Right and Wrong vs. Right and No-Right

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This is a point that is probably too big for a blog post. But as the end of the Supreme Court term rolls around, and we start getting decisions in some of the more divisive cases of our times, something about the political undercurrents of the Court’s annual ritual has me thinking about the way it tends to legalize morality, and how much of our political narrative has to do with our disagreement about the way morals and law interact. I’m not speaking here about the positivist vs. anti-positivist debate in jurisprudence, which I view as being primarily about the ontology of law: what makes law “law” instead of something else. That question holds fairly little interest for me. Instead, I’m interested in the debate underlying that question: about the relationship between law on the one hand and justice or morality on the other. Most of the political energy released over these late decision days is not, I think, about the law, nor even about the morality, of the disputes themselves. Instead, it seems to me to be about the extent to which moral obligations ought or ought not to be legal ones–particularly in a democratic country whose citizens hold to diverse moral systems.

There is a long philosophical tradition that holds there is a difference between the kinds of conduct that can be enforced by legal coercion and the kinds that may attract moral praise or blame but which the state has no role in enforcing. This distinction–between the strict or “perfect” duties of Justice (or Right) and the softer or “imperfect” duties of Virtue (or Ethics)–is most familiar from Kant’s moral philosophy, but it has precursors stretching from Cicero to Grotius. Whether or not the distinction is philosophically sound or useful, I think it is a helpful tool for examining the interaction of morals and laws–but not in the sense in which philosophers have traditionally examined them. For most moral philosophers, justice and virtue are complementary parts of a cohesive whole: a moral system in which some duties are absolute and others contingent; the latter must often be weighed (sometimes against one another) in particular circumstances, but all duties are part of a single overarching normative system. But I think the end of the Supreme Court term generates so much heat precisely because it exposes the friction between two distinct and sometimes incompatible normative systems: the system of legal obligation and the system of moral obligation.

The simplest world would be one in which the law required us to do everything that was morally obligatory on us, forbade us to do everything that was morally wrong, and permitted us to do everything morally neutral–where law and morality perfectly overlap. But that has never been the world we live in–and not only because different people might have different views about morality. Conflicts between law and morality are familiar, and have been identified and examined at length in the scholarly literature, sometimes in exploring the moral legitimacy of legal authority, other times in evaluating the duty (or lack thereof) of obeying (or violating) unjust laws. Such conflicts are at least as old as Socrates’ cup of hemlock; one can trace a line from Finnis back to Aquinas, and from Hart back to Hobbes. Moreover, because in our society moral obligations are often derived from religious convictions, and our Constitution and statutes give religious practices a privileged status under the law, these conflicts are quite familiar to us in the form of claims for religious exemption from generally applicable laws–historically in the context of conscientious objection to military service, and more recently as an expanding web of recurring issues under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

But religious convictions are not the only moral convictions that might conflict with legal obligations. And the question whether one ought to obey an unjust law represents only one type of intersection between the two normative systems of law and morals–the most dramatic one, certainly, and the one that has garnered the most attention–but not the only one. Some of those intersections will present a conflict between law and morality, but many will not. Still, I think each such intersection carries a recognizable political valence in American society, precisely because our political allegiances tend to be informed by our moral commitments. I’ve outlined a (very preliminary) attempt to categorize those political valences in the chart below, though your views on the categories may differ (in which case I’d love to hear about it):

 Political Valence
Moral Categories
Wrong Suberogatory Morally Neutral Right Supererogatory
Legal Categories Forbidden Law and Order Nanny State Victimless Crime Civil Disobedience
Permitted Failure of Justice The Price of Liberty The Right to be Let Alone Good Deeds Saints and Heroes
Required Just Following Orders Red Tape Civic Duty Overdemanding Laws

Now of course, people of different political stripes will put different legal and moral situations into different boxes in the above chart, and frame the intersection of law and morals from the points of view of different agents. In our current political debate over enforcement of the immigration laws, for example, an American conservative might frame the issue from the point of view of the immigrant, and put enforcement in the “Law and Order” box; while an American progressive might frame the issue from the point of view of federal agents, and put enforcement in the “Just Following Orders” box. Conversely, to the progressive, the “Law and Order” category might call to mind the current controversy over whether a sitting president can be indicted; to a conservative, the “Just Following Orders” category might call to mind strict environmental regulations. Coordination of health insurance markets through federal law might be seen as an example of the Nanny State (conservative) or of Civic Duty (progressive–though 25 years ago this was a conservative position); permissive firearms laws as either a Failure of Justice (progressive) or as part of the Right to be Let Alone (conservative).

