The Ethics of Human Rights (93): Rights or Duties?

This is a telling result from Google’s Ngram viewer:

Screen Shot 2014-10-11 at 8.48.51 AM

It seems that once upon a time people believed that duties were more important than rights (or, which we assume is the same thing, people wrote more about duties than about rights). This time ended somewhere in the late 1800s. Some would call this the era of morality. The era that followed it would then be the era of “ME”, of individualism, of people’s nascent and by now “overwhelming” urge to claim things for themselves, and to claim them from others, from society and from the state. There is indeed a venerable school of thought that sees rights as amoral or even immoral and as the favorite tool of modern individualists and egoists.

Somewhat surprisingly, one origin of this idea is Marx. Nowadays, however, it’s associated more with conservatism and with so-called collectivist and harmonious “Asian” societies (with or without a history of communism). Or maybe it’s just associated with the self-appointed representatives of those societies, namely the often authoritarian leaders there. Not surprisingly, those leaders are the first beneficiaries of harmony and of a widespread sense of duty.

None of this should be understood as a rejection of the notion of duty. Far from it. One person’s rights are another person’s duties. (See also here). In a sense it is indeed regrettable that duties are apparently going out of fashion.

Human Rights Promotion (10): Human Rights For Machines?

People of color, women, slaves, Jews, children and other human beings have been regarded, at some point in history, as legal nonpersons. Nowadays they are equal to all other human beings, at least according to the law. It’s not uncommon to hear the argument that certain species of animals, such as primates or dolphins, should also have rights similar to those of humans (at least some of the rights of humans).

Is it not time to do the same for machines? Why should the expanding circle of moral concern stop at living creatures? And what is life anyway? Are not intelligence, self-awareness (or “consciousness” whatever that means) and some form of agency more important in the attribution of rights? If so, then some machines at least should have rights, since they are intelligent, self-aware and capable of agency. And then we should stop treating machines are mere tools used for human ends, just as we – or at least some of us – have now stopped treating slaves, women and animals as mere tools. Otherwise we run the risk of presenting ourselves to future generations much like our bigoted, racist, speciesist, classist and sexist forefathers have presented themselves to us.

However, can we really make the case that the most sophisticated machines that we currently have are “creatures” with artificial intelligence able to make autonomous and self-aware choices? (Notice the use of the word “that” instead of “who”). Is it not more correct to say that, no matter how sophisticated they are, they simply execute instructions given to them by human engineers or programmers and choose whatever their designers have told them to choose? That they are mere extensions of our arms and brains like all machines before them, only more complex?

There are now machines that speak, or seem to speak. Should they have the right to free speech? A Google search result may be deemed protected speech, but not because machines – in this case a computer program that searches the internet – have the right to free speech but because the search result can be considered a form of human speech, in this case speech by a computer programmer. Google is a mouthpiece.

If we refuse the notion of machine rights because machines are not self-aware, autonomous and intelligent agents, then we immediately run into a serious problem. Certain human beings who have lost a significant part of their brainpower – or all of it – and who are no longer self-aware or capable of agency – or who never had those features – are still accorded rights. We don’t systematically euthanize the severely mentally handicapped or patients in a coma.

Maybe then this whole line of thinking is fruitless. Attributes such as intelligence, self-awareness, consciousness and agency shouldn’t be used to accord or deny rights because doing so leads to unacceptable conclusions. And even in the absence of such conclusion would we face a problem. We can’t clearly define those attributes, and even if we could then it would still be practically impossible to decide “who” or “what” has or doesn’t have them. It’s difficult enough with a human being in a coma, let alone with animals or machines. Even if someone or something looks like a thinking, conscious actor, that may be an optical illusion: perhaps it was programmed to look that way. A Turing test may help, but it may not be foolproof, or at least not able to convince us that it is foolproof.

The reason is the inaccessible of the mind. In the words of Daniel Dennett, there is no way to be sure that something that seems to have an inner life does in fact have one. We normally assume that our fellow human beings have an inner life like our own, but that is just an assumption necessary to make everyday life bearable. And it’s even more of an assumption in the case of animals or machines. At least in the case of fellow human beings we can convince ourselves of the proposition that because they look like us on the exterior they must also look like us on the interior.

