Saturday, July 10, 2010

Surveillance and moral development

Bruce Schneier directs us to Emrys Westacott's Philosophy Now article: Does Surveillance Make Us Morally Better?. Westacott's article displays the usual confusion and problems with a Kantian approach to morality.

Westacott describes his interpretation of Kantian morality:
According to Kant, our actions are right when they conform to the moral rules dictated to us by our reason, and they have moral worth insofar as they are motivated by respect for that moral law. In other words, my actions have moral worth if I do what is right because I want to do the right thing. If I don’t steal someone’s iPod (just another kind of Apple, really) because I think it would be wrong to do so, then I get a moral pat on the back and am entitled to polish my halo. If I don’t steal the iPod because I’m afraid of getting caught, then I may be doing the right thing, and I may be applauded for being prudent, but I shouldn’t be given any moral credit.
On this account, becoming morally better does not entail learning to do the right thing (whatever that might happen to be) but learning to have the correct motivation for doing the right thing.

Westacott gives us two scenarios to compare and contrast the value of surveillance. First, he presents an elaborate scenario escalating surveillance of driving habits, ending with practically indefeasible surveillance and enforcement of traffic laws. He finds the outcome amenable,
At the end of the process, there are no more tearaways or drunk drivers endangering innocent road users. Driving is more relaxing. There are fewer accidents, less pain, less grief, less guilt, reduced demands on the health care system, lower insurance premiums, fewer days lost at work, a surging stock market, [not to mention whiter teeth and relief from the heartbreak of psoriasis] and so on.

Westacott, however, worries that while "increased surveillance may carry certain utilitarian benefits, but the price we pay is a diminution of our moral character. ... [S]urveillance... stunts our growth as moral individuals." "We give up pursuing the holy grail of Kant’s ideal, and settle for a functional but uninspiring pewter mug." He realizes, however, that these worries are, at least in this case, probably misguided: The "inconceivability of most kinds of wrongdoing is a platform we want to be able to take for granted, and surveillance is a legitimate and effective means of building it. So, far from undermining the saintly ideal, surveillance offers a fast track to it."

Westacott wants to dig deeper, though, and presents an alternative scenario where the pragmatic outcome is not so clear, comparing two colleges with different responses to academic cheating:
For instance, imagine you are visiting two colleges. At Scrutiny College, the guide proudly points out that each examination room is equipped with several cameras, all linked to a central monitoring station. Electronic jammers can be activated to prevent examinees from using cell phones or Blackberries. The IT department writes its own cutting-edge plagiarism-detection software. And there is zero tolerance for academic dishonesty: one strike and you’re out on your ear. As a result, says the guide, there is less cheating at Scrutiny than on any other campus in the country. Students quickly see that cheating is a mug’s game, and after a while no-one even considers it.

By contrast, Probity College operates on a straightforward honour system. Students sign an integrity pledge at the beginning of each academic year. At Probity, professors commonly assign take-home exams, and leave rooms full of test takers unproctored. Nor does anyone bother with plagiarism-detecting software such as The default assumption is that students can be trusted not to cheat.

Which college would you prefer to attend? Which would you recommend to your own kids?
Presumably, Westacott believes we would endorse Probity College. He offers two additional scenarios — surveillance at work and surveillance of one's children — which make the same point: we intuitively believe that there are situations where that inculcating the right "moral" attitude is much more important than actually enforcing the correct behavior.

As long-time readers will know, I've discussed some deep problems with this Kantian account of morality.

In what sense is the right thing to do different from the beneficial (at least in some sense of "beneficial") thing to do? If these two accounts really were different, then there must be something that is right without being beneficial in any sense, an attitude I flatly reject on humanist grounds: the humanist good by definition is what is in some sense beneficial to human beings. If the right thing to do is equivalent to some sense of benefit, then how can we determine whether anyone us acting because it's the right thing to do rather than because of the benefit? And even if someone were to do the do the right thing because it's the right thing to do, there must be some subjective benefit: they are satisfying their desire to do the right thing because it is right.

Of course, a bit of charity can fix some problems in the Kantian view. Specifically, one could interpret the view as deprecating certain kinds of benefits, such as short-term, individualistic benefits and the avoidance of negative consequences, while promoting other kinds of benefits, such as long-term mutual benefit and the emotional benefit of adherence to duty. Neither Kant nor his interpreters are completely stupid (Kant himself made an important contribution to scientific cosmology). The problem is that it's just as much work constructing an exegesis that makes Kant accurate as it would be to construct a more accurate moral philosophy (while still acknowledging Kant's contributions as important groundwork).

