How to Hold a Robot Accountable

February 12, 2012

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Sometimes you go through life smelling roses, tasting snowflakes – unbothered by the Big Questions. Other times you find yourself reflecting on the fundamentals of human nature. Go figure.

I blame Dr. Elaine Storkey. She recently gave a great talk at the Christianity and the Life of the Mind conference, where she challenged social scientists to interrogate their assumptions about human nature before they begin their analysis about human behaviour. Still fresh in my mind, I attended a seminar to hear about the work of Dr. Randall Hansen and his new book on global governance and migration.

He began by explaining that he saw states as ‘rational actors’ which were ‘self interested’ and ‘profit maximizing’. (I thought only undergraduate political science textbooks talked like that!?) While his talk was very interesting, I found myself unsettled by where it ended. Dr. Hansen argues that rich ageing countries in the West, and poor growing countries in the South will inevitably create a supply/demand force for mass unskilled labour migration. However, providing all these migrants with the same privileges immigrants currently enjoy in countries like Canada would be unsustainable. Therefore, Hansen argues the only logical response will be the expansion of temporary work programs, which would scale back the rights of migrants and send them back once they have served their purpose, and earned their wages (a simplified version of his argument).

To be fair, Dr. Hansen was not arguing that this was the right thing to do, but since he saw states as rational profit maximizing bodies, it was the most likely. Given the documented contributions of immigrant communities, and the horrible human rights records many temporary work programs have had, I found myself offended by his ‘matter-of-fact’ conclusion, as if the livelihoods and families of millions of migrants were not at stake. Surely there was more to it than this. But if we take Dr. Hansen’s preface to heart, that states are these automated profit calculating machines, then maybe there is not.

When we interact with people on a daily basis, we always appeal to their better judgment, sense of empathy, moral sense – more than their own interests. Anyone who has tried to negotiate with a public service worker knows that bureaucracies do have a way of emulating robots. But until someone proves otherwise, I contend that governments are composed of networks of (albeit, privileged) people, and not coin-fed machines. So why then are we so willing to let them off the hook? Why should we expect people to act with others’ interests in mind, but states to act only with their own? I just don’t see the global human rights agenda advancing very far if it does not hold governments accountable as humans first. After all, we are fighting ‘The Man’ aren’t we?

@lpha

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