Ethics and trust: the tyranny of words, the despotism of discourse
A tech field seems affected by this absolute need for trust: artificial intelligence. Technology subject to all fantasies, AI worries at least as much as it fascinates.
Trust is a buzzword. Grant it or refuse it, it is the center of attention. It is so important that it is the subject of studies and polls, particularly in the political field. Thus, the Sciences Po Center for Political Research (CEVIPOF) publishes the Barometer of Political Confidence each year, a “French reference document on the question of French confidence in politics” as the Center itself announces. The edition on “The major trends since 2009″ published in 2019, affirms that “[i]n politics, trust is the cardinal value of democracy” adding a few lines below that “the period 2009-2019 was a black decade for political confidence in France”. We then understand the importance given to trust in contemporary political discourse.
In times of crisis (health or security for example) this trust becomes a commodity all the more precious as it quickly crumbles. It becomes an issue that is the subject of a communication battle in a context of mistrust and disgust vis-à-vis politics, where each obstacle imposes an additional effort to regain the confidence of the French, or, at the very least, prevent it from always eroding.
Another area now seems affected by this absolute need for trust: artificial intelligence (AI). A technology subject to all fantasies, AI worries at least as much as it fascinates. Many questions are raised by its development and use, as to the potential risks it represents and the means of limiting its scope. It is in this capacity, and in the absence of solid legal regulation, that ethics is today called upon to standardize AI. But, on closer inspection, this recourse to ethics has no other purpose than to reassure consumers. To gain their trust. This "cosm-ethics" consisting of a reductive pseudo-ethical discourse with rhetorical value, only aims to legitimize a technology whose numerous potential abuses cannot make us forget the economic, political and diplomatic stakes. In fact, ethics becomes a surety, a marketing tool used to gain consumer confidence, much more than it is a philosophical position based on conviction. It becomes a soothing tinsel masking interests whose morality would be far too sensitive or complex to explain.
Each word then becomes a weapon. Whether it is a question of politics, health, safety or technology, the construction of a reassuring discourse invariably involves the use of carefully chosen words to generate specific perceptions.
This is the case with the word “ethics” as with the word “trust”. Two indefinable terms, two signifiers whose meanings are left to everyone's free interpretation, but whose perceptions are generally reassuring and soothing.
Trust: simple word, complex notion
The most interesting thing about the word trust (like the word ethics for that matter) is that it speaks to everyone but that no one is able to define it. This will not be the subject of the lines to follow which will be limited, and this is already ambitious, to proposing avenues for reflection on the subject.
When it comes to trusting, most people take a binary approach: trust or not. However, the notion of trust is much more complex and nuanced. Confidence is granted by degrees, depending on circumstances, people, subjects, a context, a situation. It is variable over time, all other things being equal. So I can trust a friend and lend him my car, but refuse to tell him a specific secret. I can, in the same way, give him enough confidence after several years and end up confiding my secret to him, while refusing, after having seen his behavior evolve, to lend him my vehicle. Trust is earned at all times. It is never given or acquired ad aeternam. It is, moreover, only very rarely absolute.
Trust therefore seems to be an intersubjective relationship between two or more individuals, granted according to a degree of knowledge of the risks and benefits that can be derived from it. However, trust is above all a notion that binds the individual to himself. One could philosophize and consider oneself as another, to use Ricoeur's formula, and conclude that the relationship therefore remains intersubjective. But, beyond philosophy, any trust placed in others is based on the trust we place in ourselves, that is to say on our ability to make a relevant judgment on the reliability of the person. 'other and a credible assessment of the risks and benefits. The trust that we give is therefore above all turned towards ourselves: we trust our judgment to trust others. In this area, it is therefore always advisable, before deciding to grant confidence, to question our ability to make this decision. If we take the example of politics, even before refusing or withdrawing all or part of my trust, I must wonder about the relevance of my judgment as to its reliability, that is to say on my own ability to assess risks and benefits.
Take responsibility for our ignorance
The main difficulty here is to overcome our propensity to believe that each of us is sufficiently informed (not to say intelligent) to decide whether or not a politician deserves our confidence. Yet ignorance, this lack of knowledge inherent in human beings, is the basis of trust. In Secret and Secret Societies, the sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel wrote that “[t]he who knows everything does not need to trust, he who knows nothing cannot reasonably even trust”. But are we only, in our hyper individualistic societies where the individual becomes the measure of all things, capable of introspection, able to question our knowledge and admit the abyssal depth of our ignorance which tends to disqualify any judgment? solid on the reliability of others? We who vote on words, promises or appearances, without knowledge of the ins and outs of the political exercise, without even, too often, reading (and even less understanding) the political programs, are we legitimate to grant or refuse our confidence in politics?
