An edgy essay by Robert Hanna
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The Fallacy of Inevitability: From Chattel Slavery to Digital Technology
Sadly, moral thinking and sociopolitical thinking are rife with fallacies. Here’s the general form of a particularly pernicious one that I’ll call The Fallacy of Inevitability:
(i) X is a very large social institution (in terms of the number of people who are members of that institution), X is very profitable for an elite group of powerful people, X has been in existence for a very long time (let’s say, anywhere from 50 years to hundreds or even thousands of years), and X is very widespread (whether locally, regionally, nationally or even globally),
(ii) therefore X is inevitable, and
(iii) because X is inevitable, therefore X ought to be accepted by us even if X itself and its consequences are very bad, false, and wrong, and furthermore,
(iv) therefore the most we can do in order to respond to the badness, falsity, and wrongness of X is to impose legal audits, regulations, or restrictions on X, while still allowing X to exist essentially unchanged in its current form.
Correspondingly, let’s consider some examples of real-world values of X:
X = chattel slavery
X = people’s possession and use of guns
X = the State’s possession and use of guns and weapons of mass destruction
X = military and domestic intelligence, together with policing, together with coercive authoritarian government, aka the surveillance State, aka the security State
X = eco-destructive, technocratic, global corporate capitalism
X = any digital technology–including computers, algorithms, digital data or information, artificial intelligence/AI, and robotics–whose use violates human dignity, up to and including cybernetic totalitarianism: as, for example, brilliantly imagined in Godard’s 1965 dystopian science fiction classic, Alphaville
Now there’s not merely one fallacy, but in fact three sub-fallacies, contained under The Fallacy of Inevitability, that I’ll call the three modes of The Fallacy.
First, the step from from (i) to (ii) is clearly a non sequitur. Just because a social institution is very large, very profitable for an elite group of powerful people, has been in existence for a very long time, and is very widespread, since no social institution is necessitated either by the laws of logic or the laws of nature, then that social institution is not inevitable. More generally, because humanity freely create and freely sustain all actual and possible social institutions, then humanity can also freely abolish, refuse, or at the very least radically devolve-and-replace (hence, transform into its moral opposite) any such social institution. That’s mode 1 of The Fallacy.
Second, step (iii) clearly contains another non sequitur. Since social institutions are contingent facts about humanity, but no contingent fact automatically entails a moral obligation, then step (iii) is clearly an instance of the naturalistic fallacy, namely, arguing directly from the factual (the “is”) to the morally obligatory (the “ought”). Indeed, and diametrically on the contrary, if any social institution itself and its consequences are bad, false, and wrong, then humanity ought freely to abolish it, refuse it, or at the very least radically transform it into its moral opposite. That’s mode 2 of The Fallacy.
Third, step (iv) is yet another clear non sequitur. On the assumption that some social institution itself and its consequences are bad, false and wrong, then it simply does not follow that the most we can do in order to respond to the badness, falsity, and wrongness of X is to impose legal audits, regulations, or restrictions on X, while still allowing X to exist essentially unchanged in its current form. Diametrically on the contrary, humanity ought freely to abolish it, refuse it, or at the very least radically transform it into its moral opposite. And that’s mode 3 of The Fallacy.
Consider, for example, chattel slavery, a social institution that’s been in existence since even before the emergence of the earliest States,[i] and during certain periods has been practiced virtually worldwide. Chattel slavery is self-evidently inherently bad, false, and wrong, and its consequences are bad, false, and wrong, precisely because it violates human dignity.[ii] And this holds even if chattel slavery is a very large social institution (say, forcibly employing and/or non-forcibly servicing millions of people living in the USA), very profitable for an elite group of powerful people (say, tobacco plantation owners and cotton plantation owners, and their business affiliates, in the American South), has been in existence for a very long time (say, from 1776 to 1865, and also even earlier during the pre-Revolutionary period), and is very widespread (say, spread all across the American South during those periods). Chattel slavery wasn’t and isn’t inevitable, and it wasn’t and isn’t even morally impermissible, much less morally obligatory, precisely because it violates human dignity, even when it was an actual social fact. Hence it would have been a moral scandal, not to mention a moral absurdity, merely to impose legal audits, regulations, and restrictions on chattel slavery: the moral scandal and moral absurdity of the very idea of “common sense slavery control” are self-evident. Diametrically on the contrary, and also self-evidently, it was, is, and forever will be humanity’s moral obligation to abolish chattel slavery, refuse it, or at the very least radically transform it into its moral opposite. And indeed, that’s what actually happened to chattel slavery in the USA by the end of The Civil War — although, catastrophically and tragically, as everyone knows, the USA has continued to suffer for 156 years from persistent and pervasive racist violations of human dignity and other malign consequences of structural or systematic racism (aka “white rage”[iii]), from Reconstruction and the Jim Crow period, through the Civil Rights era and its troubled aftermath in the 1970s to the end of the 20th century, through the Black Lives Matter era, right up to 6 am this morning.
Finally, let’s briefly consider a corresponding contemporary example, digital technology. Here’s an excerpt from a recent article by a consultant expert in the relatively new field of digital ethics, including AI ethics:
We have a new A.I. race on our hands: the race to define and steer what it means to audit algorithms. Governing bodies know that they must come up with solutions to the disproportionate harm algorithms can inflict.
This technology has disproportionate impacts on racial minorities, the economically disadvantaged, womxn, and people with disabilities, with applications ranging from health care to welfare, hiring, and education. Here, algorithms often serve as statistical tools that analyze data about an individual to infer the likelihood of a future event — for example, the risk of becoming severely sick and needing medical care. This risk is quantified as a “risk score,” a method that can also be found in the lending and insurance industries and serves as a basis for making a decision in the present, such as how resources are distributed and to whom.
