Who’s to Blame?

How do you plead?

How do you plead?

I sometimes think that, although there is currently a great inequality in the world, there will come a time when we will have found ways of making society more equal and particular groups in society will no longer be disadvantaged. We are living at a time of almost unprecedented skepticism and upheaval of both our systems of government and economics. At the same time, over the next couple of decades artificial intelligence will have advanced to such a degree that it will be necessary to build some kind of morality into all artifacts that do any kind of complex calculation that has significance for safety or wellbeing. These two ideas are connected. They both require a more sophisticated approach to the way in which we allocate moral responsibility.

Perhaps this is pie in the sky, because all we have achieved since the millennium are greater degrees of inequality, and although autonomous vehicles are now on the horizon we have still not managed to get computers or robots to perform the kind of tasks that are quintessentially human like having compassion or pouring a cup of tea. Nevertheless stay with me in this thought experiment and see where it goes. I’m writing this mainly from a UK perspective but the points apply quite generally.

Assume, just for one moment, that in the next 10 to 20 years, in some countries at least, automation has encroached on not just most manual jobs but also on more highly skilled and professional work. There are many commentators that support this view. Assume also that the product of this is distributed fairly (a far less likely assumption) such that everybody in society has more than enough to meet their basic needs. What’s left to do?

One possibility is that just like on a Christmas Day when we are relieved of the normal routine of work and thrown together with those closest to us, one reaction will be to pick holes in each other’s behaviour. Another will be a spate of litigation against those organisations that have created artificially intelligent machines that for one reason or another go wrong, cause harm or even just frustrate and annoy. In other words, we will all become involved in the process of ‘debugging’ the unacceptable and often unintended consequences of the artifacts and systems we build (including, by a stretch of the imagination, all our interpersonal relationships and contractual arrangements – implicit and explicit).

The identification of the cause of something undesirable is to allocate blame (if its desirable we praise). We commonly engage in blame when haven’t got anything more pressing to do. So, when our resources are freed up from the need to put food on the table or engage in all that other spurious activity that society and the commercial world would have us believe is important, our attention can turn to fixing those things that are bugging us.

This is probably something that we are better at doing the older we get because it takes some experience and maturity to distinguish between the things that we ourselves cause and the things that are caused by others. A baby has little sense of self. Teenagers must, sometime agonizingly, go through the process of establishing their own identity. Even as adults we often have difficulty working out whether, say, Microsoft is at fault or whether it is our own stupidity (to my mind it makes more sense to always blame Microsoft!).

In other words, I can see the theme of blame manifesting itself more strongly in all sorts of systems, both formal and informal, and partly through want of anything better to do, an industry of blame related services will mushroom. These are services like mediation, arbitration and litigation. We believe these activities are driven by human values, and therefore ultimately rely on human skill and judgment. However, in a complex world in which it is possible to go on forever establishing cause, culpability and moral responsibility, what we have now by way of legal argument will start to look like child’s-play. As we continue to make progress in both our scientific and philosophical understandings of the nature of intention and free will, we will be far better equipped to make detailed and complex arguments about who or what is to blame for anything that we are not happy with.

So, for example, if we have each hired autonomous vehicles and your hired vehicle runs into my hired vehicle maiming one of my passengers, we enter a world in which the attribution of blame might have to be shared between the manufacturers of the vehicles, their owners, their hirers, the authorities that maintain the road, other people and autonomous agents that might have contributed to the accident, the passengers of the vehicles and their insurers and so on.

From what I’ve seen of the way the car insurance industry works at the moment it would seem to be based on a set of clandestine rules and arrangements for settlement between insurers that the general public is rarely aware of. These are no doubt to preserve the profitability of the insurance industry and it is difficult to tell whether they serve the interests of the insured. It would therefore be no bad thing if the logic on which blame is allocated, and settlements were made, were opened to public scrutiny.

At the other end of the spectrum, if person A says something to person B that makes them unhappy, can B legitimately blame A? Perhaps they can in the sense of the superficial cause, but whether they can in the sense of a moral responsibility is more difficult to establish and may depend on unpacking the nature of the relationship between A and B. This is to examine the implicit contract between A and B and to see whether the comment falls, inside or outside the current ‘rules of the game’ or indeed whether it represents a legitimate attempt to shift the rules. If A hurts B by saying that C does not like them, this might be morally praiseworthy within the set of rules we define as ‘friendship’, especially if it’s true and it helps B understand C’s behaviour.

