Ethical issues are at the forefront of experimental humanities.

By Professor Ophelia Deroy

Maja is cruising in a new self-driving car. In the back is her baby son, singing and giggling. An overhead, electric cable has fallen on the side of the road, and the car will connect with it unless it swerves. Surely, one would hope that the car will swerve and that it should. But what if swerving means it will hit three pedestrians walking on the side of the road? What should the car be programmed to do? Save the three on the pavement from harm at the cost of the two inside?

Questions about whether it is ever right to sacrifice one person’s safety to ensure the safety of a greater number remain at the core of Ethical Humanities. They also challenge us to go beyond our own powers of reflection. Psychology and neurosciences have shown, for instance, that thinking about moral problems for ourselves is different from thinking about the same problems for others, or thinking about them in abstract terms. Deciding what to do is not processed in the same way as deciding whether an action is right or wrong. We know there are biases, starting from a very general tendency to attribute more blame to someone’s harmful actions, rather than to their equally harmful inactions. Most of these findings would not be there without developing research and theorising that the humanities have provided.

Influence is bidirectional: experimental sciences don’t just run with the ball passed by the humanists. They are team players. Asking questions about morality, judgement, consequences, including new ones that will affect societies in the future, requires multiple minds, capable of conceptualising the various domains of moral problems and offering different perspectives on the answers given. When asked what the right decision is in the case of Maja’s self-driving car, people from different countries pay more attention to the gender of the pedestrians, or to whether they are jay-walking or not. This is not a small finding: millions of people agreed to contribute their moral wisdom to a large scale experiment, looking not just at Maja’s case, but at a hundred other hypothetical scenarios. Responses converge and diverge, in ways that no one ahead of time could have figured out. But who is right? Should we be asking people to consider that all lives matter equally – accepting therefore that a smaller number of people should be hurt, whatever their gender, age, status or vulnerabilities? Does it depend on the way society works, or do we have higher duties of care for certain individuals? Responses to this online experiment have generated more questions – and those questions need in turn to generate more cautious and refined experiments.

Ethical issues are at the forefront of experimental humanities. With examples like self-driving cars, they support the power of humanities to become predictive, to tell us more of what people will expect, or accept from new technologies. Saying the contribution is predictive does not make it less normative: norms may be changing, or may have to be refined to accommodate new cases, which ethicists did not envisage before. The demands of experimentation go well beyond merely mapping out our ethical landscape. In recent years, it has come to enrich the way we think about aesthetics, emotions, imagination, attention, learning, identity-politics, mental health, climate crisis. The questions we have, as humanities scholars, can be approached in an experimental way through collaborations with researchers from other disciplines, informed by scientific findings. Experiments can take place in digital space, but also in laboratories, museums, in the street, they can be done locally, remotely, globally – what is at the core is the experimental method of contrasting and assessing how various factors affect or influence the phenomenon of interest. It starts with clear hypotheses and definitions of the phenomenon – and to these, humanities can and do matter.  

As a player, and increasingly a coach for early-career researchers in the field of experimental humanities, I come to reflect on why the experimental turn in philosophy, and in the humanities at large, fills me with enthusiasm, and optimism. Humanities draws on and strives for scholarship dedicated to different conceptions of what it means to be human, and to explore how we respond to art, to emotion, to the digital sphere and to others, we can reach for experimental methods to provide deeper insights. Specialisation is at the heart of research, and expertise is necessarily limited, even when it is collaboratively shared. Can we bridge our abstract concerns with experimental techniques? Why not leave experimentation to the scientists, and leave humanists to their qualitative or conceptual methods? My response was always that we want to test our ideas in the real world. Today, I have better arguments. 

By embracing experimentation in the Humanities we free empirical research and computational thinking from being STEM only. The capacity to illuminate human behaviours by drawing on both abstract thinking and flexible models is available to philosophers, literary and cultural experts, historians, and artists. Turning a theory or set of observations into an experiment requires thinking in terms of “variables” – what factors change under different conditions; it also requires us to think in terms of “operations” – what combines and interacts with what at the level of mechanisms. Computational thinking is not just fundamental to computer sciences, maths and physics, it can also inform the humanities. There it requires new intellectual virtues: the modesty to investigate what others think, to ask the public how they feel and relate to problems and objects studied within academic walls; the curiosity to have one’s first thoughts over-turned by surprising findings. It comes with an openness to learn from and with other disciplines, a willingness to adopt other perspectives and to study humans as a whole as part of the complex and evolving natural world.