- Assignment 1: Critical Analysis and Argumentation
This assignment is designed to assess your ability to critically analyze a technology from a moral standpoint and cultivate a new perspective on the news stories and media that we all encounter everyday.
For this assignment, you will write a paper that examines an ethical issue raised in a news article with respect to the design or usage of a computer technology. In this paper, you will summarize the argument, identify its shortcomings, and propose an alternative argument. Finally, you will provide a recommendation as to whether this technology should be used (explaining how to mitigate the potential dangers) or not (explaining how to achieve similar benefits in another way).
You will complete this assignment individually. Please read the rest of this document carefully as it breaks down this assignment into concrete steps and describes the deliverables that you will need to submit by the due dates.
When discussing philosophy works, it is important that we correctly identify the argument being made, consisting of a conclusion and supporting premises.
In philosophy, an argument is a connected series of statements, including at least one premise, intended to demonstrate that another statement, the conclusion, is true. The statements that serve as premises and conclusions are sometimes referred to as propositions and the process by which we reason in order to reach a conclusion is referred to as inference.
A premise is a statement that supports, or helps lead to, an argument’s conclusion.
A conclusion is the statement that is inferred (reasoned) from the argument’s premises.
A common task when “doing philosophy” is to examine the arguments made to support a claim. If the arguments are not strong enough, we might be able to identify a defect, or a fallacy, in an argument that involves mistaken reasoning. Sometimes fallacies are committed purposefully, to influence or mislead the reader or listener, but often mistakes in reasoning occur unintentionally, especially when dealing with complex topics. Fallacies may also become evident only at a later point when new evidence supporting or contradicting the conclusion becomes available.
In this assignment, you are asked to devise an objection (or rebuttal) argument to demonstrate that the original argument contains a fallacy. A rebuttal argument, too, is a claim (conclusion) supported by reasons (premises).
You must pick an article that contains an argument around an ethical issue that exists today with a computer technology (e.g. a platform, an app, an algorithm, etc.).
You should follow these guidelines when selecting the article:
- The ethical issue(s) that the article presents should either be relevant today or become relevant in the near future; the article itself can be as old as you wish.
- The article should come from a reputable media source, a newspaper, a science or engineering journal or magazine, a specialized journal or magazine from a different discipline, or similar.
- You may not use an article that was assigned for reading for H195 or 195 prior to this assignment release date.
Once you have selected your article, identify the argument containing the ethical issue itself (i.e., the conclusion) and the premises that provide evidence for the existence of the issue. If the article discusses multiple ethical issues, focus on the one that you find the most interesting.
The ProPublica article “Machine Bias” argues that the COMPAS algorithm, used by courts to assign a score for the risk of recidivism, is biased against black defendants. The authors of the article offer the following premises in support of their conclusion:
- The algorithm falsely flags black defendants as future criminals at almost twice the rate as white defendants.
- White defendants are mislabeled as low risk more often than black defendants, even controlling for the effects of criminal history and recidivism, as well as defendants’ age and gender.
Note that you will be asked to offer an objection to the argument that you identify. For this reason, you should not pick an article that merely mentions something with an ethical component but does not promote a position that can be easily identified or challenged. Instead, focus on selecting an article with a viewpoint that can be critiqued and which has at least one fallacious line of reasoning.
Once you have chosen an article, your next step is to offer a single, persuasive objection to the argument being made in the article. In other words, you have to demonstrate that the original argument contains a fallacy that leads to mistaken reasoning.
There are several ways in which an argument can be defective, including:
- The premises do not support or contradict the conclusion of the argument;
- The assumptions (both explicit or implicit) that form the basis of the argument are misleading, incorrect, or invalid in some other way; or
- The premises themselves contain incompatible, incorrect, or inconsistent claims. Once you have identified the fallacy, you can use it to form a critique of the original argument.
Going back to the “Machine Bias” article, you could question the definition of the “bias” or “fairness” used by ProPublica that leads to the claim that the COMPAS algorithm is biased and, therefore, unethical (i.e., focusing on the assumptions forming the argument). Alternatively, you could question whether their methodology is correct or identify a mistake in their analysis (i.e., focusing on the premises themselves).
Although you can certainly attempt to do this yourself, we also encourage you to use other sources when forming your rebuttal argument. These sources can also include any assigned readings, but it does not have to be limited only to them.
In their Washington Post article, Sam Corbett-Davies et al. point out that we could employ an alternative definition of ‘bias’ that differs from the one used by ProPublica. We could consider a risk-scoring algorithm to be biased, if and only if, for a given score produced by the algorithm, the proportion of defendants who subsequently reoffend differs depending on the race.
The proportion of white and black defendants who reoffend is approximately the same for a given risk score produced by the COMPAS algorithm. Therefore, it follows that the claim that the COMPAS algorithm is biased against black defendants is invalid.
After you have identified the fallacy in the original argument and formed the rebuttal argument, your task is to produce an independent, persuasive argument for or against the original position. As before, you may consult additional sources when forming your argument.
Your argument must either adopt the original conclusion or the negation of the original conclusion. Looking at the previous example, you could argue that
- COMPAS algorithm is biased against black defendants (original conclusion); or
- COMPAS algorithm is not biased against black defendants (negation of the original conclusion).
Note the difference between the rebuttal argument and the alternative argument. The rebuttal argument aims to demonstrate that the original argument does not provide sufficient support for the stated conclusion. The alternative argument is an independent argument for or against the original conclusion.
Furthermore, it is important to note the difference between expressing your personal opinion and arguing for a position as an exercise in philosophical discourse. Although it may feel intimidating, you do not necessarily have to advance a popular viewpoint or an argument that aligns well with your personal beliefs. Your paper will be evaluated on the basis of the validity and soundness of your arguments, as opposed to the popularity of the conclusion that you are arguing for.
In preparing your arguments, ensure that you make your assumptions explicit and avoid obvious mistakes and fallacies. You may wish to consult this document from the Department of Philosophy at Harvard University that offers a brief guide to writing successful philosophy papers.
Finally, you will summarize the paper by providing a recommendation as to whether this computer technology should be used (explaining how to mitigate the potential dangers) or not (explaining how to achieve similar benefits in another way).
Your recommendation does not have to depend on the position that you argued for in the previous part.
Your first deliverable is a link to your chosen article together with the argument containing the ethical issue itself and the premises that provide evidence for the existence of the issue.
The output of the main assignment is a paper containing the following parts:
- An introduction that provides a brief overview of the computer technology and the ethical issue at hand.
- A description of the argument (including its premises and the conclusion) that the authors of your chosen article are making.
- Your rebuttal argument: an objection made to the original argument.
- Your alternative argument: an independent, persuasive argument for or against the original conclusion.
- A recommendation as to whether this computer technology should be used or not.
- Sources and references used when preparing your paper.
The expected length of your paper is around 1000 words (± 10%). Please submit your paper double-spaced in PDF format. Do not forget to include the list of references used when writing your paper. You may use any citation style as long as it is consistent throughout the paper.