The many-hands and many-causes problems

Alex Reinhart – Updated January 18, 2022 notebooks ·

The problem of many hands is a central problem for ethics and accountability in companies and organizations: If many people work together to do something, and as a result cause harm, who is responsible for that harm? Who can be held accountable when no one person’s contribution is directly responsible for the harm?

Similarly there is the problem of many causes: If a project is large and extremely complicated, and causes harm because of an unexpected combination of factors nobody anticipated, who is responsible for that harm? When there are many causes for the harm, how can any one be identified as the responsible cause?

These problems seem abstract, but I see them as key problems for data ethics. It’s difficult to ensure data is used ethically when no one person feels responsible for harms resulting from whatever big complicated data-based system they help build.

See also Machine learning and law.