Hence, we shouldn’t decide whether someone or something has rights on the basis of the presence of attributes such as consciousness and agency. In my own thinking about rights I’ve always avoided this line of thinking. Rights for me are things that we need to realize certain values. They are tools – legal and policy tools – rather than attributes of moral creatures. Hence, we should ask whether animals or machines requires rights for the realization of states that are important to them. Animals value a life without pain and without restrictions to their freedom of movement. Rights that help them to achieve these values would therefore be imaginable. However, it seems more difficult to make the same case for machines. It’s not clear that machines value anything, at least not in the same way that it is clear that human beings and animals value some things.

“Clear” should be understood not in the sense of “factual” or “true”. Like in the case of consciousness, intelligence or agency, the presence of the ability to value something can’t be easily determined: like any other state of mind it can’t be seen, verified or experienced by anyone else. For instance, if an animal seems to value the absence of pain, we may in fact be dealing with a machine that is programmed to impersonate an animal that doesn’t like pain. We can’t know for certain, not even with regard to our fellow human beings. But again, the general similarity between humans and between humans and some types of animals gives us reason to believe that other humans or animals value some of the same things we value. There is no such general similarity between human and machines.

One could argue that there are moral limits on the things we can do to machines – not torture robots or robotic toys for instance – not because those machines have rights but because what our actions do to ourselves. But that’s no reason to conclude that machines have rights. Our own rights are at stake here.

Gender Discrimination (32): Gender Stereotyping of Robots

Our prejudices must be very deeply ingrained if we even stereotype robots. From an interesting new paper:

Previous research on gender effects in robots has largely ignored the role of facial cues. We fill this gap in the literature by experimentally investigating the effects of facial gender cues on stereotypical trait and application ascriptions to robots. As predicted, the short-haired male robot was perceived as more agentic than was the long-haired female robot, whereas the female robot was perceived as more communal than was the male counterpart. Analogously, stereotypically male tasks were perceived more suitable for the male robot, relative to the female robot, and vice versa. Taken together, our findings demonstrate that gender stereotypes, which typically bias social perceptions of humans, are even applied to robots. (source, source)

If we can’t manage to treat inanimate robots without sexism and prejudice, then what hope is there for our fellow human beings of the other gender?

Interestingly, the complaint seems to go both ways. Robots, in the general sense of the word, have been known to exhibit sexism. Siri and Google for example are said to favor “male terms” and solutions when autocorrecting of suggesting phrases. Obviously, prejudice in robots and in software, to the extent that it exists, only reflects the prejudice of their makers.

More posts in this series are here.

Measuring Human Rights (24): Measuring Racism, Ctd.

Measuring racism is a problem, as I’ve argued before. Asking people if they’re racist won’t work because they don’t answer this question correctly, and understandably so. This is due to the social desirability bias. Surveys may minimize this bias if they approach the subject indirectly. For example, rather than simply asking people if they are racist or if they believe blacks are inferior, surveys could ask some of the following questions:

  • Do you believe God has created the races separately?
  • What do you believe are the reasons for higher incarceration rates/lower IQ scores/… among blacks?
  • Etc.

Still, no guarantee that bias won’t falsify the results. Maybe it’s better to dump the survey method altogether and go for something even more indirect. For example, you can measure

  • racism in employment decisions, such as numbers of callbacks received by applicants with black sounding names
  • racism in criminal justice, for example the degree to which black federal lower-court judges are overturned more often than cases authored by similar white judges, or differences in crime rates by race of the perpetrator, or jury behavior
  • racial profiling
  • residential racial segregation
  • racist consumer behavior, e.g. reluctance to buy something from a black seller
  • the numbers of interracial marriages
  • the numbers and membership of hate groups
  • the number of hate crimes
  • etc.

A disadvantage of many of these indirect measurements is that they don’t necessarily reflect the beliefs of the whole population. You can’t just extrapolate the rates you find in these measurements. It’s not because some judges and police officers are racist that the same rate of the total population is racist. Not all people who live in predominantly white neighborhoods do so because they don’t want to live in mixed neighborhoods. Different crime rates by race can be an indicator of racist law enforcement, but can also hide other causes, such as different poverty rates by race (which can themselves be indicators of racism). Higher numbers of hate crimes or hate groups may represent a radicalization of an increasingly small minority. And so on.