Blame is a complex concept. It involves notions of causality, intention, consequence, and the evaluation of moral responsibility to say nothing of the roles of compassion and mitigation. As our understanding of the brain, psychology and society increases, the more difficult it becomes to identify a single point of blame. Is the person with a brain injury responsible for their actions? Can a child coming from a family of many generations of abuse and social disadvantage/injustice, brought up on computer games and films portraying violence, and exposed to extensive media coverage of terrorist acts, provoked and pressurized by adverse circumstances, to be held solely responsible for their antisocial behaviour? The more we discover, the more we appreciate that we can only understand individual behaviours as taking place within a socially constructed context. They are manifestations of entire systems as opposed to individually calculated and motivated.

The law assesses culpability in terms of intent. An act that causes harm (or a failure to act in foreseeable circumstances) can be categorized as purposeful, reckless or negligent. The law can also take into account consequence, especially when considering the victim, and how the extent of punishment will affect them. However the legal system has many anomalies and drawbacks. It’s only virtue is that it is a more or less agreed system of reconciling differences of opinion (on what can and cannot be done in a criminal or civil sense). This does not mean that it is reasonable or fair.

Our legal system as it stands, favours those who can construct the best argument. It is a mechanism that allocates culpability and blame based on the capability to research and articulate the argument, or pay for this to be done. This further disadvantages those that are already disadvantaged.

One way out of all this is to put aside notions of morality and ethics and look at blame simply as a process of fixing a problem. Although our emotions of frustration and anger drive us towards punishment and retribution, if we can put this aside, it is possible to establish a much cleaner logic for the allocation of blame and see blame , not as a justification for retribution, but as a mechanism of identifying what exactly needs to be fixed. This does not mean giving up the evaluation of behaviour. We can still say that a particular act is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in terms of it’s intention and it’s outcome, but instead of seeking punishment and retribution, focus on ‘fixing the problem’.

Punishment may fix the problem in terms of acting as a deterrent. Incarceration may fix the problem in the sense of removing the problem from mainstream society. And these, therefore act as legitimate justifications. However, these mechanisms have some unfortunate unintended consequences. They stigmatise and further disadvantage the perpetrator and they put the perpetrator into a culture where unsocial acts are the norm and new criminal techniques can be easily learnt. In many ways they do precisely the opposite of what is required to solve the problem. When, as a society are we going to grow up and address this head-on.

Fortunately, there are some new approaches, like restorative justice, where the perpetrator and the victim are brought together, appear to work to the advantage of both. There will always be occasions where removal from society is the only safe option, but in most cases of crime, this is just sweeping the problem under the carpet. The number of people in prison that have mental health issues is a travesty and a testament to just how bad a system we have built. Particularly in the US. See:


So, where is all this going? We can see that:

  • Our systems of justice are often unfair and can aggravate rather than fix the problem. They, themselves need fixing.
  • That there will be an increasing need (and hopefully capacity) to grow service industries in all the activities that deal with relationships between people, and between people and society – services such as mediation, counseling, arbitration and more productive forms of litigation and redress.
  • That as our artifacts grow in the capacity to act autonomously, there will be an increasing need to embed into them, explicit values and some kind of moral ‘code’
  • It is becoming increasingly apparent that we need a systemic approach to understanding individual behaviours
  • That advances in science, psychology, neurology, philosophy and computer science offer more informed and more effective ways of doing this.

We should be working on new, more explicit, evidenced based, and rigourous notions of justice, responsibly and blame that do not perpetuate the faults of our current systems.

As our technologies and understandings develop, we are going to need new regulators of a society, containing both human and artificial agents, each constructing and executing a complex web of intentions within a new social context. If we get this right, there is a growth industry of people based services that can lead the way to a more productive and fairer society.

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Rod Rivers' interests include writing about economics, psychology, and philosophy; listening to Radio 4 and watching TED and YouTube videos; engaging in conversations with friends and colleagues, and re-experiencing the world through the eyes of his two teenage sons. Living in the 21st century is a huge privilege.

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About This Blog

This series of blog postings takes a multi-disciplinary approach to social policy, bringing together ideas from psychology, economics, neuroscience, philosophy and related subjects to inform policy makers and other professionals about how we might think in new ways about the individual and society . There are some easy ways to read it:

• Very Easy – Just read the blog titles: Most blog title are propositions that the blog content attempts to justify. Just reading the names of the blogs in order from first to last will provide an overview of the approach.

