Big Data Ethics: A National Rating System

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“What if there was a national trust score that rated the kind of citizen you were?” Rachel Botsman asks the question in her article ‘Big data meets Big Brother as China moves to rate its citizens’ from the magazine The Wired. She refers to the new political agendas in China where the authorities will start rating their citizens in the near future. This national credit rating system will of course hugely affect the possibilities and opportunities of the individual (Botsman, web).

In Denmark similar – but less far reaching – plans are also occurring in the present government’s data plan. In the city of Gladsaxe, the authorities have already been experimenting with a system that gives (negative) points to parents who forget to bring their children to the dentist, or forget other appointments, who are divorced or mentally ill and hence cannot take better care of the children or do preventive work (Kjær, web). Of course, the goal in the Danish system is different from the Chinese system, yet the basic ethical dilemmas behind are almost the same.

Utilitarianism of Big Data  
Except from Hobbes’ political ideas, let me start with the most obvious philosophical approach to a national rating system of citizens: utilitarianism, which is defined by J. S. Mill as the greatest happiness principle. In his book Utilitarianism, Mills writes: “The doctrine that the basis of morals is utility, or the greatest happiness principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong in proportion as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” (Mill, 5). In continuation of this, one could argue that a national rating system gives the greatest amount of happiness to most people because most people tend to fit into the system. People will feel safe. The system will catch almost every social problem. And good people are able to adjust and act justly within the system. For these people, a national rating system will represent a fair and righteous system because it is the same for everyone, and people can gain confidence in the system. Also, the utility of the system is obvious—a national rating system will be able to catch unfortunate developments among certain people and establish a pre-emptive action towards these people. As such, the national rating system can contribute to the general security of the people. Yet there are also limitations to greatest happiness principle, as Mill says in his book Utilitarianism, one needs to consider the rights of the individual too:

“And on these occasions the thoughts of the most virtuous man need not go beyond the particular persons concerned, except to the extent that he has to assure himself that in benefiting those individuals he isn’t violating the rights (i.e. the legitimate and authorised expectations) of anyone else” (Mill, 13).

Consequently, the question is whether a national rating system violates the rights of the individual while striving for the general happiness of the people. At the least, basic human rights are violated in the sense the privacy of the individual is not respected. Also, one could argue that it might be impossible to foresee the full consequences of a national rating system—will it really lead to greater happiness for the masses? The national rating system is limited by the fact that it can become a source of unhappiness to its population because of the general discomfort arising from surveillance and the aggressive normative regimentation of behaviour and thought. The moral character of the individual is measured through the national rating system, but it also reveals a very fixed definition of a virtuous person. This leads us to the question of virtue and Aristotelian ethics.

Virtue Rating
Aristotle based his ethics on virtue, and in many ways, Mill’s ethics resemble Aristotle’s. Both express thoughts that emphasise the importance of the individual and his expression of his higher faculties as an ideal perfection of human nature (MacIntyre, 56). In this way, a national rating system could, at first sight, be an efficient instrument in the education of the individual’s moral behaviour because people will adjust to the standards of the system. Also, Aristotle claims that reality is teleological, which means that every action has a goal that it strives towards. Ethically, we strive for the greatest goodness. A national rating system definitely has a goal, which is controlling and disciplining people into good moral behaviour for the benefit of the general happiness of the people, but also for the individual himself and his children. In that sense, a national rating system is not directly in opposition to Aristotelian ethics.

However, Aristotle also says that humans find the greatest goodness in Eudaimonia, which could be translated into happiness or welfare. We achieve eudaimonia through being virtuous, which is a conscious management of one’s actions towards the golden midway. A national rating system could enhance a life form where people seek the golden midway in their behaviour. However, the opposite could also be the consequence—people strive for the very best and it creates an unhealthy competitive element, as on Facebook where many people only feel they become something when they get a lot of ‘likes’. In Aristotelian terms, the real danger of a national rating system is that it doesn’t create a golden midway for its citizens, it becomes too normalising and too disciplining in too competitive a way. When people adjust to the system, they will become a mirror of what the system values as good behaviour. Everybody will try to adjust to the system, and will not dare to behave otherwise. Also, people will compete with each other in order to get the best results within the system, as the Chinese system is meant to do.

Moral Knowledge
Could we then invent a kind of moral knowledge that could support and be the foundation of a national rating system? When we speak of “moral knowledge”, we are also dealing with the philosophical branch called moral epistemology. Here, we try to decide whether justified beliefs about right and wrong can be defined though knowledge. Moral metaphysics, on the hand, has to do with the truth of our moral judgements. So, can we obtain knowledge of our justified belief of right and wrong? It seems impossible to talk about a general moral knowledge because the approaches to morals are contextualized and situational; on the other hand, most people do know—unconsciously or consciously—how to behave within the context and the situation, and good moral behaviour is something that can be learned, and this is something a national rating system could benefit from.

