Inscrutable Processes: Algorithms, Agency, and Divisions of Deliberative Labour

Journal of Applied Philosophy 38 (4):646-661 (2021)
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Abstract

As the use of algorithmic decision‐making becomes more commonplace, so too does the worry that these algorithms are often inscrutable and our use of them is a threat to our agency. Since we do not understand why an inscrutable process recommends one option over another, we lose our ability to judge whether the guidance is appropriate and are vulnerable to being led astray. In response, I claim that a process being inscrutable does not automatically make its guidance inappropriate. This phenomenon is not restricted to algorithms, and there are many social processes which we should conform to but are similarly unable to judge for ourselves. I provide a framework for how we can depend on inscrutable processes by introducing a distinction between knowing conformity (where I understand what justifies the guidance) from mere conformity (where I merely do what I am told) and showing how mere conformity is often positively valuable because it allows for extended processes that in turn allow us to accomplish more than we could on our own. This is in effect a division of deliberative labour, which I argue is something commonplace but not often recognised, of which algorithmic guidance can be an example.

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Marinus Ferreira
Macquarie University

References found in this work

Ethical Implications and Accountability of Algorithms.Kirsten Martin - 2018 - Journal of Business Ethics 160 (4):835-850.
Distributed morality in an information society.Luciano Floridi - 2013 - Science and Engineering Ethics 19 (3):727-743.
The ethics of information transparency.Matteo Turilli & Luciano Floridi - 2009 - Ethics and Information Technology 11 (2):105-112.
Societal and ethical issues of digitization.Lambèr Royakkers, Jelte Timmer, Linda Kool & Rinie van Est - 2018 - Ethics and Information Technology 20 (2):127-142.

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