3. Harm, Discrimination, and Measurement

The previous lecture discussed frameworks for justice in an ideal world: what we expect from a social institution that treats its members fairly. We will examine concepts of harm and discrimination as a way to better understand the limits of these frameworks for justice and understand, in a non-ideal world, how power structures created by social institutions encourage such discrimination.

3.1. Discrimination

Discrimination is the unjust treatment of a person based on identification with a salient social group. What ‘unjust’ and ‘salient’ mean in this context is contested among academics, lawmakers, and the public. However, most characterizations violate one of the theories of equality of opportunity above, as do more informal, social uses of the term.

3.1.2. Notions of discrimination from Economics

Economists model the world from a utilitarian perspective: humans are rational beings that act in their ‘best’ interest. That is, people act, in an efficient way, to optimize their utility.

The Nobel prize winning economist Gary Becker first developed an economic model of discrimination in 1957. Becker tied discrimination with intent, much like the theory of disparate treatment. His theory of taste-based discrimination asserts that one possible consequence of discrimination is that a discriminating actor will sacrifice utility in the pursuit of discrimination.

As an example, suppose an employer refused to hire minority employees. This would decrease the number of jobs available to minority employees and increase the competition that employers may have to hire non-minority employees. This results in minority employees making smaller wages on average and employers paying higher wages to non-minority employees of the same productivity. According to the economic model, taste-based discrimination is a non-optimal choice for the employer (and, of courses, harms the minority employee). This example also violates Formal Equality of Opportunity.

In the 1970s, economists Edmund Phelps and Kenneth Arrow developed a theory of statistical discrimination. This theory asserts that, under imperfect information, a decision maker may act optimally in a way that still results in systematically different outcomes for members of a salient group.

Another way of phrasing statistical discrimination is that a decision maker may rely on a stereotype when we don’t have full information on every individual. The decision maker, when making their decision, acts on information on the group in question, instead of the individuals themselves. This type of discrimination is optimal for the decision maker.

In the example above, suppose that an employer hires minority employees less often, as their internal company data show that such employees take sick days more often. This employer, when considering a job applicant, doesn’t have access to an employees timesheet; they instead generalize what they know about their current employees and use that to profile the applicant according to their race/ethnicity. This is statistical discrimination. While this example satisfies formal equality of opportunity, it doesn’t satisfy fair equality of opportunity.

There are examples where the use of statistical measurement about groups may actually make decisions more fair in certain senses of the term. For example, affirmative action uses aggregate information on minority groups’ access to education to makes it more likely to admit those that identify with those groups to educational institutions. This reasoning is similar to that of fair egalitarianism.

An important takeaway from the example of statistical discrimination is that inequality and discrimination may persist even in the presence of equal ground rules, due to structural differences already present in social institutions. This is a theme we will return to later.

3.2. Bias

Bias is a term often associated with discrimination; it is milder in the severity of intent. Those that are biased against an individual exhibit some systematic leaning that causes the person treat this individual differently (in a negative way).

Bias also has a statistical meaning: a statistical estimator is biased if it systematically differs from the population parameter it estimates.

The two meanings are (loosely) connected, if one assumes that a person’s decisions (i.e. decisions) are drawn from an underlying true, ‘fair’ distribution. However, to avoid confusion, we will avoid using the term bias in the colloquial sense.

3.3. Harms inflicted by decision making

Now that we have surveyed different notions of fairness and unfairness, we will discuss the impact that unfair decisions have on people (and not just those directly involved in the decision). These impacts or harms occur after the decision and understanding them requires understanding how they interact with the social institutions that contain them.

Understanding harm is of paramount importance, as it’s the primary reason to be concerned with fairness. While examining conceptions of justice and welfare will help us reason through what a fair system might look like, understanding harm grounds our reasoning in reality and serves as a gut check on the stakes involved.

3.3.1. Allocative Harms

Allocative harms result from an allocative decision. The impacts of such harms are immediately observable and relatively easy to quantify. As the decisions are concerned with allocating measurable goods and opportunities, harms inflicted by them involve a lack of allocation. These harms are precisely those discussed in the previous lecture.

Even with this ease of measurement, understanding the causes and extent of allocative harms is difficult. While philosophers can imagine an ideal ‘start of society’ and let it hypothetically evolve under the veil of ignorance, tangible (algorithmic) decisions take place in a tangible social structure with existing inequalities. It’s under these conditions that an algorithm may be attempting to optimize some allocation of goods.

The impact of incorrect allocative decisions may be loss of life (medicine), loss of freedom (criminal justice), loss of financial opportunity (loans), loss of livelihood (work/education), and more. What are some of the ways decision making models make systemically wrong decisions?

  1. One of the main difficulty in allocative decision making comes in defining the utility being optimized. The ‘true’ utility is often an unquantifiable, poorly defined goal; human attempts to define them fall short in myriad ways.

  2. Algorithmic decision making algorithms fit their decisions to patterns in existing data, thus requiring data on the population it affects. As we will see in the next section, existing power structures affect who is seen and entered in the record in ways that reinforce these power structures.

  3. It’s not always clear how decisions will be used. An algorithmic decision is often presented as “one piece of information” to be used by a human decision, who may use the output of the algorithm to discriminate in unexpected ways.

