Tom Simpson

Associate Professor of Philosophy and Public Policy

Tom Simpson is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, and a Senior Research Fellow at Wadham College.

He has joined the School from Cambridge, where he was a Research Fellow at Sidney Sussex College, and was also educated (BA, MPhil, PhD).

Between degrees he was an officer with the Royal Marines Commandos for 5 years. He served in Northern Ireland as a Troop Commander with 45 Commando; as aide-de-camp to the senior UK General in Baghdad, Iraq; and as an intelligence and operations officer with HQ 3 Commando Brigade RM when it led the UK Task Force in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. The academic life is undoubtedly a privilege, but he remains conflicted about its sedentary nature.

 

I work on trust, both its theory and practical applications. I also work on questions thrown up by information and computing technologies; on the ethics of war; and especially about the intersection of these. 

Trust

Trust raises important theoretical questions. These include: What is trust? When is trust justified? Under what conditions do we know by trusting others? How should trust be restored when broken? The central thought I am pursuing is that moral commitment is one of the central bases for rational trust. Shared moral norms really are glue that holds society together. 
 
In more detail, I have views on the answers to at least the first two of these questions. It seems to me that the term ‘trust’ permissibly refers to a variety of importantly differently attitudes, and indeed sometimes to actions, but which nonetheless have shared features. A consequence is that the prospects of success for a reductive analysis of trust are slim. It is an interesting question whether there is an explanation for the plurality of forms of trust, and what it is they have (roughly) in common. I give a genealogical explanation and argue the above claims in my (2012a). Further, there is a kind of trust—which I call ‘cognitive trust’—which is justified only if there is evidence for trustworthiness. This opposes the claim that trust is essentially or characteristically a matter of going beyond the evidence (Forthcoming). Reasons for rational trust may derive from a person’s moral character (see 2013). 
 
I am working towards an answer to the third question: if a hearer's rational trust of a speaker suffices for knowledge of her sincerity, this may be a basis for knowledge of her epistemic authority. These jointly suffice for knowledge of what the speaker testifies to. (Early thoughts on the interrelation of practical and epistemic reasons regarding sincerity are in 2012c; also ms. under review).
 

Trust applied

Trust is vital in many areas of life. So a theoretical treatment is preparatory to practical reflection. So far I have applied this work on trust in most detail to the Internet. In my doctoral research I asked whether it is rational to place trust online, and how can the Internet be built to facilitate rational trust and encourage trustworthiness. I concluded that the search for trust online was urgent and important. I examined ways in which rational trust can be achieved, both technological and social. Telepresence and reputation systems are examples of the former. Institutions and regulatory intervention are examples of the latter. See (2011b, 2012b, 2014b, Forthcoming) for some of the so-far published results. 
 
I have worked on parallel questions regarding another vital and contemporary area of life, viz. banking. How can banks and the finance sector be designed, regulated and influenced in such a way as to ensure trustworthiness, and to facilitate rational trust? This work started under a €1m, 5 year project entitled Trusting Banks, funded by the NWO (Dutch Research Council), supporting collaboration between Groningen and Cambridge and led by Prof Boudewijn de Bruin and Prof Alex Oliver. Specifically, I am interested in issues around payment structures and the effects on individual bankers’ motivation.
 
Trust also has application to the philosophy of religion. Trust seems to be characteristic of the life of faith. Further, I see no in principle reason why testimony may not make religious knowledge available. I have initial work developing these claims (2015). 
 

War

My first-hand experience of war has led to an interest in military ethics. So far my published work has addressed ethical questions around the military use of modern technologies – robots as well as non-autonomous platforms operated at a distance (see 2011a, Forthcoming), and cyber-attacks (2014a). See also the Impact tab for accompanying work. I have a larger project developing some non-standard views about the moral value of the warrior ideal, which has implications for the relations between the military, the state and civil society. 
 
My policy-facing work has so far focused on ethical questions raised by new technologies and their use for security.
 

Killer robots & drones

In ongoing work, I am addressing the ethics of lethal autonomous weapons systems, so-called 'killer robots', which is closely related to the ethics of drones. Regarding killer robots, most philosophers who write and activists who campaign on killer robots think they should be banned, because the decision to kill should never be delegated to a machine. I think they're wrong.

On drones, while the technology prompts a variety of questions, the most pressing one is properly general: what should be the institutional structure, if any, within which lethal force may be used defensively against terrorist groups? I have contributed to the UK's Joint Committee on Human Rights (2015-16) inquiry on the use of drones for targeted killings, in joint work with Richard Ekins (Law, Oxford). We argue that a modified version of International Humanitarian Law is most appropriate. 