The complexity of these interactions of law and morality strikes me as extremely important to the functioning of a democratic, pluralistic society committed to the rule of law. On the one hand, the coexistence of diverse and mutually incompatible moral systems with a single (federalism aside) legal system means that inevitably some people subject to the legal system will identify some aspects of the law with a negative political valence while other people subject to the same legal system will identify those same aspects of the law with a positive political valence. For a society like ours to function, most of these people must in most circumstances be prepared to translate their moral dispute into a political-legal dispute: to recognize the legitimacy of law’s requirements and channel their moral disagreement into the democratic political process of changing the law (rather than making their moral commitment a law unto itself). The types of political valences I’ve identified may be a vehicle for doing precisely that: they provide a narrative and a framework that focuses moral commitments on political processes with legal outcomes. Our political process thus becomes the intermediating institution of our moral conflicts.

These types of moral disagreements are likely to account for the vast majority of disagreements about which political valence is implicated in a particular legal dispute. But interestingly, I think it is also likely that some disagreements over the political valence at the intersection of a legal and a moral category could arise even where people are in moral agreement. In such cases, the right/wrong axis of moral deliberation is replaced with the right/no-right axis of Hohfeldian legal architecture: we agree on what the parties morally ought to do, and the only question is how the law ought to be structured to reflect that moral agreement. Yesterday’s opinion in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case strikes me as evidence of this possibility, and I’m unsure whether that makes it comforting or concerning.

To be sure, there are deep moral disagreements fueling this litigation. The appellants and their supporters believe as a matter of sincere religious conviction that celebrating any same-sex marriages is morally wrong, and that it is at least supererogatory and perhaps morally required to refrain from contributing their services to the celebration of such a marriage. The respondents and their supporters believe that celebrating loving same-sex marriages is at least morally neutral and more likely morally right, and that refusing to do so is at least suberogatory and more likely morally wrong. (Full disclosure: I’m soundly on the side of the respondents on this moral issue.) But that moral dispute is not addressed in the opinion that issued yesterday. The opinion resolves a legal question–the question whether Colorado’s anti-discrimination laws had been applied in a way that was inconsistent with the appellants’ First Amendment rights. And the Court’s ruling turned on peculiarities of how the Colorado agency charged with enforcing the state’s antidiscrimination law went about its business–particularly, statements that Justice Kennedy believed evince “hostility” to religious claims.

It is quite likely that both political progressives and political conservatives would agree that “hostility” to religious beliefs on the part of state law enforcement officials is morally wrong, or at least suberogatory. And if that–rather than the morality of celebrating same-sex marriages–is the real moral issue in the case, the parties’ deep moral disagreement moves to one side, and instead we must simply ask how the law ought to be fashioned to avoid the moral wrong of anti-religious hostility. Here, interestingly, the typical moral progressive/conservative battle lines are either unclear or absent. If you agree with Justice Kennedy’s characterization of the facts (which you might not, and which I do not), and if you believe the respondents lack the power to compel the appellants to provide their services in connection with same-sex wedding celebrations (or that they ought to lack this power), you likely believe that the case so framed is a vindication of law and order. But even if you think the respondents do (or should) have the power to compel the appellants to provide their services for same-sex weddings, and you agree with Justice Kennedy’s characterization of the facts, invalidating this otherwise permissible state action on grounds that it was motivated by morally suspect “hostility” might be acceptable so framed as a vindication of Law and Order, or at worst seen as an example of the Nanny State. And this reveals an important point that I think likely motivated the Justices in Masterpiece Cakeshop: with this resolution of the case there is a way for moral adversaries to agree on the political valence of the outcome.

