporting racial dehumanization as a matter of course and tradition where diversity and inclusion are at best viewed as forbidden acts and the latter becoming a time period in which diversity and inclusion are imperatives for being effective and successful upwardly mobile 21st century citizens in our globalized American society and world.

5. What do you hope for audience members to get from the discussion with the author?

Since the audience are mostly students, I would hope that they will come to realize that this is not an isolated case in the past which can now be tucked away and move on as if we do not have a moral responsibility as citizens to make sure that be it on campus, in our off campus communities, and in our future workplaces and families we need to stand up and be counted on the right side rather than to be indifferent or scared of the wrong side. It is a matter of learning how to live justice-oriented lives, since it is the only way where ever we lay our hat or live our lives, we have a moral obligation to others as well as to our own mental, physical, and spiritual well being to make sure everyone is treated right as a human being and when they are not, there is no money, job, or any thing else great enough to lead us to be silent while others suffer or have suffered.

For more information on this event, visit http://themester.indiana.edu/events/chapman.shtml.

Rebecca Kimberly
Themester 2012 Intern

October 11, 2012

Mean Girls: Q&A with Colin Johnson

Dr. Colin Johnson, an assistant professor of Gender Studies, is teaching a Themester course this semester called "Mean Girls: Feminism and Female Misbehavior." The film Mean Girls will be showing at the IU Cinema as a part of Themester on Tuesday, Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. Here, Professor Johnson talks about the film and some of the issues raised in it.

1. How do you use the film Mean Girls in your class?

The film screening is situated right in between a discussion of Rachel Simmons’ best-selling book, Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls (originally published in 2003, revised and updated in 2011) and historian Mary Beth Norton’s In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 (2002), which seemed like an appropriate thing to be reading and discussing in the weeks just before Halloween.  
Mark Waters’ 2004 film provides an interesting bridge between these two texts in the sense that Simmons’ book explores precisely the sort of social dynamics that play out in the film, albeit with a much greater sense of seriousness and urgency.  At the same time, Mean Girls is also a story about how the actions of a few people can throw an entire community into a state of chaos and disorder, which is clearly part of what happened in Salem Village during the late seventeenth century.  That the film provides a little comic relief in between discussions of two books that provide remarkably little opportunity for laughter is an added benefit, particularly to the extent that will allow us to think a bit about comedy and satire as a mode of critique.
2. Is the bad behavior in this film exaggerated or accurate?

To hear Rachel Simmons tell it, the film’s depiction of what is described by one character in the film as “girl on girl crime” may actually be significantly underplayed relative to what happens in the typical American high school.  Or, at the very least, most of what makes it into the film comes off seeming pretty goofy and absurd, whereas much of the cruelty that adolescent girls actually experience and mete out to one another seems terribly, terribly meaningful and real. 

That doesn’t mean that such cruelty always makes sense, however.  Indeed, one of the major differences between the variety of meanness depicted in the film and the variety of meanness that adolescent girls report experiencing is that the meanness in the film is clearly motivated by some kind of transparent logic—say, a desire to secure a position of dominance within a social hierarchy.  By contrast, many adolescent girls report that the meanness and cruelty they experience in the real world seems arbitrary, capricious and completely unmotivated by any discernible logic whatsoever—which is precisely what makes it so disabling to many young women and so difficult to address as a behavioral issue.

3. What is the role of feminism in this film?

Feminism actually isn’t very present in the film as an explicit theme or plot device.  In other words, feminism as such isn’t explicitly presented as a resource that characters in the film turn to in an effort to make sense of their experiences or their world.  But this is hardly surprising in a film that deals with the American high school experience.  After all, and as numerous feminist critics have noted, young women in the United States seem to have become very reluctant to identify as feminists, partly because many of them are under the mistaken impression that they live a world where sexism no longer exists.  

Plus, Mean Girls is a comedy, which means that the film sort of depends upon the absurdity of its characters, their motivations, and their approaches to resolving conflict.  In such a context, it’s not entirely clear where an explicitly feminist character would fit in as anything other than caricature or a joke.  So maybe it’s all for the best that the most discernibly feminist character in the film isn’t a high school student but one of the teachers, Ms. Norbury, played by actor and screenwriter Tina Fey.  This is not to say that the film is without what I would characterize as feminist investments, however.  In fact, Mean Girls goes out of its way to make visible and then mock some of the more disabling aspects of what Rosalind Wiseman refers to “girl world.”  For example, the film obviously critiques the excessive importance that adolescents and non-adolescents alike tend to attribute to physical appearance and brand-name things by depicting such obsessions as superficial, damaging, and sort of grotesque.  It is also addresses some of the alarmingly real ways in which young women have been known to undermine themselves in the service of “fitting in,” like actively minimizing their own intelligence and accomplishments in an effort to ingratiate themselves to young men.  

