Are Algorithmic Decisions Legitimate? The Effect of Process and Outcomes on Perceptions of Legitimacy of AI Decisions

Journal of Business Ethics 183 (3):653-670 (2022)
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Firms use algorithms to make important business decisions. To date, the algorithmic accountability literature has elided a fundamentally empirical question important to business ethics and management: Under what circumstances, if any, are algorithmic decision-making systems considered legitimate? The present study begins to answer this question. Using factorial vignette survey methodology, we explore the impact of decision importance, governance, outcomes, and data inputs on perceptions of the legitimacy of algorithmic decisions made by firms. We find that many of the procedural governance mechanisms in practice today, such as notices and impact statements, do not lead to algorithmic decisions being perceived as more legitimate in general, and, consistent with legitimacy theory, that algorithmic decisions with good outcomes are perceived as more legitimate than bad outcomes. Yet, robust governance, such as offering an appeal process, can create a legitimacy dividend for decisions with bad outcomes. However, when arbitrary or morally dubious factors are used to make decisions, most legitimacy dividends are erased. In other words, companies cannot overcome the legitimacy penalty of using arbitrary or morally dubious factors, such as race or the day of the week, with a good outcome or an appeal process for individuals. These findings add new perspectives to both the literature on legitimacy and policy discussions on algorithmic decision-making in firms.



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