Facial Recognition Software Isn’t Unethical, And Neither Is Clearview

New technology that is called “unethical” because of how it might be used unethically in the future, or by some malign agent, illustrates an abuse of ethics or, more likely, a basic misunderstanding of what ethics is. Technology, with rare exceptions, is neither ethical not unethical. Trying to abort a newly gestated idea in its metaphorical womb because of worst case scenarios is a trend that would have murdered many important discoveries and inventions.

The latest example of this tendency is facial recognition technology. In a report by Kashmir Hill, we learn that Clearview AI, an ambitious company in the field, scraped social media, employment sites, YouTube, Venmo—all public—to create a database with three billion images of people, along with links to the webpages from which the photos had come. This dwarfed the databases of other facial recognition products, creating a boon for law enforcement. The report begins with the story of how a child sexual abuser was caught because he had inadvertently photo-bombed an innocent shot that had been posted on Instagram.

This episode resulted in wider publicity for Clearview, which had attempted to soft-pedal its database and methods because it was afraid of the typical “unethical” uproar.

Continue reading

Ann Althouse Meets Spuds: On Althouse Saturday, Two Canine Ethics Questions From The Blogger I’ve Been Meaning To Answer

Our rescue dog Spuds is gradually coming into his own now: after being starved by his previous owner, he finally is secure enough to leave some food in his dish and finish it later. He’s also finding his inner puppy at 2 and a half, which is both challenging for us as he gets stronger, and fun. I honestly don’t know how we went so long without a dog in our home after Rugby left us.

Ann Althouse, whose opinions have been unusually visible on Ethics Alarms today,  raised two dog-related ethics issues since we adopted Spuds last month, and since the dog left me panting by running me over hill and dale this morning as I allowed him to run off leash for the first time, addressing them now seems like a timely task.

(As I type this, Spuds is trying to climb onto my desk…)

1. On August 23, Althouse wrote,

Why don’t the people who think you should get a “rescue” dog when you want a dog also think you should get a “rescue” child when you want a child? In fact, isn’t the argument for adopting an older child with special needs even stronger than the argument for adopting an older dog that hasn’t had the advantages of a loving home and careful training? After all, many dogs are euthanized, but we strive to keep all our children alive even when they have terrible behavioral problems. And dogs are kept under the control of owners all their lives, while children become adults and are allowed to move about freely in the world even when they are quite dangerous. It’s therefore especially important to take great care of all of the children who have been born into this world.

People will say that they want their own biological offspring, but what makes you think what you have to give genetically is so wonderful? Dog breeders have much higher standards selecting which dogs to use for breeding. People just decide to use themselves. When you have your own biological children, you’re picking yourself because you are yourself. I’m not saying that’s wrong. In fact, I think it’s quite beautiful, making something out of your own body and the body of a person you love. So I’m beginning to see the answer to my question. When you have your own child, you’re not being a eugenicist, looking for the ideal baby. You’re accepting the randomness of who you happen to be and who you’ve found to love. The baby grows out of that is more like a rescue dog than a breeder’s dog.

I do think Althouse answered her own question., at least the human part. Having a child (or many) with someone you love is part of the human experience, helps bind couples and society together, and is a spiritual as well as a natural biological act. Of course, that description assumes a lot: that the child was planned, that the parents love each other, that they are married, and that there are no known toxic hereditary traits to avoid. Continue reading

“Fertility Equality”

This ethics topic has been lying around on my office floor—literally—for more than a month now. I have not known what to do with it. The New York Times—it is for occasional articles like this that I subscribe to that habitually unethical paper—published an article in July headlined (in the print version) “The Right To A Baby?” It appeared in its “Thursday Styles” section, which specializes in elite trivia (the other piece on that section’s front page was about tattoo artist and dog groomers who make house calls).

Here is the first part of the article:

While plenty of New Yorkers have formed families by gestational surrogacy, they almost certainly worked with carriers living elsewhere. Because until early April, paying a surrogate to carry a pregnancy was illegal in New York state.