The film does have a tendency to depict meanness as something like a naturally occurring phenomenon among girls and women (just think of the lunchroom scene in which Cady imagines all the girls to be wild animals), and that is unfortunate since this age-old truism helps to obscure the fact that it is often men who benefit most as a group when women tear each other apart.  As such, men have historically had a real investment in leading women to believe that they are somehow obligated or destined to dislike one another, a point that Virginia Woolf makes very powerfully in A Room of One’s Own.  But again, I’m not sure how a film like Mean Girls could have incorporated this very serious feminist critique without coming across as too heavy-handed. 
4. Does mean-girl bad behavior disappear after high school?  How is the film relevant for college students?

It would be nice to think that such behavior disappears after high school, but I’m not sure that it always does.  Sometimes it merely changes form.  For example, there is quite a bit of evidence to suggest that women are much harder on other women in the workplace than they are on men.  Some of this is just garden variety sexism; remember, there’s no rule that says that women can’t be sexist toward other women in much the same that men sometimes are.  But from my perspective the more disturbing version of this might be double standards or forms of punishment meted out to women by senior female colleagues in the name of “toughening them up” so that they will able to survive in a sexist workplace and a sexist world.  While I understand the logic behind this kind of behavior, and while I’m certainly in no position to question the authenticity of the life experiences that often appear to give rise to it, I have to believe that there are better, more constructive ways to aid and support young women.  

As for the question of whether the film is relevant for college students, I would have to say that answer is decidedly “yes.”  Indeed, one of the things that I have most struck by in my discussions with students in the class is how little difference many of them report seeing between high school and college where social dynamics are concerned.  To be sure, colleges and universities are much larger ponds than most high schools.  And ultimately I know for a fact that women who attend college change a great deal during their time as undergraduates, usually in very empowering ways.  But there’s obviously also a lot of carryover from high school, particularly during students’ first year in college when many of them are struggling to find their place in a new social landscape.  

I also think the line between high school and college has gotten rather blurry over the past several decades as the cultural definition of “young adulthood” has expanded from being a few years during one’s late teens to period that is often described these days as ranging from age 13 to age 30.  Which isn’t to say that I think college students are necessarily less socially mature than they used to be, just more consistent.

Rebecca Kimberly
Themester 2012 Intern

October 5, 2012

Making Ethical Decisions During War Q&A

Osgood's interview with Toan in Vietnam, June 2010. Photo provided by Osgood.
Ron Osgood, a Professor from the Telecommunications Department, has invited Nguyen Duc Toan to speak about maintaining a moral code in the military. Here Osgood shares a little more about the speaker and how they met.

1. When did you first meet Nguyen Duc Toan? How did you learn his story?

In 2009 I began research for my current documentary project "The Vietnam War/American War: Stories from All Sides." Through a series of conversations with veterans I was introduced to an American Army veteran living in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Doug Reese knew Toan and helped me make contact for an interview. During a trip to Vietnam in June 2010, I traveled to the small village where Toan lives for the interview.

2. What inspired you to bring Nguyen Duc Toan to campus?

Toan and I have kept in contact via email and through translation by his daughter Hai. He has always expressed an interest in telling more of his story and his desire to travel to America. In January 2012, during another trip, I visited Toan, and we discussed how I might help him in coming to the states. Toan is a gentleman and someone who did the right thing while in battle.

3. Do you know why Toan saved Kientzler’s life instead of taking it? Could you comment on that?

I think I answered this above, but I'll add that Toan is an honorable person and did what he knew was morally right.

4. What are some of the ways military duty and moral duty conflict? Is it possible for them to overlap?

This is a tough question to answer in a few sentences and would make for a great question at the presentation. Toan is a good example of overlapping moral and military duty. The question I always ask is - if you saw an enemy pilot parachuting near you after he had been responsible for bombing or firing rockets at you, what would you do?

For more information about this event, refer to http://themester.indiana.edu/events/toan.shtml.

Amber Hendricks

Themester 2012 intern

October 3, 2012

Moral Machines: Q&A with Colin Allen

Dr. Colin Allen, Provost Professor of Cognitive Science and History & Philosophy of Science and Director of the Indiana University Cognitive Science Program, will lecture on "Moral Machines" on Sunday, October 7. Here, he discusses some of the ideas surrounding machines and morality.

