The algorithms of ethics. (And puppycats)

I’m trying to remember when I first heard the phrase ‘the ethics of algorithms’ (TEoA) and why it bothers me. It sounded like something from a branding exercise triumph.TEoA has dogged me; it has been the intellectual equivalent of an adorable little puppy that snaps at your ankles in encouragement to play, and then opens its eyes wide to melt you with love and fake neediness, saying take me home please, Mommy. (Maybe I’m referring to a cat and not a dog; perhaps only cats and toddlers are capable of such machinations? A puppy-cat!). The ‘ethics of algorithms’ rolls off the tongue nicely, sounds important and meaningful, and captures the degrees of concern and outrage we feel about the powerful role that computer algorithms have in society, and will continue to.

I recently started a DPhil (a kind of PhD) in big data and ethics (longer version here), so I’m somewhat invested in the phrase TEoA because that is what I’m often asked if my work is about. It isn’t. However there are people working on the ethics of algorithms and the good people at CIHR recently published a paper on it which I think you should read right after you finish reading my post, because the paper is a good description of the way algorithms work in our quantified society. I’m not referring to any of these things in my work however. What I’m working on is the algorithms of ethics. By this I mean that I’m going to think about the ethics first and understand how they work, where they come from, and what that ethics [can] mean in the context of big data.

The reason why I think TEoA is a cute but needy puppycat as described above: too atomising, deterministic even, and an outcome rather than a starting point. Why would you start with the algorithm, which is the outcome of long chains of technical, scientific, legal, economic events, and not with a point earlier on in the process of its development? I think the focus on the outcome, the algorithm, is also indicative of how we think of ethics as outcomes, rather than a series of processes, negotiations. Or the fact that we think about ethics as outcomes has led to a focus on algorithms. Both, possibly.

I don’t think algorithms have ethics; people have ethics. Algorithms govern perhaps, they make decisions, but I don’t think they have or make ethics. Of course saying ‘the ethics of algorithms’ isn’t to be taken literally; it’s the assertion that algorithms that make decisions have been programmed (to learn) how to do so because of humans (who have the capacity for ethical reasoning). However the phrase is misleading because it seems like algorithms are in fact making ethical decisions. At the same time, algorithms cannot function without making some kind of judgment (not moral judgments; though algorithms can do things that can have moral implications), it wouldn’t be able to proceed to the next step if not. But does this amount to ethics? I suppose it depends on what ethics you’re subscribing to, but I’d say no

‘Ethics of algorithms’ could also refer to the ethical features or properties of algorithms, not the ethics that algorithms are assumed to produce. Kraemer, van Overveld and Peterson have a paper on it here which is based on medical imaging analysis. This work suggests that algorithms have value judgments baked into them, their functioning but concludes the ethics is the domain of systems design(ers) and that users should have more control in the outcomes of algorithmic functioning.

My work begins with the hypothesis that principles based on classical ethics (like the oft-quoted Trolley Problem in the context of autonomous vehicles, something that I believe was developed so that journalists could write their stories) are not really appropriate to big data environments (I refer to this as a crisis of ethics), and to come up with alternate approaches to thinking about ethics. Along the way I hope to develop methods to study ethics in quantified environments, not just come up with “the answer”. (Thankfully, this is a humanities PhD so there is no “right answer”). I’m also pretty sure I will have many new puppycats snapping at my ankles excited to play.

Post script.
I have also discovered that there is a strange hybrid creature called PuppyCat Here is a weird animated video with puppycats

(image from

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.