There is obviously no guarantee that the litigants or their supporters will come to such agreement. To the contrary, it seems more likely that both parties’ supporters will see the “hostility” reasoning as a distraction from the outcome, which still touches on the deeper moral issues involved: the appellants’ supporters will see the outcome as a vindication of Law and Order and an invitation to Good Deeds, while respondents’ supporters will see it as a Failure of Justice and an instruction to state law enforcement agents to Just Follow Orders. But at the very least, political agreement is possible in a way that it would not be if the Court had aligned the law with one of the conflicting moral frameworks of the litigants and against the other.

It is both the virtue and the weakness of this type of solution is that it solves a legal controversy without taking sides in the moral disputes that ultimately generated the controversy in the first place. In so doing, it insulates the law from contests of morality and, possibly, of politics–but those contests haven’t gone away. Conversely, such solutions might have the effect of insulating politics from law: if the courts will only decide disputes on grounds orthogonal to the moral commitments underlying political movements, such movements may cease to see the law as a useful instrument, and may start casting about for others. I’m not sure that’s a healthy result for a society trying to hold on to democracy, pluralism, and the rule of law all at the same time. On the other hand, I’m not sure there’s a better option. The belief that we can, and somehow will, forge a common legal and political culture despite our deep moral disagreements is not one I think a republic can safely abandon.

Missing the Data for the Algorithm

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A short new paper by Steven T. Piantadosi of the University of Rochester has some interesting implications for the types of behavioral modeling that currently drives so much of the technology in the news these days, from targeted advertising to social media manipulations to artificial intelligence. The paper, entitled “One parameter is always enough,” shows that a single, alarmingly simple function–involving only sin and exponentiation on a single parameter–can be used to fit any data scatterplot. The function, if you’re interested, is:

Screen Shot 2018-05-30 at 3.27.27 PM

Dr. Piantadosi illustrates the point with humor by finding the value of the parameter (θ) in his equation for scatterplots of an elephant silhouette and the signature of Joan Miró:

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The implications of this result for our big-data-churning, AI-hunting society are complex. For those involved in creating algorithmic models based on statistical analysis of complex datasets, the paper counsels humility and even skepticism in the hunt for the most parsimonious and elegant solutions: “There can be no guarantees about the performance of [the identified function] in extrapolation, despite its good fit. Thus, … even a single parameter can overfit the data, and therefore it is not always preferable to use a model with fewer parameters.” (p. 4) Or, as Alex Tabarrok puts it: “Occam’s Razor is wrong.” That is, simplicity is not necessarily a virtue of algorithmic models of complex systems: “models with fewer parameters are not necessarily preferable even if they fit the data as well or better than models with more parameters.”

For non-human modelers–that is, for “machine learning” projects that hope to make machines smarter by feeding them more and more data–the paper offers us good reason to think that human intervention is likely to remain extremely important, both in interpreting the data and in constructing the learning exercise itself. As Professor Piantadosi puts it: “great care must be taken in machine learning efforts to discover equations from data since some simple models can fit any data set arbitrarily well.” (p. 1), and AI designers must continue to supply “constraints on scientific theories that are enforced independently from the measured data set, with a focus on careful a priori consideration of the class of models that should be compared.” (p. 5) Or, as Kevin Drum puts it: “A human mathematician is unlikely to be fooled by this, but a machine-learning algorithm could easily decide that the best fit for a bunch of data is an equation like the one above. After all, it works, doesn’t it?”

For my part, I’ll only add that this paper is just a small additional point in support of those lawyers, policymakers, and scholars–such as Brett Frischmann, Frank Pasquale, and my soon-to-be colleague Kate Klonick–who warn that the increased automation and digitization of our lives deserves some pushback from human beings and our democratic institutions.  These scholars have argued forcefully for greater transparency and accountability of the model-makers, both to the individuals who are at once the data inputs and, increasingly the behavioral outputs of those models, and to the institutions by which we construct the meaning of our lives and build plans to put those meanings into practice. If those meanings are–as I’ve argued–socially constructed, social processes–human beings consciously and intentionally forming, maintaining, and renewing connections–will remain an essential part of making sense of an increasingly complex and quantified world.