The change to the law, which happened quietly in the midst of the state’s effort to contain the coronavirus, capped a decade-long legislative battle and has laid the groundwork for a broader movement in pursuit of what some activists have termed “fertility equality.”

Still in its infancy, this movement envisions a future when the ability to create a family is no longer determined by one’s wealth, sexuality, gender or biology.

“This is about society extending equality to its final and logical conclusion,” said Ron Poole-Dayan, the founder and executive director of Men Having Babies, a New York nonprofit that helps gay men become fathers through surrogacy. “True equality doesn’t stop at marriage. It recognizes the barriers L.G.B.T.s face in forming families and proposes solutions to overcome these obstacles.”

The movement is led mostly by L.B.G.T.Q. people, but its potential to shift how fertility coverage is paid for could have an impact on straight couples who rely on surrogates too.

Mr. Poole-Dayan and others believe infertility should not be defined as a physical condition but a social one. They argue that people — gay, straight, single, married, male, female — are not infertile because their bodies refuse to cooperate with baby making.

Rather, their specific life circumstances, like being a man with a same-sex partner, have rendered them unable to conceive or carry a child to term without medical intervention. A category of “social infertility” would provide those biologically unable to form families with the legal and medical mechanisms to do so.

“We have this idea that infertility is about failing to become pregnant through intercourse, but this is a very hetero-centric viewpoint,” said Catherine Sakimura, the deputy director and family law director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “We must shift our thinking so that the need for assisted reproductive technologies is not a condition, but simply a fact.”

Fertility equality activists are asking, at a minimum, for insurance companies to cover reproductive procedures like sperm retrieval, egg donation and embryo creation for all prospective parents, including gay couples who use surrogates. Ideally, activists would also like to see insurance cover embryo transfers and surrogacy fees. This would include gay men who would transfer benefits directly to their surrogate….

Observations:

  • I see this as an excellent example of how a threshold decision in an ethical analysis of any new idea is whether bias and the automatic prejudice human beings tend to have against any new concept—basically the “Ick Factor”—is making a fair analysis impossible. It’s hard to do; our tendency with such ideas is to think, “That’s ridiculous!” and  stop there. But of course, that was the original majority reaction to many ideas that were revolutionary at one time but that represented the progress of ethics, which is evolutionary by nature and necessity. We always are learning that there are things we thought were right and “natural” that were, in fact, wrong, and that some concepts that society viewed as wrong for centuries were either neutral or benign.

That process is what ethics is. Continue reading

Continued Still…From The Ethics Alarms Mailbag: “What’s Your Reaction To Various Ethics Controversies, Including The Use Of The White House, During The Republican National Convention?” Part 3: The White House

The question that spawned this long post [ Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here] was, “What’s your opinion of Trump using the White House as a political prop?”

D. The White House

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said that Trump will further “destroy” American precedents if given a second term in office. “This is what we can expect in a second Trump administration,” Schumer said. “All the rules, norms, values that have made this country great, Donald Trump will destroy them. He doesn’t care. He only cares about himself. The rules are you shouldn’t sit in the White House and give a speech at a convention. Donald Trump says, ‘I want to do it.’ So they do it.”

There’s no such rule. The President isn’t covered by the Hatch Act, and given all the political uses of The White House by previous Presidents, I’d love to hear the argument that a speech being delivered to a virtual convention during a pandemic using the White House as a backdrop is unconscionable, or even unethical.

Professor Julian Zelizer, whose field is history and public affairs at Princeton University, said that  using the White House as a “prop” at a party convention is “unprecedented” in recent times. “There still is a boundary between politics and governing, and the Oval Office and White House are a public site meant for the country that isn’t meant to be a political backdrop,” Zelizer told ABC News. “To just use it as the major site for a convention speech seems like a lot with President Trump — you just take all the guardrails down.”