• Quite Easy - Just read the text in bold. This brings out the main points in each posting.

• Easy - Just watch the videos. This is easy but can take a while. The running time of each video can be seen in the caption above it. Hover over the video to see the controls – play and pause, large screen, and navigate around.

• Harder – Read the whole blog. Useful if you are really interested, want to learn, or want to comment, disagree with the content, have another angle or whatever. The blog is not being publicised yet but please feel free to comment and I will try to respond if and when I can.

The blog attempts not to be a set of platitudes about what you should do to be happy. In fact, I would like to distance myself from the ‘wellbeing marketplace’ and all those websites/blogs that try and either sell you something or proffer advice. This is something quite different. It takes as its premise that there is a relationship between wellbeing, needs and control in both the individual and society. If needs are not being met and you have no control to alter the situation, then wellbeing will suffer.

While this may seem obvious, there is something to be gained by understanding the implications of this simple idea. We are quite used to thinking about wellbeing in terms of specifics like money, health, relationships, work and so on, but less familiar with dealing with the more generic and abstract concepts of need and control.

Taking a more abstract approach helps filter out much of the distraction and noise of our usual perceptions. It focuses on the central issues and their applicability across many specifics that affect how we think and feel.

The blog often questions our current models of the way we think about the human condition and society. It looks at the things we all know and talk about – decisions and choices, relationships and loss, jobs and taxes, wealth and health but in a way in which they are not usually described. It tries to develop a new account, that draws on a broadly based understanding of what we now know from science, culture and common sense.

If you are looking for simple answers you will not find them here. This is not because the answers are complex. It is because the answers are not necessarily what you expect.

If you are looking to explore in some depth the nature of wellbeing and how it is influenced by what you can control, and what others can control that may affect you, then read on. Playing through some of these ideas into the specifics of policy, at the level of society and the individual, will take time but I hope you will see the virtue of working from first principles.

When walking through any landscape different people will see different things. A geologist might see an ice-age come and go, forming undulations in its wake. A politician might see territorial boundaries. Somebody else may see a hill they have to climb together with the weight of their back-pack.

Taking a perspective of wellbeing and control is different from how we normally look at the world. It's a deeper look at why and how things happen as they do and the consequences on wellbeing. It questions the relationship between intention and outcome.

We normally see and act through the well-worn habits of our thoughts and behaviours as they have evolved to deal with things as they are now. We mainly chose the easy options that require the least resource. As a survival strategy this generally works well, but it also entrenches patterns of thought, behaviour and emotion that sometimes, for the benefit of our wellbeing, need to be changed. When considering change, people often say ‘well, I wouldn’t start from here’. And that’s the position I take. I am not starting from the ways things are or have evolved, but from the place they might have been had we known what we know now and had designed them.

The blogs argue that, in an era of specialisation, we have forgotten the big picture – we act specifically and locally within the silos of our specialised education and experience. We check process rather than outcomes. We often fail to integrate our knowledge and apply it to the design of our social and work systems (as well as our own thoughts and behaviours).

To understand society we first need to understand the individual and to this end, a psychological account of how we feel, think and behave based on notions of wellbeing and control is proposed. And not in an abstract airy-fairy kind of way, but as a more or less precise theory that forms the basis of a predictive and testable computational model. The theory is essentially about how, both as individuals and society we manage multiple (and often conflicting) intentions in real time within limited resources. I call this model 'the human operating system'. This is like a computer operating system except that it is motivated by emotions, modulated by reason and is expressed in the language of mind and its qualities of agency and intentionality.

Just as in the mathematics of fractal geometry, complex structures can emerge from simple rules. The explanation given of the interplay between emotions, physical bodily states, thoughts and behaviours shows how much of the complexity in the individual can be accounted for by a set of relatively simple rules. This can be modelled using a system of symbolic representation and manipulation involving intentions and priorities operating in a complicated and changing environment.

The language and models that we use to understand the individual can also be applied to organisations and other structures in society. Through an understanding of what makes for wellbeing in the individual we can also understand what makes for better wellbeing in society generally. The focus, therefore, is on understanding the individual and then using that understanding to inform how we might think about other structures in society and how all these structures relate to each other from the point of view of wellbeing, shifting patterns of control and the implications for social policy.