Escaping the Impossibility of Fairness: From Formal to Substantive Algorithmic Fairness
Philosophy & Technology, Volume 35, 2022. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13347-022-00584-6
32 Pages Posted: 12 Jul 2021 Last revised: 28 Feb 2023
Date Written: October 8, 2022
Efforts to promote equitable public policy with algorithms appear to be fundamentally constrained by the “impossibility of fairness” (an incompatibility between mathematical definitions of fairness). This technical limitation raises a central question about algorithmic fairness: How can computer scientists and policymakers support equitable policy reforms with algorithms? In this article, I argue that promoting justice with algorithms requires reforming the methodology of algorithmic fairness. First, I diagnose the problems of the current methodology for algorithmic fairness, which I call “formal algorithmic fairness.” Because formal algorithmic fairness restricts analysis to isolated decision-making procedures, it leads to the impossibility of fairness and to models that exacerbate oppression despite appearing “fair.” Second, I draw on theories of substantive equality from law and philosophy to propose an alternative methodology, which I call “substantive algorithmic fairness.” Because substantive algorithmic fairness takes a more expansive scope of analysis, it enables an escape from the impossibility of fairness and provides a rigorous guide for alleviating injustice with algorithms. In sum, substantive algorithmic fairness presents a new direction for algorithmic fairness: away from formal mathematical models of “fair” decision-making and toward substantive evaluations of whether and how algorithms can promote justice in practice.
Keywords: Algorithmic fairness, algorithmic bias, justice, substantive equality, discrimination, risk assessments
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