A Philosophical Theory of Fairness for Prediction-Based Decisions

10 Pages Posted: 18 Sep 2019 Last revised: 4 Nov 2019

See all articles by Michele Loi

Michele Loi

University of Zurich

Anders Herlitz

The Institute for Future Studies

Hoda Heidari

ETH Zürich

Date Written: September 9, 2019


The computer science community has produced a flurry of research on defining fairness for prediction-based decisions. This philosophical contribution takes this literature seriously as it analyzes some of the most widely discussed, and employed fairness definitions from the ML literature. It defends a theory of fairness for prediction-based decisions and uses it to interpret the so-called "Trolley Problem of Machine Learning" – the choice between predictive parity and equalised odds as fairness metrics. Like other contributions to the machine learning literature, our theory takes as its point of departure the Rawlsian theory of Equality of Opportunity. Unlike previous approaches with a similar inspiration, it redefines the main concepts of that theory by introducing moral concepts at a higher level of abstraction. This theory aims to be neutral with respect to substantive moral theories about the justification of inequality. Its main virtue is to make it transparent how, given a moral view concerning what justifies inequality, what does not justify inequality, and what is luck, one may assess the decisions taken by a rule that has certain statistical properties, which can be determined, for example, by considering its confusion table.

Keywords: fairness, machine learning, algorithmic fairness, theories of justice, John Rawls, equality of opportunity, fairness dilemma

Suggested Citation

Loi, Michele and Herlitz, Anders and Heidari, Hoda, A Philosophical Theory of Fairness for Prediction-Based Decisions (September 9, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3450300 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3450300

Michele Loi (Contact Author)

University of Zurich ( email )

Rämistrasse 71
Zürich, CH-8006

Anders Herlitz

The Institute for Future Studies ( email )

Holländargatan 13
Stockholm, 11136

Hoda Heidari

ETH Zürich ( email )

Rämistrasse 101
Zürich, 8092

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