 

Trademark Clutter at Northwestern Law REMIP

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I’m in Chicago at Northwestern Law today to present an early-stage empirical project at the Roundtable on Empirical Methods in Intellectual Property (#REMIP). My project will use Canada’s pending change to its trademark registration system as a natural experiment to investigate the role national IP offices play in reducing “clutter”–registrations for marks that go unused, raising clearance costs and depriving competitors and the public of potentially valuable source identifiers.

Slides for the presentation are available here.

Thanks to Dave Schwartz of Northwestern, Chris Buccafusco of Cardozo, and Andrew Toole of the US Patent and Trademark Office for organizing this conference.

Brand Renegades Redux: University of New Hampshire IP Scholarship Redux Conference

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Apparently I’ve been professoring long enough to reflect back on my earlier work to see how well it has held up to the tests of time. Thanks to Ann Bartow, I have the opportunity to engage in this introspection publicly and collaboratively, among a community of scholars doing likewise. I’m in Concord, New Hampshire, today to talk about my 2011 paper, Brand Renegades. At the time I wrote it, I was responding to economic and legal dynamics between consumers, brand owners, and popular culture. Relatively light fare, but with a legal hook.

Nowadays, these issues carry a bit more weight. As with everything else in these dark times, brands have become battlegrounds for high-stakes political identity clashes. I’ve talked about this trend in the media; today I’ll be discussing what I think it means for law.

Slides of the presentation are here.

Mix, Match, and Layer: Hemel and Ouellette on Incentives and Allocation in Innovation Policy

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One of the standard tropes of IP scholarship is that when it comes to knowledge goods, there is an inescapable tradeoff between incentives and access. IP gives innovators and creators some assurance that they will be able to recoup their investments, but at the cost of the deadweight losses and restriction of access that result from supracompetitive pricing. Alternative incentive regimes—such as government grants, prizes, and tax incentives—may simply recapitulate this tradeoff in other forms: providing open access to government-funded research, for example, may blunt the incentives that would otherwise spur creation of knowledge goods for which a monopolist would be able to extract significant private value through market transactions.

In “Innovation Policy Pluralism” (forthcoming Yale L. J.), Daniel Hemel and Lisa Larrimore Ouellette challenge this orthodoxy. They argue that the incentive and access effects of particular legal regimes are not necessarily a package deal. And in the process, they open up tremendous new potential for creative thinking about how legal regimes can and should support and disseminate new knowledge.

Building on their prior work on innovation incentives, Hemel and Ouellette note that such incentives may be set ex ante or ex post, by the government or by the market. (Draft at 8) Various governance regimes—IP, prizes, government grants, and tax incentives—offer policymakers “a tunable innovation-incentive component: i.e., each offers potential innovators a payoff structure that determines the extent to which she will bear R&D costs and the rewards she will receive contingent upon different project outcomes.” (Id. at 13-14)

The authors further contend that each of these governance regimes also entails a particular allocation mechanism—“the terms under which consumers and firms can gain access to knowledge goods.” (Id. at 14) The authors’ exploration of allocation mechanisms is not as rich as their earlier exploration of incentive structures—they note that allocation is a “spectrum” at one end of which is monopoly pricing and at the other end of which is open access. But further investigation of the details of allocation mechanisms may well be left to future work; the key point of this paper is that “the choice of innovation incentive and the choice of allocation mechanism are separable.” (Id., emphasis added) While the policy regimes most familiar to us tend to bundle a particular innovation incentive with a particular allocation mechanism, setting up the familiar tradeoff between incentives and access, Hemel and Ouellette argue that “policymakers can and sometimes do decouple these elements from one another.” (Id. at 15) They suggest three possible mechanisms for such de-coupling: mixing, matching, and layering.