Now, a potentially impactful approach is materializing on the horizon: algorithmic auditing, a fast-developing field in both research and application, birthing a new crop of startups offering different forms of “algorithmic audits” that promise to check algorithmic models for bias or legal compliance….
Recently, the issue of algorithmic auditing has become particularly relevant in the context of A.I. used in hiring. New York City policymakers are debating Int. 1894–2020, a proposed bill that would regulate the sale of automated employment decision-making tools. This bill calls for regular “bias audits” of automated hiring and employment tools.
These tools — résumé parsers, tools that purport to predict personality based on social media profiles or text written by the candidate, or computer vision technologies that analyze a candidate’s “micro-expressions” — help companies maximize employee performance to gain a competitive advantage by helping them find the “right” candidate for the “right” job in a fast, cost-effective manner.
This is big business. The U.S. staffing and recruiting market, which includes firms that assist in recruiting new internal staff and those that directly provide temporary staff to fill specific functions (temporary or agency staffing), was worth $151.8 billion in 2019. In 2016, a company’s average cost per hire was $4,129, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.
Automated hiring and employment tools will play a fundamental role in rebuilding local economies after the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, since March 2020, New Yorkers were more likely than the national average to live in a household affected by loss of income. The economic impact of the pandemic also materializes along racial lines: In June 2020, only 13.9% of white New Yorkers were unemployed, compared to 23.7% of Black residents, 22.7% of Latinx residents, and 21.1% of Asian residents.
Automated hiring tools will reshape how these communities regain access to employment and how local economies are rebuilt. Against that backdrop, it is important and laudable that policymakers are working to mandate algorithmic auditing.[iv]
This argument is a perfect example of The Fallacy of Inevitability in all three of its modes. No form of digital technology is inevitable,[v] even if it’s very large in the social-institutional sense, very profitable for an elite group of powerful people, has been in existence a very long time (i.e., at least 50 years), and is very widespread. Moreover, humanity is under absolutely no moral obligation whatsoever to use any form of digital technology that violates human dignity, just because it’s an actual social fact. And above all, the assumption that the most we can do is to impose legal audits, regulations, and restrictions on digital technology is completely false. Although “common sense digital technology control” might not look morally scandalous and morally absurd at first glance, just as “common sense gun control” might not look morally scandalous and morally absurd at first glance, in fact they both are.[vi] Diametrically on the contrary, then, if any form of digital technology violates human dignity, then humanity should freely abolish, refuse, or at the very least radically transform it into its moral opposite.[vii] Period. — No matter how much this rejection disrupts the wonders of “innovation,” the self-interests of digital technology billionaires and their global corporations, and/or the putatively public interests of neoliberal governments.[viii]
Again: if digital technology is bad, false, and wrong because it violates human dignity, then, just like chattel slavery, humanity not only can but should abolish it, refuse it, or at the very least radically transform it into its moral opposite. More explicitly and generally, my view is that digital technology, no matter how powerful, sophisticated, or profitable, is nothing more and nothing less than a tool created by humanity for the sake of humanity,whose use therefore can and should be strictly constrained by general and specific moral principles flowing from the concept and fact of human dignity. Digital technology is our tool, not our master.
[i] See, e.g., J.C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 2017), p. 155.
[ii] See, e.g., R. Hanna, “A Theory of Human Dignity,” (Unpublished MS, 2021), available online HERE.
[iii] See, e.g., C. Anderson, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (2nd edn., London/New York: Bloomsbury, 2017).
[iv] M. Sloane, “The Algorithmic Auditing Trap,” OneZero (16 March 2021), available online at URL = <https://onezero.medium.com/the-algorithmic-auditing-trap-9a6f2d4d461d>.
[v] The false thesis of the inevitability of digital technology is sometimes called “technological determinism.” But this term is also used in a baffling variety of other non-equivalent senses: see, e.g., A. Dafoe, “On Technological Determinism: A Typology, Scope Conditions, and a Mechanism,” Science, Technology, & Human Values 40 (2015): 1047–1076, also available online at URL = <https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0162243915579283?journalCode=sthd>. Hence it’s philosophically least confusing and best simply to avoid using that term in this context altogether.
[vi] For an application of dignitarian moral reasoning to the case of gun possession and use, see R. Hanna, “Gun Crazy: A Moral Argument For Gun Abolitionism” (For the King Soopers Shooting Victims, Unpublished MS, 23 March 2021), available online HERE.
[vii] See also, e.g., R. Hanna and E. Kazim, “Philosophical Foundations for Digital Ethics and AI Ethics: A Dignitarian Approach,” AI and Ethics (26 February 2021), available online at URL = <https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s43681-021-00040-9>, and also in preview HERE.
[viii] To be fair, in “The Algorithmic Auditing Trap,” Sloane does go on to say, immediately after the text I quoted earlier, that
we are facing an underappreciated concern: To date, there is no clear definition of “algorithmic audit.” Audits, which on their face sound rigorous, can end up as toothless reputation polishers, or even worse: They can legitimize technologies that shouldn’t even exist because they are based on dangerous pseudoscience. (boldfacing added)
That boldfaced sentence, at least prima facie, looks like the dignitarian abolish-it-refuse-it-or-radically-transform-it-into-its-moral-opposite principle I’m defending. But unfortunately, by the end of the article, she’s fallen back into The Fallacy of Inevitability, by merely recommending “three steps”: (i) “transparency about where and how algorithms and automated decision-making tools are deployed,” (ii) “need[ing] to arrive at a clear definition of what ‘independent audit’ means in the context of automated decision-making systems, algorithms, and A.I.,” and (iii) “need[ing] to begin a conversation about how, realistically, algorithmic auditing can and must be operationalized in order to be effective.” Morally speaking, that’s pretty thin gruel.
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