Cambridge University Ethics in Mathematics Project


Ethics in Mathematics Discussion Papers

ISSN 2632-4245

Ethics in Mathematics Discussion Papers is part of the Cambridge University Ethics in Mathematics Project. The scope of these discussion papers is to stimulate informed discussion around ethical issues in mathematics, the teaching of ethics to mathematicians, and a corpus of case studies. Our goal is not general ethical or philosophical discussions (that all people should engage in) but those specifically faced by mathematicians as part of their professional working lives in academe and in industry. What we will host in these Discussion Papers are the sort of discussions that would be difficult to find a home in the current journal literature. All discussion papers are subject to internal peer review.

To submit a discussion paper, or to contact the editorial board, please email us. To see our policies regarding discussion papers, please see here.

Editorial Board

The current editors are Maurice Chiodo, and Dennis Müller. The founding editors were Maurice Chiodo, Piers Bursill-Hall, and Dennis Müller.


DP 1/2019
M. Chiodo, R. Vyas
The role of ethics in a mathematical education

Ethical considerations become evident and essential in a discipline the moment it (that is to say, its practitioners) begin to have a measurable impact on the world and the way it is shaped. Mathematics, in the manner in which it is taught and practised, has traditionally maintained a distance from real world considerations due to the sheer abstraction of its subject matter. However, the majority of students who study mathematics as undergraduates do not continue in academia, but instead move into other industries. In the early 21st century it is surely a commonplace that mathematics and mathematicians play a fundamental role in the economy and in society, impacting sectors ranging from engineering and biotechnology to finance, information technology, data science, and public policy. Thus, it is important for them to have an understanding the ethical issues they may face as part of their work.


DP 1/2018
M. Chiodo, P. Bursill-Hall
Four Levels of Ethical Engagement

In this discussion document we take as given that there exist ethical issues in mathematics, and that all mathematicians need to be aware of their particular professional social and ethical responsibilities. This view is not widely shared amongst professional mathematicians, however. We observe that ethical awareness and responses amongst mathematicians are complicated and not binary on-off: both the sensitivity to issues and the kinds of responses they engender are highly variable. We categorise these with four different levels or kinds of ethical engagement, and attempt a description of the characteristics of each; this is a prolegomena to a discussion as to why mathematicians have the social and ethical behaviour that we observe.

DP 2/2018
D. Müller
Is there Ethics in Pure Mathematics?

After a look at some historical aspects of mathematics and a short detour to recent developments in economic sociology, we proceed to the question of ethics in pure mathematics. The German historian Wehler described constitutions as the bible of the democratic movements of modernity, a time when juridical declarations dominated international communication. This style of communication has changed since 1945 when international institutions increasingly began to communicate using numbers. The analysis of these societal shifts will naturally lead us to considerations on the quasi-theological standing of numbers, and to the role that various distinct definitions of pure mathematics play. Using Beckert’s concept of imagined futures, we will outline how the relationship between pure mathematics and society could be studied.

By considering different definitions of pure mathematics, the question of ethics will be put into a broader context. We show that the issue of ethics in pure mathematics can be seen as a symbol of the tensions arising from secularisation, and through this, the need for (and the existence of) ethics within pure mathematics will be established.

DP 3/2018
M. Chiodo, L. Gordon
How the UK and France are dealing with the AI revolution

In this paper we look at two parliamentary reports, by the UK and France, on artificial intelligence. The first, titled “Algorithms in Decision-Making,” is a report by the Science and Technology Committee ordered by the House of Commons in the UK (Lamb, et al., 2018). The second, “For a Meaningful Artificial Intelligence,” (Villani, et al., 2018) is a report by a team assembled by Fields Medallist and Member of the French Parliament Cédric Villani, under the instruction of the French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe.

Both reports were published in 2018, and offer insight into how the United Kingdom and France are thinking about and dealing with the growth and impact of Artificial Intelligence in society. We compare and contrast these two reports, investigating how each addresses common points, and identifying points that are addressed in one report but not the other. We then give our own analysis and commentary, from the point of view of our work on ethics in mathematics, on issues addressed in and arising from these two reports.

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