Another alternative measurement system is the Implicit Association Test. This is a psychological test that measures implicit attitudes and beliefs that people are either unwilling or unable to report.

Because the IAT requires that users make a series of rapid judgments, researchers believe that IAT scores may reflect attitudes which people are unwilling to reveal publicly. (source)

Participants in an IAT are asked to rapidly decide which words are associated. For example, is “female” or “male” associated with “family” and “career” respectively? This way, you can measure the strength of association between mental constructs such as “female” or “male” on the one hand and attributes such as “family” or “career” on the other. And this allows you to detect prejudice. The same is true for racism. You can read here or here how an IAT is usually performed.

Yet another measurement system uses evidence from Google search data, such as in this example. The advantage of this system is that it avoids the social desirability bias, since Google searches are done alone and online and without prior knowledge of the fact that the search results will be used to measure racism. Hence, people searching on Google are more likely to express social taboos. In this respect, the measurement system is similar to the IAT. Another advantage of the Google method, compared to traditional surveys, is that the Google sample is very large and more or less evenly distributed across all areas of a country. This allows for some fine grained geographical breakdown of racial animus.

More specifically, the purpose of the Google method is to analyze trends in searches that include words like “nigger” or “niggers” (not “nigga” because that’s slang in some Black communities, and not necessarily a disparaging term). In order to avoid searches for the term “nigger” by people who may not be racially motivated – such as researchers (Google can’t tell the difference) – you could refine the method and analyze only searches for phrases like “why are niggers lazy”, “Obama+nigger”, “niggers/blacks+apes” etc. If you find that those searches are more common in some locations than others, or that they become more common in some locations, then you can try to correlate those findings with other, existing indicators of racism such as those cited above, or with historic indicators such as prevalence of slavery or lynchings.

More posts in this series are here.

Freedom of Expression and the Internet

The internet is undoubtedly a huge boost for freedom of expression, and not only a quantitative boost. It has certain qualitative characteristics that older media don’t have, which make it particularly beneficial for free speech.

A first reason why the internet promotes free speech is its relative cost: it has made speech much less expensive. You even don’t need to own a computer since you can, with relative ease, use a public one. And even the cost of a computer pales compared to the cost of many older media.

Another reason is that governments find it much more difficult to censor speech on the internet. Speech is no longer bound to a particular carrier which can be easily confiscated or destroyed, or to a particular territory where a state can exercise its power. People can publish on websites in other countries without being there. Of course, governments do retain some considerable censorship power over the internet, as is demonstrated by the case of the Great Firewall of China, but it’s safe to say that this power is relatively weak compared to government’s powers over traditional media, precisely because of the international character of the internet.

Unfortunately, we see that private actors sometimes replace the government as censors. The discussions on net neutrality for example result from some cases where internet providers have blocked access to competitor sites or favored access to friendly or related sites (see the case of Telus blocking access to a labor union website). One could also claim that Google, for instance, despite the good it does for free expression, also in a way limits it, since it systematically channels people towards speech that already has much exposure and freedom, and “buries” all the rest (read more about this here). There is still domination and inequality on the web; the question is whether on average the internet has done more to limit it or to advance it. I believe the former.

A third reason why the internet promotes free speech is the gradual disappearance of middle men. You don’t need editors, publishers or peer review to publish your views. In traditional media, these middle men normally filter out a lot of speech, often to the benefit of the public but never to the benefit of speech.

So these are three reasons (among many others) why the internet expands the amount of speech and promotes free speech in a quantitative way. But it can also be argued that the internet has improved speech in a qualitative way. That may be a counter-intuitive claim, given the amount of bullshit that’s present on the web, and yet I think it’s true for many pockets of the internet. Because the internet creates a quantitative boost for speech, it also produces a qualitative one. The internet has allowed more people to speak, listen and discuss, and it’s a common argument in philosophy that widespread participation in discussions tends to improve the quality of people’s opinions, under certain ideal circumstances. I won’t make the detailed argument here, since I’ve done that many times before. In a few words, the argument boils down to this: the freedom to speak, the equal freedom to speak, and massive use by large numbers of people of this freedom, result in the appearance and confrontation of a large number of points of view and of perspectives on issues. It means that a proposal or opinion or policy is subjected to intense scrutiny and criticism. If it survives this, it is bound to be of better quality.