Part I: The Critical Study of Ethics in Mathematics

By Michael Pearson, Executive Director of the Mathematical Association of America

Most of us like to think of ourselves as ethical individuals, and in my experience and opinion, the mathematical sciences community as a whole manages quite well in this regard. But I’d also say that mostly, the practice of mathematics in and of itself has been viewed historically as rather far-removed from basic questions of good and evil.

That’s not to say that our discipline ignores the requirement of ethical practice. The AMS has a Policy Statement on Ethical Guidelines, for example. But this statement still focuses on professional practice, and at least implicitly seems to assume that doing mathematics, in and of itself, is a good thing (or at least value-neutral).

In the summer 1990 issue of the Mathematical Intelligencer, Reuben Hersh contributed an article entitled “Mathematics and Ethics,” in which he writes:

In pure mathematics, when restricted just to research and not considering the rest of our professional life, the ethical component is very small. Not zero, but so small it's hard to take very seriously. In fact, this may be a characteristic, a defining characteristic of pure mathematics. I can't think of any other field of which you could say that. That's why people say pure mathematicians live in an ivory tower.

He goes on to conclude:

If our research work is almost devoid of ethical content, then it becomes all the more essential to heed our general ethical obligation as citizens, teachers and colleagues. Lest the temptation of the ivory tower rob us of our human nature.

In a letter in a subsequent issue, the Australian philosopher and mathematician James Franklin responded:

Mathematical research occupies the lives of a large proportion of the world's best thinkers, who could have been doing some very useful things otherwise. Either the theorems they discover have an intrinsic value comparable to medical discoveries, say, or inventions in telecommunications, or they don't. If not, it must be ethically unjustified for mathematicians to spend their lives finding them, and positively criminal to corrupt the youth by attracting them into the discipline. If theorems do have value in themselves, it would be good to say so and stop selling the subject to the public on such predominantly utilitarian grounds.

I’d certainly think that mathematics is relevant enough to the human condition to have ethical implications. And I think that recent advances in technology that are based largely on mathematical constructs -- e.g., machine learning/artificial intelligence, blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies -- suggest exactly that. Books such as Kathy O’Neil’s “Weapons of Math Destruction,” in fact, make it painfully obvious that the choices made in how mathematics is used can have powerful negative consequences.

A recent article in SIAM News, Mathematicians and Ethical Engagement, frames the discussion of our ethical responsibility more directly. The authors observe that:

One always performs mathematics in a social and political context, never in value-free isolation. Thus, all mathematicians must think about their individual responsibilities, as ethical issues may emerge at any time.

The article goes on to discuss the role of ethics in preparing students for careers, our responsibility to “call out” mathematics that is used in unethical ways (e.g., exploiting financial systems in ways that increase inequality), and the critical need to participate in efforts to inform decisions by public officials who can benefit from guidance from technical experts.

As MAA’s new vision statement asserts, we work towards a “society that values the power and beauty of mathematics and fully realizes its potential to promote human flourishing.” That’s certainly a call for all of us to work in an ethical way.