By “matching,” the authors are primarily referring to the combination of IP-like innovation incentives with open-access allocation mechanisms, which allows policymakers “to leverage the informational value of monopoly power while achieving the allocative efficiency of open access.” For example, the government could “buy out” a patentee using some measure of the patent’s net present value and then dedicate the patent to the public domain. (Id. at 15-17) Conversely, policymakers could incentivize innovation with non-IP mechanisms while then channeling the resulting knowledge goods into a monopoly-seller market allocation mechanism. This, they argue, might be desirable where incentives are required for the commercialization of knowledge goods (such as drugs that require lengthy and expensive testing), as the Bayh-Dole Act was supposedly designed to provide. (Id. At 18-23) Intriguingly, they also suggest that such matching might be desirable in service to a “user-pays” distributive principle (Id. At 18) (More on that in a moment).

The second de-coupling strategy is “mixing.” Here, the focus is not so much on the relationships between incentives and allocation, but on the ways various incentive structures can be combined, or various allocation mechanisms can be combined. The incentives portion of this section (id. at 23-32) reads largely as an extention and refinement of Hemel’s and Ouellette’s earlier paper on incentive mechanisms, following the model of Suzanne Scotchmer and covering familiar ground on the information economics of incentive regimes. Their discussion of mixing allocation mechanisms (id. at 32-36)—for example by allowing monopolization but providing consumers with subsidies—is a bit less assured, but far more novel. They note that monopoly pricing seems normatively undesirable due to deadweight loss, but offer two justifications for it. The first, building on the work of Glen Weyl and Jean Tirole, is a second-order justification that piggybacks on the information economics of the authors’ incentives analysis. To wit: they suggest that allocating access according to price gives some market test of a knowledge good’s social value, so an appropriate incentive can be provided. (Id. at 33-34) Again, however, the authors’ second argument is intriguingly distributive: they suggest that for some knowledge goods—for example “a new yachting technology” enjoyed only by the wealthy—restricting access by imposing supracompetitive costs may help enforce a normatively attractive “user-pays” principle. (Id. at 33, 35)

The final de-coupling strategy, “layering,” involves different mechanisms operating at different levels of political organization. For example, while TRIPS imposes an IP regime at the supranational level, individual TRIPS member states may opt for non-IP incentive mechanisms or open access allocation mechanisms at the domestic level—as many states do with Bayh-Dole regimes and pharmaceutical delivery systems, respectively. (Id. at 36-39) This analysis builds on another of the authors’ previous papers, and again rests on a somewhat underspecified distributive rationale: layering regimes with IP at the supranational level may be desirable, Hemel and Ouellette argue, because it allows “signatory states commit to reaching an arrangement under which knowledge-good consumers share costs with knowledge-good producers” and “establish[es] a link between the benefits to the consumer state and the size of the transfer from the consumer state to the producer state” so that “no state ever needs to pay for knowledge goods it doesn’t use.” (Id. at 38, 39) What the argument does not include is any reason to think these features of the supranational IP regime are in fact normatively desirable.

Hemel’s and Ouellette’s article concludes with some helpful illustrations from the pharmaceutical industry of how matching, mixing, and layering operate in practice. (Id. at 39-45) These examples, and the theoretical framework underlying them, offer fresh ways of looking at our knowledge governance regimes. They demonstrate that incentives and access are not simple tradeoffs baked into those regimes—that they have some independence, and that we can tune them to suit our normative ends. They also offer tantalizing hints that those ends may—perhaps should—include norms regarding distribution.

What this article lacks, but strongly invites the IP academy to begin investigating, is an articulated normative theory of distribution. Distributive norms are an uncomfortable discussion for American legal academics—and especially American IP academics—who have almost uniformly been raised in the law-and-economics tradition. That tradition tends to bracket distributive questions and focus on questions of efficiency as to which—it is thought—all reasonable minds should agree. Such agreement is admittedly absent from distributive questions, and as a result we may simply lack the vocabulary, at present, to thoroughly discuss the implications of Hemel’s and Ouellette’s contributions. Their latest work suggests it may be time for our discipline to broaden its perspective on the social implications of knowledge creation.

What If All Proof is Social Proof?

