Outgoing Postdoc Spotlight: Linda Eggert

Humans are thought to make approximately 35,000 decisions a day, many of them, of course, unconscious and mundane. Linda Eggert, an Interdisciplinary Ethics Fellow at the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, is obsessed with one of moral, political and legal philosophy’s most important questions regarding decision-making: “What is the right thing to do? What goes into determining the answer to that question?” And from a political philosophy perspective: “What do we owe to each other as citizens, and as human beings?” 

Eggert can’t remember exactly what led to her interest in ethics, but she speculates that growing up in a household with “two completely different cultures — German and Taiwanese — meant I was always aware that there is more than one perspective and different ways of doing things. At the same time, I had very strong convictions that there really were matters of right and wrong.” This sensibility was intensified when she took an undergraduate course on meta ethics, where she studied the nature of morality, whether moral truths existed and investigated how we can determine if something is actually right or wrong.

These fundamental questions have been driving her research ever since. As a doctoral student at Oxford, she examined the ethics of humanitarian intervention, especially the ethics of using military means to protect human rights. More specifically, she considered how, during an intervention that is already underway, you would distribute risks between different kinds of people, for instance, people trying to rescue vulnerable civilians versus those civilians themselves, assuming that intervention could be, in principle, permissible.

As an Ethics Fellow, Eggert has continued to study ethical decision-making — specifically, the ethics of delegating decisions to AI, a project she started during a fellowship with Harvard. She has been writing about “what we, as human persons, owe to one another, given new technological possibilities. What, if anything, might we lose if we delegate moral decisions to algorithms, even if there's some way of knowing that the algorithm would do whatever we think the morally right thing is? Should some decisions be preserved for humans?” Relatedly, she is contemplating how AI systems, such as autonomous weapon systems (“killer robots”) and self-driving cars, “might challenge us to rethink traditional assumptions about moral agency and whether new technologies are generating a need for new human rights.”

Rather than focus solely on abstract questions, Eggert is committed to interdisciplinary ethics, which orients “philosophers towards contributing to the real world.” This has made teaching with and learning from colleagues at Apple University “who work at the intersection of liberal arts and technology” particularly fulfilling.

This fall, Eggert will return to Oxford for a research fellowship with the Faculty of Philosophy and the Institute for Ethics in AI, where she will focus on the ethics of AI in connection to human rights and democracy. Reflecting on her time at Stanford, Linda is grateful to have been inspired by her first supervisor at Oxford, Zofia Stemplowska, who was one of the Center’s first postdoctoral fellows: “One of the really nice things about this fellowship is that it is a community of people from different backgrounds all focusing on ethics in different ways. It’s wonderful to share a space to explore our work together, give each other feedback and collaborate.”