Associate Professor Seth Lazar

Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Research
22 November 2019

Associate Professor Seth Lazar is one of the most accomplished and most promising mid-career moral and political philosophers in the world.

Seth's work combines the highest standards of scholarship with a commitment to changing the world. He began his career using analytic philosophy to vindicate the protection of civilians in war. In thinking about the 'fog of war', he realised the need for a deep examination of moral decision-making under uncertainty, and has published several influential articles on that topic.

Among his substantial list of achievements, Seth has received prizes for his research from the American Philosophical Association and the Academy of Social Sciences of Australia. He has also received an ARC DECRA and a Discovery Project for him to conduct research on the Ethics of Risk.

Seth is the Project Lead of the $7.5 million Humanising Machine Intelligence Grand Challenge - an interdisciplinary research project drawing on philosophy, psychology, political science and computer science.

Prior to receiving his award at the Vice-Chancellor's Awards, Seth was asked to respond to a series of questions. His responses are below.

Q: Congratulations on being nominated a finalist for the 2019 Vice-Chancellor's Annual Awards. Can you briefly tell us what this honour means to you?
A: I'm deeply grateful to my colleagues for the nomination. They're the people who know me and my work best, and that they think it worth honouring in some way means a huge amount to me. 
Q: Tell us a little about the behind-the-scenes work involved in the project you worked on. What was a challenging aspect of the work? How did you overcome this?
A: Over the ten years since my PhD, I've developed a number of major research projects: on the ethics of war, moral decision-making under risk, and now on the morality, law and politics of data and AI. My war project, based around a DECRA, was basically a solo-project, though since philosophy is always fundamentally dialogical, I spent a lot of time working through it with others both here and overseas (in one year, I gave 23 philosophy talks at departments around the world). My risk project, grounded in a Discovery grant, involved a bigger team of philosophers, and collaboration with Princeton and Berkeley. And my most recent project on AI has involved interdisciplinary collaborations, as well as international ones to multiple continents. Building teams of researchers even within one discipline, and one university, is always challenging. Increase disciplinary and geographic distance, and those challenges magnify. There's been no one solution to navigating these challenges, but one piece of advice which more people need to take to heart is this: wherever possible, talk face to face with folks rather than relying on email, especially when disagreeing... 

Q: Where is your favourite place on campus?
A: I love the tea balcony of the Coombs building, both for its parrots, and because its history of being the place where so many great philosophical ideas were born. 
Q: Why Canberra? Why ANU?
A: The balance between quality of life and quality of research university in this area is, to my mind, unmatched elsewhere in the world. I came here because of the unparalleled opportunities for research at a world-class philosophy department; and over time I've discovered some of our other great areas of strength too. And within the first year or two, I fell in love with the wild natural landscape; it's an idyllic place to raise a family. As a night sky photographer, I'm also constantly grateful for our dark skies (down in Michelago, anyway).
Q: Can you tell us a little about why you are so passionate about what you do?
A: I never do anything by halves (witness my YouTube channel...), so in part it's just not in my nature to do anything that I'm not passionate about. But I love doing philosophy because of how it helps me make sense of my life and others', and for the sense of discovery that it enables, even after millennia of common pursuit. I love working on my current project, because it enables me to combine ground-breaking philosophical research with an ability to make a real positive difference in people's lives.
Q: Is there anyone you would like to recognise for helping you become a finalist for the 2019 Vice-Chancellor's Annual Awards?
A: I owe a tremendous amount to mentors in the philosophy department at ANU, in particular Christian Barry and Alan Hájek, who have been a huge support throughout my career. And everything I do in my professional life is based on the foundation of a personal life where I rely implicitly on my partner, Lu Barnham, who has, especially over the last year as my responsibilities have mounted up, taken the lion's share of the parenting responsibilities for our 2 and 8 year old. I'm excited to pass the head of school mantle onto the next head, and next year spend a bit more time with my family.