Furthermore, we can indeed investigate moral knowledge from many perspectives that have relevance for a national rating system: sociology, psychology, biology, statistics, medicine, pedagogy, etc. (Stanford, web). Yet moral knowledge has never really been able to develop into a “science” because the main problem remains: can we say that our justified moral statements are based on knowledge/science? Moral knowledge must, if it exists, be able to either give a guideline for moral judgements or it must at least be able to explain the structure of moral judgement on a meta-level.

Let me invent a thought experiment. Let us say that we potentially could gather all data about good moral behaviour among humans in a supercomputer belonging to a national rating system; would we then be able to formulate a general theory of moral knowledge and good moral behaviour and probably be able to rate it? We would certainly gain a statistical significance of certain moral judgements and behaviour, but would we really have learned anything that could be described as moral knowledge, namely as something which either defines justified belief of right or wrong, or which could tell us something about moral judgement on a meta-level, without being too simplistic? Could we really rate anything from this? No. The understanding of the complexity of human behaviour in context is almost infinite, not unlike “an open text” that you can keep on analysing.

As such, we would only learn about a limited perspective on the variation and contextualization of moral statements and judgements. And the real insight from such an analysis would, I guess, be that every moral statement or judgement is particularised with statistical variation. One could develop this even further and say that it is a “naturalistic fallacy” – as G. E. Moore defines the term – to believe that the moral good has any natural properties that can be measured and quantified. Rather, the morally good is intrinsically good, and can as such not be defined or measured (Moore 1988, 13). If this is the case, a national rating system would not be able to say anything about good moral behaviour, or to discriminate between good or bad moral actions, but it can only work as a disciplining authority.

The Lack of a Categorical Imperative
How should we, as citizens, then approach a national rating system? This question leads us to Immanuel Kant. On the one hand, we as citizens should, according to Kant, obey the laws that are ratified. Yet, on the other hand, we should also ask ourselves: does a national rating system match the requirements of the categorical imperative? Kant’s concept of the categorical imperative describes how good moral actions should be both imperative and categorical. We should act according to a maxim where we could also wish it to become a general or basic law. We could argue that a national rating system will make the citizens’ deeds correlate with a general law because people will tend to act according to a general codex of moral behaviour when the system potentially can see all your actions. But a serious problem arises when the national rating system acts pre-emptive towards its citizens. Then people will, in some sense, be convicted for something they have not done yet, and it is only very likely that they will commit something wrong. This cannot be a general law that will apply in all instances. Furthermore, a national rating system will not treat people as means but as a goal. People will only be seen as numbers, points, and factor within the impersonalised system. Such a system will not see the whole person, but will adjust the interpretations of a person’s moral behaviour to the frame of the system. A national rating system will, at least not in the near future, be able to “embrace the nuances, inconsistencies, and contradictions inherent in human beings and how they can reflect real life” (Botsman, web).

A national rating system of citizens is more or less in keeping with utilitarianism, and it could be interpreted as the main philosophical theory behind a national rating system, and can give good reasons for implementing such a system; yet there is also the problem of the right of the individual. Also, the virtue-ethics of Aristotle questions whether a national rating system is fair and leads to general welfare. We can, furthermore, not rely on any idea of a moral knowledge that could support a national rating system; rather it would function only as a disciplining instance. Also, Kant’s ethics may seriously question the very understanding of the individual in a national rating system. According to a Kantian view, a national rating system violates our conception of how we should treat the individual as a means rather than as a goal. The core moral problem with such a system is that it will, through a surveillance system, violate the private integrity of the individual. We will all be measured according to the same standards.

 

References:

Andersen, Svend. (1993). Som dig selv – En indføring i etik. Aarhus Universitetsforlag. Oxford.

Botsman, Rachel. (2017) “Big data meets Big Brother as China moves to rate its citizens”. In Wired, 21 October 2017. Link: http://www.wired.co.uk/article/chinese-government-social-credit-score-privacy-invasion

Hume, David. (2011). Hume – The Essential Philosophical Works. Wordsworth Classics of World Literature. Hertfordshire.

Kjær, Jacob Sorgenfri. (2018). “Regeringen vil overvåge alle landets børnefamilier og uddele point”. In: Politiken 2 March 2018. Link: https://politiken.dk/indland/art6365403/Regeringen-vil-overv%C3%A5ge-alle-landets-b%C3%B8rnefamilier-og-uddele-point

MacIntyre, Alasdair. (2002). A Short History of Ethics. Routledge Classics. London.

Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Link: http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/mill1863.pdf Accessed 24.04.2018.

Moore, G. E. (1988). Principia Ethica. Prometheus Books. New York.

Shafer-Landau, Russ (ed.). (2013). Ethical Theory – An Anthology. Second Edition. Wiley-Blackwell. Singapore.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2015). “Moral Epistemology”​. Accessed 20.02.2018. Link https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-epistemology/

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