Cite, please. That something is “unprecedented” doesn’t make it unethical. The White House has been used as a political prop many times, just not at a convention. Nothing has been quite as grubby as Bill Clinton selling nights in the Lincoln bedroom for big money donations, but way back in the Kennedy Administration, the nation gushed over lovely Jackie Kennedy  hosting a televised tour of her “home,” bolstering the developing legend of how graceful and refined the young First Couple were. (Jack was probably banging a starlet while Jackie was being filmed.) Go ahead, tell me that “special” wasn’t “unprecedented” or political. Continue reading

Continued…From The Ethics Alarms Mailbag: “What’s Your Reaction To Various Ethics Controversies, Including The Use Of The White House, During The Republican National Convention?” Part 2: The First Family And “Government Functions”

The question of whether the just-completed GOP convention breached ethics rules or principles as many are claiming is multi-faceted. In the first section of this three-part  post, I considered the ugly facet of the event’s many Hatch Act violations. The rest is more equivocal.

B. The First Family

No doubt about it, President Trump’s family set a record for speaking time at a national party convention. For Trump-haters—and this really is what we’re talking about in this section and nothing else—the display was nauseating. One of the inquirers  pronounced this “Royal Family” behavior, and even suggested a dark conspiracy to pave the way for more Trumps at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Talking Point Alert! The “All Trump Hate All The Time” New York Magazine called the parade of Trump children the kind of “dynastic overkill that only this President would dare flaunt.” Well, only one previous President had the opportunity to approach this one by using so many adult children as flacks, and he chose to pass: George H.W. Bush. Then again, he lost.

I wouldn’t cross the street to hear any of the President’s family speak, but the claim that there is something unethical about putting them on the program is just about as perfect an example of Trump Derangement as you could find. Trump is an old guy, and leads the Presidential historical field in adult, politically active children. His kids, and his son in-law, are attractive, poised, and experienced. Chelsea Clinton spoke in support of her mother at the 2016 Democratic National Convention: if there was any criticism of her appearance as unethical, I missed it—and she was not the first offspring of a President or Presidential candidate to have a speaking slot. So what’s the alleged ethical breach here? It appears to be the “it’s unethical to have more than an unspecified number of Presidential children speak at a convention when you’re Donald Trump” rule. Continue reading

No, There’s Nothing Unethical About Performing Holograms Of Dead Singers…

…as long as they don’t materially misrepresent the performer or the performance. They may be icky, but they aren’t unethical. This is in ethical contrast with the Ethics Alarms position on zombie performers in films, as examined here several times, most recently upon the unveiling of zombie James Dean.

The issue has arisen because a holograph of Whitney Houston, mercifully in a form before her physical and vocal decline due to drug abuse, is touring the country. Here’s a review of one of the performances; Zombie Whitney will make her debut in the US soon. Big plus: she doesn’t have to worry about the Wuhan virus, just holograms of the Wuhan virus. Fans have been less than ecstatic, as much because of the quality of the image as the ickiness of the concept. Here’s part of one review: Continue reading

Ick Or Ethics? The Nauseating Social Media Meme

I have a long-time friend whose spouse has the above Facebook meme as a social media avatar. As a result, I have serious reservations about having any further interaction with either of them.

Once again, I am bedeviled by the phenomenon of public virtue-signaling, a non-virus epidemic that mostly manifests itself among smug progressives. There is no question in my mind that such ostentatious declarations are obnoxious and nausea-inducing, and thus offensive. But are they unethical?

The last time I addressed this issue was when these signs, mercifully short-lived, starting popping up on my neighbors’ lawns.

Then, I see that I was adamant, writing in part, Continue reading

Won’t You Try Saturday Afternoon Ethics, 1/25/20? The Segue Post…

The Winter of Hate would seem like a good time to remember the Summer of Love, don’t you think?

1.Well, that’s nice! A man gets along with his brothers! Rich Juzwiak is Slate’s sex advisor. A recent male enquirer asked him, “I live in a large house along with six brothers, all adults and close to each other in age, two of whom I am having sex with….The problem is that I don’t know what to call this arrangement…”

Oh, is that the problem?

