Outgoing Postdoc Spotlight: Todd Karhu

Growing up in California, Todd Karhu wanted to be a writer. At least, that’s what he thought. But when he was an undergrad at the University College Maastricht in the Netherlands and began studying English and literature, he realized writing was less enjoyable than he’d expected. What came much more naturally? Philosophy.

“[Before college,] I didn’t even know what philosophy was, really, except some vague thing about esoteric people trying to answer ‘What is the meaning of life?’-type questions,” says Karhu, now an Interdisciplinary Ethics Fellow at the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society. Like many students from the United States, he’d never really been exposed to philosophy courses in high school. But doing his undergraduate schoolwork in Europe surrounded by peers who were more familiar with the discipline, he soon realized that philosophy was much bigger and more exciting than just those existential questions — and it could be a viable professional pursuit.

One of Karhu’s initial philosophical focuses emerged from a long-held fear. “I remember thinking about death all the time and it really terrified me from a young age,” he shares. He began exploring whether he could find a philosophy that would help him feel more okay with dying. “Which I didn’t, really,” he says. But Karhu found the puzzles and readings so intriguing; death became, if not less terrifying, at least more expansive and interesting.

Armed with a PhD in philosophy from the London School of Economics, Karhu came to Stanford in 2019 to study questions one could argue are still a bit death-adjacent (or, at least, related to harm or loss): the ethics of autonomous systems, as well as the ethics of compensation and law. For example, who pays up if someone dies in an autonomous vehicle accident? What should count as harm in our incredibly technologized society? How do we grapple with the increasing prevalence of AI in the political domain? To what extent can we apply moral theories to situations that include technology that didn’t exist at all when those theories themselves were developed?

Karhu’s position is in partnership with the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. He has had the opportunity to dive into new ideas not only with fellow philosophers but also computer scientists, engineers and policymakers. The robust community of thinkers made a positive impact on his thinking and work — which he had plenty of freedom to pursue independently, as well. “What I’ve found,” Karhu says, “is that maybe we need to rethink some moral theories in light of emerging technologies more than I would have expected.”

Another highlight of his time at Stanford, he says, has been teaching. “The students are excellent. I’ve enjoyed that a lot and have learned so much from it,” Karhu says. His students seem to reciprocate; his sections of Contemporary Moral Problems earned the highest evaluation scores for a philosophy class two years running.

What is more, Karhu’s time at Stanford has served him well, bringing him full circle. He’ll be returning to the UK, this time not as a student but as a teacher himself, with a lecturer appointment (US equivalent: assistant professor) at The Dickson Poon School of Law, King's College London. He says he feels lucky that he can do philosophy and get paid. But if it hadn’t worked out for him to switch majors back in undergrad, Karhu thinks he’d still be reading a lot of philosophy. “It’s something I still feel hooked on after all these years…doing anything else, that’s difficult for me to imagine.”