2016. The law needs to catch up in the fight against ISIS. Op-ed for CapX

2015. Oral evidence to the JCHR. Transcript here. Coverage by BBC R4 here. The JCHR's report is a well-argued piece of work, synthesising some complex legal questions 

2015. Written submission to the JCHR 

This addresses the central ethical and legal questions raised by targeted killings with drones

2015. 'Who is held accountable for civilian killings?' Panellist, Al Jazeera's Inside Story

2015. Leaked drone files reveal ethical questions hang over 'grey area' strikes. Op-ed for The Conversation

2015. Will Killer Robots be the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow? Op-ed for The Telegraph

2015. Just War and Robots' Killings (with Vincent C. Müller). Forthcoming in Philosophical Quarterly

2014. Killer robots: Regulate, don't ban (with Vincent C. Müller). BSG Policy Memo

2014. Killer Robots are Like Drugs: Regulate, but resist the urge to ban. Op-ed for The Conversation

2011. Robots, Trust and WarPhilosophy and Technology 24(3): 325-37

Surveillance

Edward Snowden's revelations have rightly prompted a debate about the legitimate scope of governmental surveillance. The Intelligence and Security Committee of the UK Parliament (ISC) conducted an enquiry into the issue in 2014-15. I contributed to it with a written submission, and gave oral evidence, in collaboration with John Naughton (CRASSH, Cambridge). We think the bulk collection of metadata by the state should stop. I was surprised to come to this conclusion, as soldiering has made natural for me the priority of security.
 
2014. Oral evidence to the ISC. Transcript here; video here
 

This address the central moral and political questions raised by the Snowden revelations

2014. Are we living in an Orwellian State? BSG blog

I have convened the Foundations module for the past three years. This autumn (2016), I am on sabbatical, and the course is being convened by Prof Jo Wolff. 

Foundations is one of the core modules on the Masters in Public Policy (MPP). Its purpose is to introduce students to the fundamental values that both justify and should inform the practice of government; to equip students to identify the moral issues at stake in policy issues; and to help them reason well regarding those issues. See here for more. The module takes place in Michaelmas term.

 

 

Books

I am co-editing a volume of new philosophical essays on trust, with Paul Faulkner (Sheffield). This is in press with Oxford University Press, with expected publication in early 2017.

 

Articles & book chapters

Forthcoming. Telepresence and Trust: A Speech-Act Theory of Mediated Communication. Philosophy and Technology

Forthcoming. Trust and Evidence. In The Philosophy of Trust, ed. P. Faulkner and T. Simpson

2016. _____ and Vincent C. Müller. Just War and Robots' Killings. Philosophical Quarterly 66(263): 302-22

2016. The Morality of Unconventional Force. In Ethics and the Future of Spying: Technology, National Security and Intelligence Collection, ed. J. Galliott and W. Reed, pp. 132-42. London: Routledge 

2015. Testimony in John's Gospel: The Puzzle of 5:31 and 8:14. Tyndale Bulletin 65(1): 101-18

2014b. Computing and the Search for Trust. In Dialogues: Trust, Computing and Society, ed. R. Harper, pp. 95-119. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

2014a. The Wrong in Cyberattacks. In Ethics of Information Warfare, ed. L. Floridi and M. Taddeo, pp. 141-154. London: Springer

2013a. Trustworthiness and Moral Character. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 16(3): 543-57

2012a. What is Trust? Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 93(4): 550-69

2012b. Evaluating Google as an Epistemic Tool. Metaphilosophy 43(4): 426-45. Reprinted in Philosophical Engineering: Toward a Philosophy of the Web, ed. A. Monin and H. Halpin, 97-115. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell (2014)

2012c. Testimony and Sincerity. Ratio 25(1): 79-92

2011a. Robots, Trust and War. Philosophy and Technology 24(3): 325-37

2011b. e-Trust and Reputation. Ethics and Information Technology 13(1): 29-38

 

Book reviews & symposia

2015. Cécile Fabre and Seth Lazar (eds), The Morality of Defensive WarPhilosophical Quarterly 65(260): 590-93

2015. Did Marine A do wrong? On Biggar's Lethal Intentions. Studies in Christian Ethics 28(3): 287-91

2013b. Critical Notice of Benjamin McMyler, Testimony, Trust, & Authority and Paul Faulkner, Knowledge on TrustMind 122(485): 305-11

 

 

Please email me for the published version if required.

 

Rm 3.21,
Blavatnik School of Government,
Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, Walton St
Oxford, OX2 6GG

Email: thomas.simpson at bsg.ox.ac.uk
Tel: 01865 614346

 

BSG's Tom Simpson speaks about the legalities of war in the age of drone strikes
BBC Radio 4 - Friday, 5 February, 2016
Prof Tom Simpson takes part in a panel discussion on the military use of drones.
Al Jazeera - Wednesday, 21 October, 2015
Professor Simpson writes about the significant moral issues behind growing use of drones
The Conversation - Tuesday, 20 October, 2015
Professor Tom Simpson's op-ed about the need to regulate lethal autonomous weapons systems
The Daily Telegraph - Wednesday, 29 July, 2015
Opinion piece by Tom Simpson
The Conversation - Thursday, 13 February, 2014