1. What kind of morality do we attribute to machines – if any? If there isn’t now, will there ever be?
Gort Robot Model 
courtesy of ‘Mr. T in DC’

The "we" in the question is rather broad -- I think there are many people who think that the whole idea of attributing any kind of morality to artificial machines is ludicrous. 

I have argued, however, that we can think of three levels of moral capacity that might be applied to machines. The first and lowest level is "operational" morality, which really means nothing more than that the machines we build embody the moral outlook of the people who designed and deployed them. For example, software already exists that offers advice to hospital administrators and physicians on which patients should receive scarce medical resources; insofar as this software takes some factors into account (e.g., factors predicting likelihood of survival) but not others (e.g. number of dependent children) then it embodies moral assumptions about the importance or unimportance of those factors for making morally responsible decisions about health care. 

The highest level is full human-equivalent moral capacity, and this is a holy grail of artificial intelligence research. I tend to think that this is achievable in the long run, but currently that is so far away that it's in the realm of science fiction. However, in between these two there's an intermediate level that I call "functional morality" in which the system is designed to evaluate actions according to their moral consequences. There are currently a few prototypes for such systems, but nothing in production. However, there are applications being developed for medical care and supervision of elderly patients and in military robotics where systems might be required to evaluate conformity with the Geneva conventions and legal aspects pertaining to combat operations. Will such systems ever be deployed?  I tend to think that functional morality for eldercare systems is more likely than functional morality in systems designed for robotic warfare, but I would not want to bet a lot of money on that.

2. What interests you about morality and the relationship between humans and machines?

Morality is one of those things that people have held up as distinguishing us from other animals. That premise is obvious to some and doubtful to others, but the point is that there's a lot of of interest in just what morality is and how we come to display it because it seems so central to human nature. Some people like to point out that humans are more immoral than moral, that only reinforces the point; to be capable of acting immorally one has to be also capable of acting morally.  We don't think of the shark that attacks a surfer as acting either morally or immorally -- it is amoral. But immoral actions by humans only deserve that label because of the capacity for morality.

Machines add an interesting twist into the fundamentally philosophical question of who and what we are. The challenge of creating artificial moral agents is ultimately about understanding what makes us human.  And whether the project of creating artificial morality succeeds, or whether it fails, it is potentially instructive about the cognitive and emotional processes that drive our own moral behavior.

3. Can machines ever exhibit “better” behavior than humans?

Machines are in principle less distractable, less susceptible to emotion-driven loss of control, and more capable of carrying out longer chains of reasoning or calculation than humans. I think that for these kinds of reasons, machines could do better than humans at foreseeing bad consequences of certain actions, and thus avoiding them.  In these cases, they would exhibit "better" behavior. However, there's more to morality than this, and the machines we have currently lack the kind of powerful perceptual systems and complex pattern recognition of humans, and because they lack proper emotions, they lack the good side of emotional attachment as much as they lack the bad side that can lead to atrocious behavior. Some scientists have argued that since emotions are a net negative influence on our moral behavior, machines will be better than humans (at least in high-stress situations such as battlefields) because they won't be subject to those negative influences.  However, I think that it's far from obvious that emotions are a net negative for morality, and so until we have more convincing models of how emotion and cognition interact in moral behavior it's hard to say whether machines can ever exhibit better all round behavior than humans.  I've already said that I think it can be done, but we are a long way from accomplishing this. In the mean time, that doesn't mean we can't be working on making machines exhibit better behavior than they presently do -- continuing to press into the realm of functional morality, in other words.

The replicant Roy from Blade Runner
4. Originally Themester planned to show Blade Runner (but couldn’t for legal reasons). Are we grappling with any of the moral issues in that film today? Will we ever?

The level of technology in Blade Runner is way beyond anything we currently have so I don't think we are grappling in a serious way with those moral issues at the moment (although science fiction writers and certain philosophers will continue to do so in a speculative way).  I think that perhaps there is too much attention on the far future technologies, however.  It distracts us from seriously considering the moral limitations of the semi-autonomous and autonomous machines that we are increasingly putting into service -- everything from call-answering systems to driverless cars.