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In 1931 Kurt Gödel proved that any consistent symbolic language system rich enough to express the principles of arithmetic would include statements that can be neither proven nor disproven within the system. A necessary implication is that in such systems, there are infinitely many true statements that cannot (within that system) be proven to be true, and infinitely many false statements that cannot (within that system) be proven to be false. Gödel’s achievement has sometimes been over-interpreted since–as grounds for radical skepticism about the existence of truth, for example–when really all it expressed were some limitations on the possibility of formally modeling a complete system of logic from which all mathematical truths would deductively flow. Gödel gives us no reason to be skeptical of truth; he gives us reason to be skeptical of the possibility of proof, even in a domain so rigorously logical as arithmetic. In so doing, he teaches us that–in mathematics at least–truth and proof are different things.

What is true for mathematics may be true for societies as well. The relationship between truth and proof is increasingly strained online, where we spend increasing portions of our lives. Finding the tools to extract reliable information from the firehose of our social media feeds is proving difficult. The latest concern is “deep fakes”: video content that takes identifiable faces and voices and either puts them on other people’s bodies or digitally renders fabricated behaviors for them. Deep fakes can make it seem as if well-known celebrities or random private individuals are appearing in hard-core pornography, or as if world leaders are saying or doing things they never actually said or did. A while ago, the urgent concern was fake followers: the prevalence of bots and stolen identities being used to artificially inflate follower and like counts on social media platforms like twitter, facebook, and instagram–often for a profit. Some worry that these and other features of online social media are symptoms of a post-truth world, where facts or objective reality simply do not matter. But to interpret this situation as one in which truth is meaningless is to make the same error made by those who would read Gödel’s incompleteness theorems as a license to embrace epistemic nihilism. Our problem is not one of truth, but one of proof. And the ultimate question we must grapple with is not whether truth matters, but to whom it matters, and whether those to whom truth matters can form a cohesive and efficacious political community.

The deep fakes problem, for example, does not suggest that truth is in some new form of danger. What it suggests is that one of the proof strategies that we had thought bound  our political community together may no longer do so. After all, an uncritical reliance on video recordings as evidence of what has happened in the world is untenable if video of any possible scenario can be undetectably fabricated.

But this is not an entirely new problem. Video may be more reliable than other forms of evidence in some ways. But video has always proven different things to different people. Different observers, with different backgrounds and commitments, can and will justify different–even inconsistent–beliefs using identical evidence. Where one person sees racist cops beating a black man on the sidewalk, another person will see a dangerous criminal refusing to submit to lawful authority. These differences in the evaluation of evidence reveal deep and painful fissures in our political community, but they do not suggest that truth does not matter to that community–if anything, our intense reactions to episodes of disagreement suggest the opposite. As these episodes demonstrate, video was never truth, it has always been evidence, and evidence is, again, a component of proof. We have long understood this distinction, and should recognize its importance to the present perceived crisis.

What, after all, is the purpose of proof? One purpose–the purpose for which we often think of proof as being important–is that proof is how we acquire knowledge. If, as Plato argued, knowledge is justified true belief (or even if this is merely a necessary, albeit insufficient, basis for a claim to knowledge), proof may satisfy some need for justification. But that does not mean that justification can always be derived from truth. One can be a metaphysical realist–that is, believe that some objective reality exists independently of our minds–without holding any particular commitments regarding the nature of justified belief. Justification is, descriptively, whatever a rational agent will accept as a reason for belief. And in this view, proof is simply a tool for persuading rational agents to believe something.

Insofar as proof is thought to be a means to acquiring knowledge, the agent to be persuaded is often oneself. But this obscures the deeply interpersonal–indeed social–nature of proof and justification. When asking whether our beliefs are justified, we are really asking ourselves whether the reasons we can give for our beliefs are such as we would expect any rational agent to accept. We can thus understand the purpose of proof as the persuasion of others that our own beliefs are correct–something Socrates thought the orators and lawyers of Athens were particularly skilled at doing. As Socrates recognized, this understanding of proof clearly has no necessary relation to the concept of truth. It is, instead, consistent with an “argumentative theory” of rationality and justification. To be sure, we may have strong views about what rational agents ought to accept as a reason for belief–and like Socrates, we might wish to identify those normative constraints on justification with some notion of objective truth. But such constraints are contested, and socially contingent.