3.3.2. Representative Harms

Recall that representational decisions surface the most relevant features of its subject and returns that representation. Thus a representational decision making algorithm controls the flow of information to its subjects and affects how they perceive the world. Harms inflicted by such decisions evolve over long periods of time. They are difficult to measure as the impact diffuses across social institutions with varying impacts not obviously associated to narrow utility of interest.

As Jamie Susskind writes in Future Politics [Sus18]:

If you control the flow of information in a society, you can influence its shared sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair, clean and unclean, seemly and unseemly, real and fake, true and false, known and unknown.

Thus, representational harm has the potential to guide and reinforce unfairness built into the fabric of our social institutions themselves. These harms form or strengthen people’s existing associations of the composition and subordination of different groups. While these harms are unjust in their own right, they also lay the foundation for an environment that normalizes unfair allocative decisions that affect people’s freedom and livelihood.

A classic example of representational harm is found in algorithmic image search. In 2015, a Google image search for the term ‘CEO’ resulted in dozens of white, old men, while the term ‘nurse’ resulted in a page of women [OBC17]. This result reinforces existing notions of gender stereotypes that (white) men lead business and while women are the symbol of the caretaker.

From the model developers perspective, anticipating the harm from this example is more difficult than for an allocative decision making algorithm. The model is likely built from associations in a large corpus of images and text that carry the same biases as the society that created it. Moreover, such a model has no obvious utility function that transparently tallies gain and harm; systematically surfacing this discrimination in the search functionality requires a clever experiment (of course, it’s also anecdotally apparent from use).

Lastly, this algorithm was accurate in the sense that it reflected the real demographics of these two fields at the time. Its unfairness was a reinforcement from the unfairness in the social structures under which the model was fit. The question then becomes, what should the algorithm return? This question begs to use the frameworks for justice developed in the last lecture.

3.4. Measurement

Up until now, we’ve focused on identifying unfairness and its impacts; we have not systematically asked how such fairness occurs. Any quantitative process for decision making requires recording real-world events in data. This process of measurement requires choices of what characteristics of these events to record; choices designed and implemented by humans living in a particular social structure. Moreover, those involved in measurement are usually in a position of power and more likely to reinforce the existing the existing order of power within that social structure. Evaluating measurement necessarily requires understanding the process that generates the data and how well it reflects the events that are informing the decision making. It cannot be quantified and automated.

The act of measurement enables the existence of the data that informs the system. It is fundamental to this process, affecting every aspect of a decision making system. Three areas measurement may insert human biases into a decision making system are:

  • Does the ‘training data’ reflect the social system it attempts to model? Is the social system itself flawed?

  • Do variables adequately capture complex notions needed for the decision making? Should those notions be used?

  • Is the outcome a well-defined measurement or a biased proxy that reinforces existing inequality? Is that outcome worth modeling?

Consider the example of allocating medical care. Suppose a health-care company is stream-lining their triage system: for each patient that walks into the emergency room, the system must decide if this patient receives medical care right away, or if they must wait in the waiting room (and for how long). The developers of the system may look at past patient visits, the medical care they received, and the eventual outcome of the visit to decide which of these patients needed to be seen right away and which could wait. The allocative harm of a wrong decision is the witholding of medical care that could potential lead to prolonged sickness or death.

One difficult aspect of developing such a model is that the ‘eventual outcome’ of a visit isn’t a well-defined event. Presumably, the true utility they should optimize for is ‘how quickly the patient needed care’. The model developers wanted to use ‘the severity of the illness’ and as an approximation used insurance code to measure the this severity.

The problems with using insurance codes for measuring this outcome is that patients with better insurance typically receive more thorough medical care. Two people with the same illness may come in requiring an expensive intervention. The patient with expensive insurance will receive that coverage, whereas the other may decline treatment out of financial concerns (and so the need was never recorded). Fitting a model on this data results in decisions that prioritize the well-insured patient.

The existing power difference in the medical institution is merely reinforcing itself. The wealthier patient, with better existing care and a record of that care, is noticed by the triage model; the patient with a smaller insurance plan is minimized from the record and forgotten by the triage model.

3.4.1. Poorly defined variables

The act of collecting data requires design. Recording race and ethnicity provides an instructive example. Suppose, filling out a survey, you are given the choice to select one of the following (taken from the NIH):

  • American Indian or Alaska Native.

  • Asian.

  • Black or African American.

  • Hispanic or Latino.

  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.

  • White.

Someone with a multiracial background would not have a way of truthfully answering. For example, someone from the Dominican Republic, with a large population of African descent, would likely want to reply they are Dominican!

Historically, these categories are created to classify with the aim of subordination. The effect of being categorized as Native American uprooted you from your home. The effect of being categorized as Black at one time enslaved you. And these categories change as the social structures change: at one point in time, Irish, Italian, and Jewish people were not considered White.

The example of race is not contrived. We will see case after case of measurement that reflects a historical purpose of subjugation.

3.4.2. Missing from data

Decision making models are more accurate on populations for which they are familiar. However, as measurement is fundamentally costly, those that take part in its design are measured most often.

3.4.3. Proxies for targets

The ‘true’ outcome that informs a model is often an idealized, immeasurable concept. One common approach is to define a proxy measure for that idealize outcome. Such a procedure is similar to poorly defined variables, but guaranteed to bias your model, as it will learn the wrong utility function.