Westacott commits an intellectual sin all too common in philosophy: he presents a dichotomy without giving us much of a framework for resolving that dichotomy. Indeed he draws only the conclusion that "not just that Kant may have a point, but that most of us implicitly recognize this point." But why does academic surveillance intuitively retard our moral development, while traffic surveillance not only fail to retard our "moral development" but actually promote it? As Hamlet noted,
Assume a virtue, if you have it not.
That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat,
Of habits devil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gets a frock or livery,
That aptly is put on. Refrain to-night,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence: the next more easy;
For use almost can change the stamp of nature,
And either curb the devil, or throw him out
With wondrous potency.
Why should it be good to assume the virtue of safe driving while bad to assume the virtue of academic probity?

One approach is (unsurprisingly) game theory. Safe/Dangerous driving is a true Prisoner's Dilemma/Snowdrift/Chicken game. If everyone drives safely, then everyone is better off: we have laminar traffic flow and a low risk of death or injury from accidents. If everyone drives dangerously, everyone is worse off: we have turbulent traffic flow and a relatively higher risk of death and injury. If everyone else is driving dangerously, there's little benefit to driving safely: other drivers' habits still make traffic turbulent, and one is typically at risk from other drivers' behavior than one's own. (One may furthermore even suffer a net loss: time is valuable, and driving safely in a dangerous environment can slow one down considerably.) If everyone else is driving safely, there's an individual benefit to driving dangerously: one can exploit the overall laminar traffic flow to one's own time benefit. Since other drivers' behavior determines risk, the additional risk is mostly externalized to others.

Furthermore, the benefits of everyone driving safely are clear and nearly universal. Even those who would prefer to drive dangerously while everyone else drives safely know that they are better off driving safely than they would be if everyone drove dangerously.

Kant does indeed have at least the beginning of a point: I would approve more of a person who drives safely because they value the mutual benefit of a safe and efficient traffic system than I do of a person who doesn't care about the mutual benefit and merely drives safely to avoid the penalties of enforcement. On the other hand, I have the pragmatic problem of trusting other people to actually drive safely, and convincing them to trust me to drive safely. I'd like to know that people are virtuous, but I can't expect them to be suckers; I can't expect them to allow their feelings of virtue to make them targets of exploitation. I can't trust someone who claims, however strenuously, only that they do indeed have a Kantian motive — a person who does not have a Kantian motive would certainly lie about having one. Paradoxically, I can effectively persuade people that I have a Kantian motive by supporting a non-Kantian enforcement mechanism: only someone with a Kantian motive has nothing to lose by enforcement, and I'm happy if someone without a Kantian motive "insincerely" supports enforcement. Contrawise, if there is no enforcement, I won't drive safely even if I do have a Kantian motive — at least in the sense of valuing the mutual benefit — because the mutual benefit will not occur just because I personally drive safely.

Compare and contrast the driving scenario with the academic ethics scenario. From the perspective of the individual students, academic ethics is not a Prisoner's Dilemma/Snowdrift game, it is a zero-sum game. Some students will get A's at the expense of those who get B's, at the expense of those who get C's, D's and F's. Those who who get lower grades will have a lower economic, academic and social reward, and those who actually fail will incur sometimes enormous economic expense (pass or fail, tuition is non refunded and one still has to pay back one's student loans). All cheating does is change the distribution of the benefits and expenses, not their overall magnitude. Of course there are larger social benefits to having an honest academia, but these social benefits are cold comfort to a failed student repaying twenty thousand of dollars in student loans with a low-wage, low-status job.

Furthermore, I would speculate that cheating or the desire to cheat is more prevalent at the lower end of the spectrum of academic performance. People who would otherwise fail are tempted to cheat their way to a C; those who would normally get A's and B's would seem less interested in cheating. A and B students seem inclined to go into professions where actual competence matters. A C student who cheats his way to an A would be quickly found out when his competence fails; he is better off in a selfish, non-Kantian sense with an honest C than a dishonest A. Similarly, even if someone who could honestly earn a B cheats his way to an A, he might still fail to develop even B-level competence; his dishonest A will be worse than his honest B. If there's rampant cheating among the D and F students, only the honest C students have a perverse incentive to cheat to get the C they honestly deserve.

The difference between C students and D/F students (and those who don't go to college) is primarily an arbitrary status difference: graduates had the financial and social wherewithal to actually pay for college and spend four years not working. The actual competence gained by just passing — primarily self-discipline and basic literacy — can be more easily and more inexpensively gained and demonstrated in other ways. Likewise, the difference between A and B students is primarily a status difference: both — if honest — are adequately competent, and I doubt (but I might be mistaken) that there is little empirical distinction between the post-academic performance of A and B students.

If the distinction is primarily arbitrary status, not actual competence, then there is little immediate reason to prefer those who gain status by one means or another; being a high status graduate through cheating is just as good (in an immediate sense) as being a "honestly" high status graduate; since status is not correlated with competence, we could just as easily use height or hair color. Insofar as immediate competence matters, academic honesty is self-enforcing (or has external enforcement); we do not need to appeal to a Kantian moral sense just as we do not need to appeal to a Kantian moral sense to not drop bowling balls on our feet.

