Kate Petroff, a Doctoral Student in Philosophy, Earns Freund Prize

Kate Petroff, a Doctoral Student in Philosophy, Earns Freund Prize

Kate Petroff

The following was published on the University of Chicago Law School website on May 16, 2022. 

By Becky Beaupre Gillespie

Spencer Caro, ’23, and Kate Petroff, a UChicago graduate student in philosophy, each have been awarded an Ernst Freund Fellowship in Law and Philosophy to develop novel interdisciplinary research projects. Caro will draw on philosophical ideas from epistemology as well as law and statistics to argue for higher standards for scoring consumers’ creditworthiness. Petroff will advocate for a clearer definition of human exploitation in hopes of closing a gap that has stymied efforts to deal with human trafficking.

The fellowship, designed to encourage advanced law and philosophy scholarship among graduate students, was established in 2016 after Professor Martha C. Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, donated a portion of the proceeds from her Kyoto Prize to the Law School and the University’s Department of Philosophy. The $5,000 award is typically given to either a law student or graduate student in philosophy, but this year the committee chose two recipients.

“We were delighted to have an unprecedented number of proposals, all of high quality, so the selection was difficult,” said Nussbaum, who was part of the selection committee, along with Brian Leiter, the Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence. “Fortunately, an additional gift made it possible for us to give two prizes, and these two really stood out.”

Added Leiter: “It is gratifying that we had so many high quality proposals this year, and I’m grateful to Martha for offering to fund two winners in view of the impressive pool of submissions.”

Spencer Caro: Improving Credit Scoring

Caro plans to apply the concept of pragmatic encroachment to argue for more accurate credit scoring techniques. According to pragmatic encroachment, when the stakes rise, so should the standard for what counts as knowledge. For instance: a person who is simply curious about the doughnut she’s eating might be satisfied to learn that her friend is “pretty sure” about the ingredients. A person with a food allergy, however, might require additional proof—perhaps a confirmation from the baker or a list of printed ingredients. The circumstances have no bearing on the truth—the doughnut contains the same ingredients, regardless of one’s need to know—but the circumstances do affect how much evidence it takes to “know” the answer.

With credit scoring, the accuracy standards applied to the underlying data often fail to match the high stakes, Caro said. Although credit scores can influence an individual’s ability to buy a house, start a business, or pay for college—potentially life-altering opportunities—those scores often draw on “noisy” data that fail to provide an accurate assessment of the individual’s credit worthiness. Noisy data is particularly harmful to minority and low-income borrowers; they often contain hidden biases that make them even less likely to accurately predict credit worthiness for those groups, who tend to have thinner credit histories. That, in turn, can further the injustice.

“Philosophers have already applied pragmatic encroachment to other areas of the law, namely criminal law, where the standard of proof is higher than in civil law,” said Caro, who double majored in philosophy and statistics as an undergraduate at the University of Georgia. “But there's been little attention in other legal areas, even though there are lots of other areas of the law where decisions have huge impacts on people's lives. And credit scoring is one of them.”

The Fair Credit Reporting Act, or FCRA, requires “reasonable” procedures to ensure maximum possible accuracy, Caro said. “But if what’s possible, given your data, is not very high, then it seems like you've satisfied FCRA without really getting at what the philosophers want, which is a higher evidentiary burden corresponding to the higher stakes.”

Caro, who is a research assistant for Scott Nelson, an assistant professor of finance at the University’s Booth School of Business, said his idea was inspired by Nelson’s research into how noisy credit score data affects certain borrowers. Caro’s project combines his three areas of interest: law, philosophy, and statistics.

“Philosophy and statistics are seemingly disparate fields, but in my view, they are really two sides of the same coin—philosophy is focused on good deductive reasoning and statistics is about good inductive reasoning,” said Caro, who has taken Law School classes from both Nussbaum and Leiter. “Both are indispensable tools for rational thought.”

As part of the fellowship, Caro will take several philosophy courses, including a Bayesian epistemology course and a scientific inference course. He said the Freund Fellowship is an exciting opportunity.

“It provides an opportunity for me to draw on all of the experiences I've had in the past to hopefully propose helpful reform for the future,” he said.

Kate Petroff: Defining Exploitation

Petroff, who studied English literature and philosophy as an undergraduate at Kenyon College, hopes to address an ambiguity that exists in how human rights laws define exploitation.

“Exploitation is a concept of that's deserving of further investigation and elaboration by philosophers and should be the locus of our political concern—and one area where this is [particularly] true is in human rights law, specifically in discussions of human trafficking,” Petroff said.

Instead of defining exploitation, she said, the United Nations’ anti-human trafficking protocol simply lists exploitative actions, such as sexual exploitation, slavery, and the removal of organs. She argues that the protocol needs a clear definition of exploitation itself—and one centers on the relationships between people instead of how assets are being distributed.

Without that, it is more difficult to justify prohibitions on trafficking.

“There are theoretical concerns—questions about what exploitation is, how it’s related to forced labor or slavery—and sometimes it seems there’s so [little] clarity that [maybe we should abandon the idea of human trafficking altogether,” Petroff said. “And then there are practical dilemmas facing the anti-trafficking field about whether—and this is a simplification—to focus on criminalizing deviant individuals or to focus on increasing labor and migration protections that would affect potentially trafficked individuals rather than criminalizing the traffickers.”

But understanding what, exactly, constitutes exploitation can help the frame laws that address root causes.

“One thing that struck me is that certain theories see exploitation as relationship in which a person or group uses the vulnerability of another person or group for their gain, and such theories help us think about this vulnerability … as a structural matter,” she said. “One thing this lets us see is that further protections that help mitigate people's vulnerability [could help] reduce exploitation.”

As part of her fellowship, Petroff will take classes at the Law School, including, she hopes, Human Trafficking and the Link to Public Corruption. She will also engage with some of Nussbaum’s work on the politics of sex work and study feminist work on vulnerability. She has already taken classes with both Nussbaum and Leiter.

Petroff said it was “such an honor to be selected” for the fellowship.

“I'm really grateful for this opportunity to pursue this project that I'm really excited about and that will give me the tools to work with folks in the Law School,” she said.

The fellowship is named for Ernst Freund, an intellectual architect of the University of Chicago Law School, who believed that interdisciplinary cooperation between lawyers and philosophers was essential to address pressing social problems. When the fellowship was being configured several years ago, Professor Gabriel Richardson Lear, then the chair of the Department of Philosophy, suggested that the best way to incentivize deeper learning in both disciplines was to offer the prize for proposed research rather than a finished paper.

Past recipients have included Sarah Cohen, ’22, who won in 2021; Jared Mayer, ’21, who won in 2020; Laurenz Ramsauer, a PhD candidate in the Department of Philosophy, who won in 2019; Faith Laken, ’20, who won in 2018; and the inaugural recipients, Taylor Coles, JD ’18, and Molly Brown, a PhD candidate in the University of Chicago’s Department of Philosophy.


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May 16, 2022