What’s an interesting though experiment is trying to define exactly what this big, happy family arrangement is unethical, or even if it is. What harm does it do to society or non-consenting people? It doesn’t risk unhealthy babies, or ruin the family heirarchy like male-female incest

It the fair and honest answer to the reader’s question, “What do you call it?” “I call it so icky I want to barf, not that there’s anything wrong with that”? Is this the best example of the Ick Factor ever?

How about, “I don’t know what to call it, but if you don’t sell it as a reality show, you’re all idiots” ?

An aside: This reminded me of my favorite Ann Landers question of all time. Ann’s readers said she was having an affair with the husband of a professional lady wrestler, who walked in on her and the cheating husband as they were getting disrobed. He babbled that she was his masseuse, and, incredibly, the credulous wrestler bought it. She asked the terrified mistress if she would give her a massage too, and, trapped, Ann’s inquirer agreed. The wrestler was pleased—so pleased that the woman is giving her weekly massages while continuing to have sex with the wrestler’s husband. What do you think was her question to Ann?

“Can I get in trouble for giving massages without a license?”

This convinced me that Ann Landers answered more fake questions than I previously assumed. Continue reading

Sunday Before Christmas Ethics Ornaments, 12/22/19: Googling Ethics, “Cats,” Goldman Sachs, De Niro, Trump Derangement

Here’s hoping that the the next three days rescue the Spirit of Christmas…

…because the last few weeks have been a downer, man.

1. Googling ethics:  Phillip Galanes, at Social Q’s was consulted by a woman who had bad vibes about her girlfriend’s new love, so she googled him, and found out, as she suspected, that he had some serious red flags in his past. She told her friend, who had discovered the bad news herself, but who was hurt and angry that the inquirer did a background check on her boyfriend. “Was I wrong?” she asked. In his answer, Gallanes implies that she was, although “everybody does it.” I’d like a nice, succinct, substantive explanation of by what ethical theory it can ever be wrong to access publicly available information about anyone. This isn’t an issue of privacy, because the information isn’t private. There was nothing wrong with the inquirer’s motives, because she was concerned about her friend.

I’d call this the Ick Factor at work. It seems unethical because the fact that anyone can check our lives out online is creepy. The research itself, however, is ethically neutral. The ethics comes in with how the information is used.

2. I guess I have to mention “Cats”…since it is getting the most spectacular negative and cruel reviews since “Showgirls,” and maybe before that. “Exorcist II, The Heretic” perhaps. Oddly, the usually hyper-critical New York Times is not one of the worst defilers, but here was what the reviewer really found objectionable :

“It’s too bad that no one seems to have thought through the semiotics of Victoria’s chalky white cat face, given that Hayward is of mixed race and that the heavy is Idris Elba’s predatory Macavity. Elba seems to be having a fine time, but come on!”

Ah! The old “mixed-race actress in whiteface being menaced by a black actor playing a cat” racist imagery!

I can’t wait for them to write down these rules. Continue reading

Ethics Quote Of The Day…Or Is It Just Icky?: Alan Dershowitz

“I have had sex with one woman since the day I met Jeffrey Epstein. I challenge David Boies to say under oath that he’s only had sex with one woman … He has an enormous amount of chutzpah to attack me and challenge my perfect, perfect sex life during the relevant period of time.”

—-Alan Dershowitz on Fox News,  attacking super-lawyer David Boies, who is representing Virginia Roberts Giuffre, a woman who claims Dershowitz had sex with her while she was one of Jeffrey Epstein’s sex slaves. 

  • Too much information, Professor.
  • Has Dershowitz never heard of the Streisand Effect? His complaining about the accusation is publicizing it.
  • Decorum? Modesty? Restraint? Dignity? Privacy? Dershowitz is 80: he’s supposed to be in the generation hat still appreciates these things.
  • He had sex with one woman for almost two decades? It was nice of him to give her a break while he chatted with Laura Ingaham…
  • Ick.