5. What is your favorite fictional machine and why?

My favorite is Marvin the Paranoid Android from Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  I primarily like him, because he's funny: ‘"Reverse primary thrust, Marvin." That's what they say to me. "Open airlock number 3, Marvin." "Marvin, can you pick up that piece of paper?" Here I am, brain the size of a planet, and they ask me to pick up a piece of paper.’ His resignation to his fate of serving the much less intelligent biological life forms around him, coupled with his self-professed capacity to solve all of the major problems of the Universe "except his own" is a perfect encapsulation of why we build machines -- to serve us and for self-understanding, the latter a task for which there is no guarantee of success.

Marvin the Paranoid Android
6. Included in the description of your talk is the quote by Rosalind Picard of MIT, “The greater the freedom of a machine, the more it will need moral standards.”   What does that mean?
Like it or not, we more and more live among and interact with partially intelligent machines.  In fact, I just got off a phone call in which about half of what I said was said to a machine (and, I'll add, the machine was more accurate in taking down the tracking number that I spoke into the phone than was the person who eventually came on the line, for whom I had to repeat it). 

 Right now, these machines are ethically "blind" -- they don't even gather information that could be relevant to providing an appropriate response -- for instance about the level of urgency involved in tracking my package.  With a human operator one could explain whether the failed delivery was (or was not) causing a lot of unnecessary pain, and the operator could prioritize the request accordingly. The machine currently has no such capacity.  A dumb "operational morality" approach would be to allow people to rank the urgency of the request on a scale of 1 to 7.  But this would be dumb because the kind of information gathering is very limited, the measure is very crude, and it would be entirely up to the programmer to figure out what to do with, e.g., a 7 ranking vs. a 6. 

I think we are going to want to have machines that respond more flexibly to our needs by interacting with us and assessing the cues we provide in a more natural way than simply asking for a numerical ratings. And because these machines are operating in more and more open environments and have more and more options to select among (this is what Picard means by the freedom of the machine), the more they will need to have the real-time capacity to weigh various pieces of morally relevant information and act accordingly, rather than following some simple rule in which the programmer has tried to anticipate all the situations the machine will encounter.

For more information on Dr. Allen's talk, refer to http://saiu.org/2012/09/07/moral-machines-a-talk-by-colin-allen/.

Rebecca Kimberly
Themester 2012 Intern

October 2, 2012

Chaz Bono: Q&A with Martin Weinberg and Jennifer Bass

Professor Martin Weinberg of the Department of Sociology and Jennifer Bass, the Communications Director for the Kinsey Institute, worked to bring Chaz Bono to campus. Bono will speak at IU Auditorium on Wednesday, October 4 at 8:00 pm. Here they discuss the relevance of the lecture and what it should teach its audience members.

1. How does Chaz Bono's talk relate to good and bad behavior?

WEINBERG: We see hateful folk who BEHAVE BADLY—who seek to humiliate sexual and gender minorities, physically harm them—even kill them. (And this is the tragic story portrayed in the film, “Boys Don’t Cry,” to be shown at the IU Cinema on Oct. 15.) We also see the GOOD BEHAVIOR of those who support these minorities in their quest for acceptance. As to the “in general” part of your question, the same is true regardless of what minority is being considered—not just sex and gender minorities. When people are just being the people they are and not victimizing others, why should they be victimized?

BASS: This is not just about the behavior of one person who transitions from female to male, but about how society reacts to this personal decision. People who are transgendered suffer from discrimination, physical and sexual abuse; in this case, we are interested in the behavior of those who are not transgendered, and why trans individuals are targets of these negative behaviors.

2. Why was Chaz Bono chosen to address this subject matter? Was anyone else considered?

WEINBERG: Chaz was my first and only thought as a person to bring to IU. When it was announced that he would appear on Dancing with the Stars, all kinds of threats were being directed toward him (including death threats) as well as the TV network! I thought: wow, this is a natural for Themester!

BASS: As a public person, and a celebrity, Chaz can attract an audience who otherwise might shy away from discussions on gender identity and transgender issues. Though he is just one person, we hope that Chaz’s story will interest a wide range of students, who otherwise would not be tempted to come out for a lecture by an LGBT activist. Chaz Bono has become a very prominent spokesperson for transgender rights.

3. What do you hope audience members will learn from the discussion with Chaz Bono?

WEINBERG: I hope they will feel enriched by his story. I hope it resonates with them. I hope it gets them to understand that people who are different from those in modal groups can still be good people. And, finally, I hope it motivates them to support the cause of groups who are so “counted out.”

BASS: We hope that Chaz’s lecture will spark discussion on issues of gender identity, and understanding and compassion for those who struggle with feelings of being disconnected from their biological bodies.

Amber Hendricks
Themester 2012 intern