It's notable that individual performance-simulating cheating in the private workplace is nearly non-existent; "cheating" there is mostly using work time for non-work-related activities. In the workplace, performance is directly measurable; if the job gets done, it's done, and employers are typically unconcerned with how it got done. If you have a task that has already been done elsewhere, it is perfectly acceptable to simply pay for and import the fully-complete task in toto. Likewise, collaboration — usually a big "no-no" in academia — is actively encouraged in the workplace: the point is not to measure the individual's performance, but to get the job done.

Westacott presents honor codes as somehow more Kantian, but this position is suspect. Honor codes do entail some surveillance, and entail consequences if cheating is somehow discovered. Indeed, honor codes simply move some of the surveillance to the student body itself, and rely on the superior students immediate self-interest in reporting cheating: an A student has nothing to gain by even tolerating others' cheating, much less assisting it. We can no more determine under an honor code than strict surveillance whether the motivation for compliance is due to to a Kantian moral sense or avoidance of the immediate consequences of cheating. We're inculcating a Kantian moral sense — in the sense of doing something by sheer duty — by making the student body responsible not for compliance but implementation.

As I mentioned earlier, there are larger social considerations to inculcating a sense of honesty in not only college students, but also the general population. But simply expecting a Kantian moral sense — in either the sense of preferring mutual benefit or acting from a sense of duty — without taking any direct, immediate steps to physically inculcate that sense seems to rely on magical thinking; when effective, a Kantian moral sense always relies on some method, which might be covert, of direct enforcement.

There's another dimension to the issue specifically of surveillance and enforcement that Westacott's additional examples put in a sharper light.
Or compare two workplaces. At Scrutiny Inc., all computer activity is monitored, with regular random audits to detect and discourage any inappropriate use of company time and equipment, such as playing games, emailing friends, listening to music, or visiting internet sites that cause blood to flow rapidly from the brain to other parts of the body. At Probity Inc., on the other hand, employees are simply trusted to get their work done. Scrutiny Inc. claims to have the lowest rate of time-theft and the highest productivity of any company in its field. But where would you choose to work?

One last example. In the age of cell phones and GPS technology, it is possible for a parent to monitor their child’s whereabouts at all times. They have cogent reasons for doing so. It slightly reduces certain kinds of risk to the teenager, and significantly reduces parental anxiety. It doesn’t scar the youngster’s psyche – after all, they were probably first placed under electronic surveillance in their crib when they were five days old! Most pertinently, it keeps them on the straight and narrow. If they go somewhere other than where they’ve said they’ll go, or if they lie afterwards about where they’ve been, they’ll be found out, and suffer the penalties – like, their cell phone plan will be downgraded from platinum to regular (assuming they have real hard-ass parents). But how many parents really think that this sort of surveillance of their teenage kids is a good idea?
The overriding issue here has nothing whatsoever to do with inculcating any sort of Kantian moral sense. The issue, rather, is whether or not employers and parents can be trusted to use surveillance and enforcement only for a mutual benefit including their employees and children. Neither employees nor children are the slaves of their employers or parents, and excessive surveillance compromises their primary benefits of autonomy and privacy.

It is not at all clear too whether strict surveillance in the workplace — despite claims to the contrary — actually improves actual productivity, which is difficult to measure directly; I know from direct experience that strict workplace surveillance is often used to reinforce status distinctions and social dominance relations between management and workers; workplaces with strict social hierarchies are not necessarily more productive than those with a more collaborative and equalitarian atmosphere.

Rather than objecting to surveillance because it fails to develop or hinders development of a Kantian moral sense, we object to surveillance in these examples because it's just bad in itself.

We can draw the larger conclusion that when strict surveillance and enforcement of some behavior appears intuitively objectionable, we have not fully understood the game in which the surveillance and enforcement is taking place.

In the case of traffic enforcement, driving safely itself has clear and unambiguous instrumental utility, and the surveillance and enforcement acts predominantly to create a mutually beneficial outcome that would be impossible or unstable without the surveillance and enforcement. The surveillance and enforcement do not act to inculcate a Kantian moral sense, they act rather to protect those who (somehow) develop a Kantian moral sense — in the sense of directly preferring a mutual benefit to exploiting others — and ensure they are not exploited or made suckers.

In the case of academic honesty, among the students there is not a Prisoner's Dilemma situation: academic honesty enforces one particular zero-sum game over another, and the larger social benefit of the "honesty" game does not (under present circumstances) outweigh the direct negative consequences for those students who lose that game. Surveillance and enforcement do not protect those who develop any sort of Kantian moral sense, since honest failures suffer negative consequences just as severe as detected cheaters.

Once we understand what social "game" is being played and how it is being played, we can construct systems of surveillance and enforcement that use immediate self-interest to select against truly undesired outcomes; where the desired outcome is of mutual benefit to all parties, a Kantian moral sense will develop automatically. Where a Kantian moral sense does not develop automatically, there is not Kantian moral sense to develop — no mutual benefit — or the game has been set up or played irrationally or for covert purposes.

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