It is moreover on this share of ignorance that the recourse to encompassing, generic, vague and malleable terms such as trust and ethics is based. It is on this part of ignorance that those, often specialists in communication, play to orient our perceptions and make legitimate and acceptable, even desirable, what is not necessarily so. The mere mention of the word trust summons trust. How could the promise of trustworthy AI development not inspire trust? How could the promise of an ethical AI not instill confidence in us? No need for grand speeches in our hyper-communication societies to instil trust. Only our ignorance and a few chiseled terms are enough to lull our already failing vigilance. This is the case with words such as “responsibility”, “transparency, “explicability” or even “values”, whose meaning is never clearly defined but whose sound is reassuring to our ears.
From ethics to cosm-ethics
However, trust has a fundamental social dimension for “creating social cohesion, based on an important network of reciprocal expectations”, as Glorai Origgi points out in his dictionary of Social Passions. It is in this mediation both to the other and to uncertainty that trust summons ethics.
Another word that has become catch-all because it is susceptible to all kinds of interpretations, ethics is in fashion. Political, environmental, military, legal or even financial ethics, ethics is found across the entire spectrum of human activities. Often used, wrongly, indistinctly from the substantive “morality”, the word “ethics” is omnipresent in public and private discourse.
In matters of artificial intelligence, ethics has even become central as this technology generates uncertainty and therefore concerns. In this case, we will understand the importance of the notion of trust in the discourse of actors with interests in the field. Reassuring becomes a strategic objective and the discourse its practical variation. So much so that no one really sets any limits in the use of ethics as a vector of legitimation. Rigor would require that ethics be approached in a philosophical context. But our ignorance, combined with a certain intellectual laziness, allows the term to be misused in contexts which are more a matter of marketing or political rhetoric than of philosophical reflection.
Ethics has therefore become a guarantee without the need for conviction. A hollow word generating positive perceptions with the ultimate objective of promoting our submission to a reality that is beyond us. This passive consent not to seek beyond signifiers, beyond vague notions, beyond soothing discourse, is akin to a form of servitude which does not even have the merit of being voluntary. In any case, ethics, the real one, is crushed by cosm-ethics, a misguided form of ethics aimed at making acceptable, if not attractive, the unacceptable. Cosm-ethics aims at trust by reducing uncertainty, where ethics opens the doors to the unknown and therefore to doubt.
The tyranny of words is the cornerstone of the despotism of discourse. Nothing new, however. In The Horsemen, Aristophanes already criticized the demagogues and their oratorical abuses, by staging a blood sausage merchant, Agoracrite, in competition with the demagogue Cleon to gain the trust of Demos (the people in Greek).
Simple words that cleverly put together put our conscience to sleep and subtly invite us to put our intelligence to sleep. Thus, an ethical AI based on values of responsibility, transparency, and trust suddenly becomes acceptable, by the simple magic of a speech act, a performative injunction like that of the snake Kaa in the film of animation The Jungle Book: “Trust. Believe in me. That I can... watch over you. (…) Take a nap, unsuspecting. I am there. Have confidence ".
No conspiracy theory behind these reflections, nor any value judgment with regard to politicians: just an invitation to caution, this cardinal virtue which is akin to a saving distrust when it is reasoned, but counterproductive and dangerous when it is ideological and becomes a position of principle, a formal opposition, a mistrust. Because, no offense to those who claim the contrary, it is not trust that is at the foundation of democracy, but rather this attenuated form of mistrust that is prudence. It is she who justifies the need for a social contract to counter the state of nature. It is still she who justifies the separation of powers to avoid tyranny. It is she who justifies the pre-eminence of the people over their leaders to rule out the possibility of a dictatorship. It is because we know we are fallible by nature that we are suspicious of others. And it is because we are suspicious, and therefore cautious, that we establish safeguards such as democracy. But let us be careful not to let ourselves be lulled by Kaa's sweet song and his invitation to trust, because as Aristotle wrote about tyrants, "[it] was always by gaining the trust of the people that all succeeded in their purpose” (Politics, Ch. 4, L. VIII).
Panem et circenses … et confidiam, “bread of circus games … and trust”, one could say to paraphrase Juvénal’s famous formula. Would trust be the new “opium of the people”, a way to relieve oneself intellectually at a lower cost?
But should we only trust the word trust? Should we trust ethics? Can we, should we be satisfied with a simple tutelage of our consciences? Should we accept this form of sedative rhetorical governmentality?
The problem here is not to judge the morality of one option or another. Submission to authority, whether of others or of words, is neither shameful nor condemnable. Its social form, which is conformism, is, moreover, characteristic of all social relations. The problem is to ignore that one submits out of ignorance (and laziness) or, worse, to deny it out of excess of self-confidence.
Trust and ethics should not be the vectors of a ductility carried by simple perfectly calibrated words. They should not become comfortable excuses to take away responsibility and not seek to know beyond what we are told.
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