For a junior scholar, having the freedom to explore and go deep on intellectual curiosity is a precious commodity. Fay Niker found this environment at the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, where she is concluding a two-year postdoctoral fellowship.
Towards the end of the first year of her fellowship, Niker received an offer to join the University of Stirling as an assistant professor of philosophy. Happily, all parties saw the benefit of her completing her fellowship before joining as faculty, given the many strengths of the program.
For Niker, this was primarily the fact that postdocs are given the time and resources to establish themselves as academics. Fellows are allowed the freedom to think about and decide on what the big research questions are that they want to address as a professor, as well as the resources and mentorship needed to propel them forward in their convictions.
“You want to be really clear about what kind of research you want to do, what's really motivating to you, and how you want to set yourself up,” Niker said. “There's something about this place — the interdisciplinarity and the support that you get at the Center — that allowed me to do that in a way that I've really appreciated.”
Its openness to pursuing interdisciplinary research has been refreshing and valuable for Niker, who received an M.Phil. from Oxford University and a Ph.D. from the University of Warwick. "I was doing my doctorate in political theory," Niker said. "But at the same time, and in the service of trying to understand some of my driving questions better, I was working on collaborative projects with philosophers, lawyers, and neuroscientists."
Even before she entered college, Niker knew that she was intrigued by issues at the intersection of philosophy, politics and (cognitive) psychology. It’s no surprise, then, that she focused her research around a concept that combines all three areas of interest: the ethics and political morality of “nudging.”
As Niker has previously explained on The Buzz Blog, nudging is a type of intervention aimed at changing people’s behavior by designing “choice environments” in ways that take account of how our thinking and acting is deeply influenced by situational factors, often without our awareness. Niker’s Ph.D. thesis, Living Well by Design: An Account of Permissible Public Nudging, offered an analysis of the conditions under which governments might permissibly use public policy nudges, and the principles that would need to guide this behavior modification.
This project has led Niker to a set of deeper questions about human nature, agency, and freedom, which she has been exploring during her fellowship. If we understand that people are always embedded and situated within social structures and networks that influence them, as a large body of empirical psychology research suggests, how should we (re)think what it means to be free? And, how might such situated views of agency and freedom affect the political principles concerning the appropriate role of government in influencing citizens’ behavior?
Niker thinks that answering these questions is particularly pressing in an age when we're completely saturated by powerful and ubiquitous technologies that increasingly influence how we see ourselves, how we spend our time, and how we communicate with others.
Ethics in Society postdocs like Niker also gain experience as lecturers, which she says was both critical and rewarding. Back home in the UK, most university classes are filled with students already majoring in the department. But in the Introduction to Global Justice course that Niker has taught at Stanford, she enjoyed the challenge of learning how to engage with students majoring in subjects far afield of political philosophy and ethics.
“So, it's almost a privilege, because this might be the only philosophy class they take,” she said. “You want to get them to think about how important this is, and you want them to leave thinking slightly more philosophically — having the resources to be more ethically sensitive about how they approach computer science, or whatever subject they’re studying.”
In addition, Niker has taken the opportunity to practice teaching philosophy to a general audience through her participation in the Hope House Program, a collaboration between the Center and Stanford Continuing Studies where scholars teach a course in the humanities off campus to women recovering from substance addiction.
Postdocs are also welcome to branch out and start new projects during their two years at the Center. Niker’s growing interest in the ethics of technology has resulted in the AI100-funded Coding Caring Project, which will convene an international group of scholars and practitioners for a two-day conference in late May to define and report on the core ethical and political concerns raised by the increasing use of artificial intelligence technologies in intimate, care settings.
She launched the project with Johannes Himmelreich, a 2017-19 Interdisciplinary Ethics Fellow at the Center who examines the ethics of AI and has split his time between Stanford and Apple University. Their shared interest in tech ethics, as well as in engaging the public, has led to articles such as this conversation about the ethics of autonomous vehicles.
Anne Newman, the Center's research director, says the postdoc program is core to the organization's mission. "The fellowship brings to campus normative scholars who are examining pressing ethical issues across facets of the public and private sphere," Newman said. "The work that they are doing, and the conversations they spark, bring such intellectual excitement and energy to the Center community."