Alex Steer

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Using linguistics to debate ethics

177 words | ~1 min

It's common, when teaching ethics and policy issues, to take examples from the sciences, especially biology. You probably know the type of question used to spark these debates. Should human cloning be legal? How about GM food production? How much regulation is appropriate for a DNA database?

These questions are relevant and interesting, and provide a good applied basis for developing one's theoretical ethical and political analysis skills. Oddly, though, I've never seen linguistics used as the jumping-off point for such exercises, despite the obvious applicability of case studies like the following:

A university has 25,000 students and provides each of them with an email address, and the university's mailservers store copies of all mail sent and received by students. Should it be legal to make the text of those email messages accessible to:

  1. The university's own researchers?
  2. Researchers from other universities?
  3. Market research companies?

In each case, should the data be anonymised?


Should sentiment analysis software be used to target advertising to individual users of Twitter or Facebook?

# Alex Steer (16/05/2010)