What led you to an interest in ethical behavior and human rights? When did you decide to make this your career, and what path did you take to get to where you are today?
It would be untrue to say that I decided to make this a career. It makes more sense to say that my path led me to this career; rather, the path I ended on led me to it. In terms of ethics and ethical behavior, they always were an interest of mine. I had done some academic work in the area...and one of my early teaching positions was a position in social ethics. It was during my time at what was then the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy, where I ran a national fellowship program, that I began to realize that actually what I was engaged in was working with students to negotiate the ethical issues that surround work, management, and leadership.
In terms of human rights, I had been involved as a concerned person and volunteer since my college days in the late 1970s. This continued during my time in graduate school, but only became part of my professional life when I became involved with the Center on Philanthropy’s project on building civil society in post-communist countries, beginning with work in Croatia.
For a series of reasons, I ended up going to law school in 1998 focusing on human rights law and criminal defense. As part of that work I worked with human rights organizations in Macedonia and Israel. Coming to the Center for Ethics at Emory University basically brought all those experiences together, and I have been engaged in that work here since 2003.
Talk about your work in the Ethics and Servant Leadership Program at Emory--what is the objective of the program, what achievements have you made?
The goal of the Ethics and Servant Leadership Program...basically is to shape and form the next generations of community leaders. My goal is to take students who will be moving forward into their careers and infect them with the virus of community service, with the hope that it takes. The idea is that when they become physicians, business leaders, lawyers, coaches, teachers, artists, automobile mechanics, two things will happen.
First, that they will understand and act on the ethical obligations incumbent upon them in that role. This means that they have to know the ethical obligations, recognize ethically fraught situations, be able to determine the most ethical course of action, and have the courage to act to effect it. Second, the goal is to engage them with idea that they have roles as ethical and engaged citizens of a republic. In those roles they need to play a part in building and improving society, through giving of their time, treasure, and talents.
What does it mean to be a servant leader? How does that differ from the typical leadership we see in the business world today? What will it take for more leaders to become servant leaders?
While servant leadership is multi-faceted, if we are speaking about someone who has positional authority--someone whose role is to be “the boss”--fundamentally it means that one must recognize the point of that role is to effect the mission of the organization, and not be engaged in self-aggrandizement. It is about the mission, not you. The mission, however, can only be effected optimally if the person in positional authority focuses on developing and cultivating the people who work with and for her. This demands attention to, and care for, employees.
Similarly, it moves outward to all stakeholders, requiring one to focus on issues of reputation, obligation, and mutuality. Most individuals on third base did not hit a triple; they got there because of what other people did. Additionally, successful organizations did not become successful on their own; they got their because of various stakeholders, whether customers, suppliers; and, yes, governments that provide the legal basis for their existence; the laws that protect them; and the infrastructure that makes their physical existence possible.
Additionally--and this gets lost in much of the writing about servant leadership in the business context--it not only is about how you do what you do, it also is about what you do. Is the undertaking itself an acceptable undertaking? This is one of the biggest problems created by an over-emphasis on efficiency. Efficiency only examines how well one accomplishes X, not on whether X ought to be accomplished at all. It is the logic of the machine, not human beings.
There are two major challenges to getting more servant leaders. The first is a weakness in human beings ourselves, namely our egos. To be a servant leader, one has to learn to manage one’s ego. The second involves cultural realities. The fact is that the contemporary world rewards the one who is visible, flashy, and self-promoting. This is exacerbated by the increasing loss of a sense of human value that is not monetizable; we measure success not by what who one is, but simply by the size of their bank account.
You are doing some work with AI and ethics; how important is it to get ethics baked into the AI equation as early in the process as possible?
It is of the utmost importance that ethics get involved in AI early and comprehensively. This is the case for several reasons. First, it simply is the case that the complexity and the magnitude of the systems are going to make it difficult to undo errors. Simply think about what happens once your data are released, whether due to misfeasance or malfeasance. Second, unethical AI--and by this I include biased algorithms--can due significant damage to people’s lives, from missing a cancer to determining whether or not you get picked up by police, to if you get out on parole.
What distinguishes errors resulting from unethical AI from human errors is the tendency to see AI as objective and scientific. Additionally, the intellectual property aspect of AI can make it almost impossible for outsiders to access the way it operates in order to determine what may be causing it to make the decisions it did. It violates the fundamental public aspect of ethical decision-making. Can one make the case for why a particular decision is ethically acceptable, given the facts and context?