Seth Lazar (ANU) - "Legitimacy, Authority, and the Political Value of Explanations"

This Friday, May 14th, Seth Lazar (ANU) will present on "Legitimacy, Authority, and the Political Value of Explanations". 


Abstract: As rapid advances in Artificial Intelligence and the rise of some of history's most potent corporations meet the diminished neoliberal state, we have become increasingly subject to power exercised by means of automated systems. Machine learning, big data, and related computational technologies now underpin vital government services from criminal justice to tax auditing, from public health to social services, from immigration to defence. Two-sided markets connecting consumers and producers are shaped by algorithms proprietary to companies such as Google and Amazon. Google's search algorithm determines, for many of us, how we find out about everything from how to vote to where to get vaccinated; Facebook, Twitter and Google decide which of our fellow citizens' speech we get to see—both what gets taken down, and (more importantly) what gets promoted. We sometimes imagine AI as a far off goal—either the handmaiden to a new post-scarcity world, or else humanity's apocalyptic 'final invention'. But we are already using AI to shape an increasing proportion of our online and offline lives. As the pandemic economic shock ramifies, and the role of technology in our lives grows exponentially, this will only intensify.

We are increasingly subject to Automatic Authorities—automated computational systems that are used to exercise power over us, by substantially determining what we may know, what we may have, and what our options will be. These computational systems promise radical efficiencies and new abilities. But, as is now widely recognised, they also pose new risks. In this paper I focus on one in particular: that the adoption of Automatic Authorities leads us to base increasingly important decisions on systems whose operations cannot be adequately explained to democratic citizens.

Philosophers have long debated the importance of justifications in morality and politics, but they have not done the same for explanations. What's more, the most prominent Automatic Authorities in our lives today are deployed by non-state actors like Google and Facebook, and analytical political philosophy has focused much more on state than non-state power. To make progress on one of the most pressing questions of the age of Automatic Authorities, therefore, we must make substantial first-order progress, on two fronts, in moral and political philosophy. 

That is my goal in this paper. My central claim: only if the powerful can adequately explain their decisions to those on whose behalf or by whose licence they act can they exercise power legitimately and with proper authority, and so overcome presumptive objections to their exercise of power grounded in individual freedom, social equality, and collective self-determination. This applies to all authorities, not only automatic ones. But I will demonstrate its application to Automatic Authorities, including those sustained by non-state actors. I will use this account of why explanations matter to address the urgent regulatory questions of to whom explanations are owed, and what kinds of explanations are owed to them. 



The seminar will be held 100% in person from 2:00-3:30pm in the auditorium on the first floor of the RSSS Building. It will be followed by socializing and a dinner with the speaker. (You can sign up for the dinner here.)

Date & time

Fri 14 May 2021, 2:00pm to 2:30pm


Auditorium, Level 1, RSSS Building


Seth Lazar


Pamela Robinson


Updated:  11 May 2021/Responsible Officer:  Head of School/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications