Computer Justice

August 25, 2008 § 34 Comments

Suppose I designed a computer program which very accurately predicted the outcome of criminal trials based on various factors about the accused: hair color, zip code, that sort of thing. The accuracy is very good, lets say, but not perfect.

Now suppose this computer program were used to actually try criminals: that is, those accused of criminal acts are actually sentenced based solely on the output of this computer program. Obviously, those cases where the program gets the wrong result and sentences an innocent man are unjust.

I would argue, though, that all cases of using this program to actually try criminals are unjust, independent of whether or not it produces the “right” outcome.

I would further suggest that, similarly, when an employer sets a man’s wages based on market rates alone, this is always unjust, even when it produces the “right” outcome.

Market rates for things do, of course, constrain what is possible. But life is full of options. If it isn’t possible for someone in the position to be an employer of full-time employees to do this thing justly, it is always possible for him to do something else entirely. The set of things which can be done justly has always been a subset of the things which can be done at all. Ahem.

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§ 34 Responses to Computer Justice

  • Bob says:

    I’m happy that our justice system is not like our economic system and that our economic system is not like our justice system.Both the justice system and our economic system have different ways of determining the truth although I’m sure that some similarities can found. Those similarities don’t suggest that those two systems of determining the truth should be identical.For one thing, the courts are trying to arrive at an objective truth. On the other hand, the values in the market are subjective. The price of gas changes from town to town.

  • August says:

    So the employer who advertises wages for a position sins?Seriously, I think I’ve just spent an hour trying to figure out how to explain this to you. I think you must have some sort of progressive idea of what the market is, or something, because the way you approach it doesn’t make sense unless you think the market is constructed and somehow apart from us.The commodification of labor wouldn’t make sense, even to a man who care for nothing but profit. The difference in productivity alone renders the approach nonsensical.Go read or listen to something at http://www.acton.org. You’ll get a better feel for how to combine Catholic social teaching with economics.

  • zippy says:

    The economic system and the criminal justice system are not abd should not be <>identical<>, of course. But that isn’t a license to banish justice from economic activity -qua- economic activity.

  • zippy says:

    <>So the employer who advertises wages for a position sins?<>Did I say that somewhere?

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    We wouldn’t want the factors mentioned in the computer system–hair color and zip code, for example–even to be _part_ of what determined or constrained the outcome. Yet as you say, market factors are even on your view legitimately _part_ of what determines wages. Your objection is to having them be the whole story. Doesn’t this make the analogy pretty much worthless? I tend to think that our outrage re. the computer scenario arises from the _utter irrelevance_ of the factors involved.

  • Bob says:

    <>But that isn’t a license to banish justice from economic activity -qua- economic activity.<>And I’ve not suggested that.

  • Kevin says:

    guilty/not guilty is a binary attribute with an objectively true value. You’re either guilty or you’re not.There is no “right answer” to what a salary should be. If the employer and employee agree to a certain amount, and the employee is not in poverty, then what is the problem?

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    One of the perfectly legitimate and indeed important ways in which the market non-accidentally relates a man’s needs to his wages is by way of the man’s own motivations and sense of responsibility. The employee is, and should be, _trying_ to fulfill his needs and those of his family, which will motivate him to seek wages that do, in fact, meet his needs. Does that mean he can always get what he needs? No, but in America today, it often does.Example: I know a man who has a family and a full-time job with benefits. He has some reason, though not an urgent one, to be a bit concerned for the security of his present job, so he’s quite rightly looking around. But in the process, and to my bafflement, he is applying for a job with a church where he has some reason to fear that the new job would _not_ pay a full-time wage with benefits. That is, it wouldn’t even be as good as his present job, which for all he knows for sure he can keep indefinitely. He traveled to an interview with the prospective new employer without even asking ahead of time, “Is this a full-time job? What kind of pay range are we looking at?” If I were his wife, I’d have a thing or two to say, especially considering that they know some people who have worked for this church, received only a part-time salary, and done the “missions thing” (aka, begging from other people totally unrelated to the ministry) for the remainder of their financial needs. Why even bother interviewing without knowing more first?Now, I honestly don’t know if it’s wrong for this church to offer these sorts of wages, as apparently they do sometimes, to men with families. But I do think men with families are irresponsible to take the positions if they have other options. Hopefully this guy would drop the whole idea if he found out he was being offered a position of this type. He could simply stay where he is.But _he has that responsibility_. I’m not asserting dogmatically that the prospective employer has _no_ responsibility. But I am asserting that the prospective employee is not just a passive prisoner awaiting his fate. He is actively seeking to meet his needs, and he should be, and this feeds directly into a market mechanism for competitive wages.

  • love the girls says:

    August writes : “So the employer who advertises wages for a position sins?”Interesting. I would say that what is advertised is what the employer is able to pay, and that if someone accepts the job it is understood that wages are dictated by the market in such manner that the employer doesn’t not have control over them.But on the other hand, if the wages are set solely by the market without taking into account who is performing the position, then yes it is possible that sin is involved. If a man knowingly pays a sub living wage while being able to do so, he is committing the sin of theft.

  • ctdkite says:

    The Catechism states: “Agreement between the parties is not sufficient to justify morally the amount to be received in wages.” It does not state that an agreement between the parties is not sufficient “if the employee is in poverty.”

  • love the girls says:

    Miss Mcgrew writes : “I do think men with families are irresponsible to take the positions if they have other options.”I agree. A man’s duty is to support his family. Just as the employer has a duty to support that same family if it is within his the capacity to do so.Some jobs are simply not living wage jobs, and a man cannot accept those jobs if can do better at supporting his family.

  • Anonymous says:

    Lydia says: “But I do think men with families are irresponsible to take the positions if they have other options.”What if, due to the very nature of that father’s ‘trade’, most other jobs which do offer such high compensation packages often turn out to be for companies that commit serious immoral transgressions by the very nature of the product they manufacture?Would you seriously condemn such a man if all other job alternatives turn out to be low-paying ones and that man actually takes such a job rather than being employed in higher paying ones that subsequently typically engage in immoral enterprises?

  • Anonymous says:

    – e.

  • zippy says:

    Lydia:<>Yet as you say, market factors are even on your view legitimately _part_ of what determines wages. Your objection is to having them be the whole story. Doesn’t this make the analogy pretty much worthless?<>Well, the justice system is limited in a similar fashion and by pretty much the same things: only so many police officers, only such and such technology, etc. So I don’t think stipulating those practical limitations makes the analogy worthless.Mutual obligation also carries over. Criminals and accused criminals have moral responsibilities too. Obviously criminal justice is not identical to employment justice; but I think they do share in common enough attributes to make the thought experiment apt.LTG, I do agree with this:<>Some jobs are simply not living wage jobs, and a man cannot accept those jobs if can do better at supporting his family.<>There can be problems though where there are attempts to ‘disaggregate’ living wage jobs into non-living-wage jobs. We see this all the time in the use of contractors or cheap overseas labor to replace full-time employees. There are not merely economic issues at work here, but also moral issues.

  • Kevin says:

    “<>The Catechism states: “Agreement between the parties is not sufficient to justify morally the amount to be received in wages.” It does not state that an agreement between the parties is not sufficient “if the employee is in poverty.”<>“Not being in poverty means that all your basic needs are met. If all your basic needs are met, what more does justice demand?Consumption that goes above and beyond your basic needs is optional consumption. Its an add-on. An extra. It is not required.If your basic needs, (understood to include the needs of those you are responsible to, such as the family you support,) are met by the wage you earn, you are earning a just wage.

  • Danby says:

    What everybody is this discussion is missing is that labor, like medicine, is not and cannot be a <>free market<>.A free market is one is which the buyer is free to refuse purchase and the seller is free to refuse sale. A sick man is not free to refuse to purchase medical care, and a working man is not really free to refuse to sell his only ware. He takes the best he can get, within a relatively limited timeframe. If the best he can get is not quite a living wage, too bad for him.Even if the labor market could conceivably be a free market it is not so in practice. The corporations in this country have managed to create a situation where 14% of the working population are idle. They bring in immigrants to work for below-subsistence wages. So long as they can keep this state of affairs, they will. This is <>market manipulation<> and is what corporations are best at.

  • ctdkite says:

    Kevin: The preceding sentences in the Catechism seem to indicate that there is more to a just wage than merely meeting the employees basic needs. 2434 A just wage is the legitimate fruit of work. To refuse or withhold it can be a grave injustice. In determining fair pay both the needs and the contributions of each person must be taken into account. “Remuneration for work should guarantee man the opportunity to provide a dignified livelihood for himself and his family on the material, social, cultural, and spiritual level, taking into account the role and the productivity of each, the state of the business, and the common good.”

  • Kevin says:

    Danby, you are correct as long as there is only one employer offering work. Which is never the case.ctdkite: What, in addition to a family’s basic needs, are you prepared to argue that justice DEMANDS?Piano lessons? Sushi on fridays?

  • Danby says:

    Kevin, So the inclusion of another employer makes the market free? That’s just nonsensical. The market is not free if the seller (workman) is not free to refuse a sale. The fact that two employers are capable of employing him has no bearing. Suppose (just for an example) that BOTH offered him less than a living wage. Is he free to refuse both? Suppose (for another example) that they sufficiently manipulated the market that there was no place he <>could<> work for a living wage.Outside of the true commodity markets, there is very little of a free market in this country..

  • ctdkite says:

    Kevin:No, I am not prepared to argue what beyond basic needs justice demands, but it is clear from the Catechism that it demands more than just basic material needs.To insist that just renumeration demands only basic material needs is a reductionist argument that, again as the Catechism notes, leads to violations of the Seventh Commandment.

  • Kevin says:

    Danby, you seem to be under the impression that there is collusion and price-fixing occurring by a conspiracy of the employers. It may sound plausible when you are supposing there is only one or two employers, but when you have hundreds of them, it is just laughable.You can ask what a worker is to do when all employers offer a wage below what is just, but doesn’t that get off topic? Your point that I am disputing is that the labor market is not a “free” market. Indeed it is. You characterization of whether it is free is simply that the supply of labor is relatively inelastic with respect to the price. That may be so, but note that even many individuals offering a perfectly inelastic supply of labor does not mean that the aggregate supply curve is perfectly inelastic. And furthermore, it is quite clear that the inelasticity of supply does not grant monopoly powers to the great number of buyers (employers) as you mean to imply.

  • Kevin says:

    ctgkite:How much do you have in mind when you imagine a just wage?Is it more than the GDP per household of 100 or 200 years ago? (probably)If so how do you reconcile the idea of justice as an unchanging ideal with the reality that such levels of consumption were impossible until so recently?

  • ctdkite says:

    Kevin: The first two are good questions. The only point I am trying to make is that we cannot assume that the market will necessarily (though it may accidentally) set a just wage.As to the last question, I must admit I do not understand it. The ideal of justice is unchanging, but what comprises justice does change. It is like the common good. The Compendium on Social Doctrine does a pretty good job explaining that the ideal of the common good is unchanging but what constitutes the common good can vary with place and time.

  • Danby says:

    Kevin, A free market is defined by the ability to refuse to sell. Can a workman refuse to sell? Having a choice of buyers is not the same thing.And no, I don’t believe in collusion, as in a conspiracy, but rather a commonality of interest that pursues common goals. One of those goals is to lower labor costs. Look at the H1B visa program. What is the purpose except to force down labor costs for skilled labor? There’s currently an excess of technical workers, yet Congress is looking for a way to expand the H1B program by 80,000 people. Look at the bi-partisan drive for illegal immigration. What purpose? To drive down labor costs for unskilled labor.Congress largely acts at the behest of corporations. Corporations want to lower labor costs, Congress complies. No conspiracy, but a commonality of interest.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    I could have a lot to say here but will say only a very little: This business Danby keeps bringing up about “having only a choice of buyers” seems to me entirely beside the point. If a family discovers they can’t keep up the mortgage on their house, they have to make a choice of buyers. That doesn’t mean the sale is “unfree” in some significant sense that means we can just scoff and the notion of a free market. Ha, ha. It isn’t a free housing market for the Jones’s because they bought more house than they can afford and now need to sell to avoid bankruptcy. It can happen with _all sorts of things_ including things that no one would question are “commodities” that in some sense you “have to sell them.” You move from the country to the city and have to sell your horse. So it isn’t a free market in horses anymore? I’m sorry. That’s just word-juggling.

  • zippy says:

    My own view is that “free market” and “command economy” are both idealized fictions which never exist in the real world, and that utopian attempts to realize either in actual practice always lead to some form of tyranny. I don’t think we have an idealized free market, nor is there any problem with the fact in itself that we don’t have an idealized free market, since such a thing does not exist — indeed, is not even really coherently conceivable. Every genuine human freedom operates within the bounds of some preexisting authoritative limits, and becomes incoherent when conceived of as something independent of preexisting authoritative limits.

  • Kevin says:

    There is a fundamental misunderstanding occurring here concerning the word “freedom”. Having the economic freedom not to work does not mean being independently wealthy. It means you can quit your job without getting in trouble with the LAW. It means it is for you to decide whether you should work or not. Just because you decide that you REALLY need to work does not mean you are not economically free. If you were homeless, penniless, naked, and unskilled, you would still be economically free in America. You would just be in poverty.This is the freedom that economists are talking about.

  • zippy says:

    <>This is the freedom that economists are talking about.<>The notion that economic libertarians will say “mission accomplished”, pack up, and go home based on achieving a state wherein … you can quit your job without being sent to prison … is not tenable. Indeed we have achieved that state, and yet economic libertarians still have criticisms (some of them valid). So obviously they mean more than that when they use the term “free market”.

  • Kevin says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • Kevin says:

    I think I have faithfully represented the common usage of the words.Some people may argue that we have a mostly free market, but it could be freer: For instance I think you have to be licensed to call yourself a barber or an interior decorator. Ok, more economic freedom is possible.Other people argue that the market isn’t free based on a complete misunderstanding of economic freedom. Commenter Danby strays into this territory sometimes. That is what I am responding to.

  • Anonymous says:

    Zippy,This is just a FYI notice on your behalf — there seems to be somebody at JA.O making an accusation against you:< HREF="http://jimmyakin.typepad.com/defensor_fidei/2008/07/p-z-myers-must.html#c127685922" REL="nofollow">“…Others have accused me of “making things up” (namely Zippy) — even while making the crafty qualification I mentioned above.”<>(6th paragraph down the long )tirade.

  • zippy says:

    Are people really still talking in that thread? What a hoot!

  • Anonymous says:

    Zippy,<>Are people really still talking in that thread? What a hoot!<>I think there shooting for 2,000.It seems they could go on like that <>ad infinitum<>.

  • Scott says:

    <>Are people really still talking in that thread? What a hoot!<>Bwaha! Long gone, yet the threatened squid continues to shoot a cloud of black ink!

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