This may be why the second social media trend noted above–“fake followers”–is so troubling. The most socially contingent strategy we rely on to justify our beliefs is to adopt the observed beliefs of others in our community as our own. We often rely, in short, on social proof. This is something we apparently do from a very early age, and indeed, it would be difficult to obtain the knowledge needed to make our way through the world if we didn’t. When a child wants to know whether something is safe to eat, it is a useful strategy to see whether an adult will eat it. But what if we want to know whether a politician actually said something they were accused of saying on social media–or something a video posted online appears to show them saying? Does the fact that thousands of facebook accounts have “liked” the video justify any belief in what the politician did in fact say, one way or another?

Social proof has an appealingly democratic character, and it may be practically useful in many circumstances. But we should clearly recognize that the acceptance of a proposition as true by others in our community doesn’t have any necessary relation to actual truth. Your parents were wise to warn you that you shouldn’t jump off a cliff just because all your friends did it. We obviously cannot rely exclusively on social proof as a justification for belief. To this extent, as Ian Bogost put it, “all followers are fake followers.”

Still, the observation that social proof is an imperfect proxy for truth does not change the fact that it is–like the authority of video–something we have a defensible habit of relying on in (at least partially) justifying (at least some of) our beliefs. Moreover, social proof makes a particular kind of sense under a pragmatist approach to knowledge. As the pragmatists argued, the relationship between truth and proof is not a necessary one, because proof is ultimately not about truth; it is about communities. In Rorty’s words:

For the pragmatist … knowledge is, like truth, simply a compliment paid to the beliefs we think so well justified that, for the moment, further justification is not needed. An inquiry into the nature of knowledge can, on his view, only be a socio-historical account of how various people have tried to reach agreement on what to believe.

Whether we frame them in terms of Kuhnian paradigms or cultural cognition, we are all familiar with examples of different communities asserting or disputing truth on the basis of divergent or incompatible criteria of proof. Organs of the Catholic Church once held that the Earth is motionless and the sun moves around it–and banned books that argued the contrary–relying on the authority of Holy Scripture as proof. The contrary position that sparked the Galilean controversy–eppur si muove–was generated by a community that relied on visual observation of the celestial bodies as proof. Yet another community might hold that the question of which body moves and which stands still depends entirely on the identification of a frame of reference, without which the concept of motion is ill-defined.

For each of these communities, their beliefs were justified in the Jamesian sense that they “worked” to meet the needs of individuals in those communities at those times–at least until they didn’t. As particular forms of justification stop working for a community’s purposes, that community may fracture and reorganize around a new set of justifications and a new body of knowledge–hopefully but not necessarily closer to some objective notion of truth than the body of knowledge it left behind. Even if we think there is a truth to the matter–as one feels there must be in the context of the physical world–there are surely multiple epistemic criteria people might cite as justification for believing such a truth has been sufficiently identified to cease further inquiry, and those criteria might be more or less useful for particular purposes at particular times.

This is why the increasing unreliability of video evidence and social proof are so troubling in our own community, in our own time. These are criteria of justification that have up to now enjoyed (rightly or wrongly) wide acceptance in our political community. But when one form of justification ceases to be reliable, we must either discover new ones or fall back on others–and either way, these alternative proof strategies may not enjoy such wide acceptance in our community. The real danger posed by deep fakes is not that recorded truth will somehow get lost in the fever swamps of the Internet. The real danger posed by fake followers is not that half a million “likes” will turn a lie into the truth. The deep threat of these new phenomena is that they may undermine epistemic criteria that bind members of our community in common practices of justification, leaving only epistemic criteria that we do not all share.

This is particularly worrisome because quite often we think ourselves justified in believing what we wish to be true, to the extent we can persuade ourselves to do so. Confirmation bias and motivated reasoning significantly shape our actual practices of justification. We seek out and credit information that will confirm what we already believe, and avoid or discredit information that will refute our existing beliefs. We shape our beliefs around our visions of ourselves, and our perceived place in the world as we believe it should be. To the extent that members of a community do not all want to believe the same things, and cannot rely on shared modes of justification to constrain their tendency toward motivated reasoning, they may retreat into fractured networks of trust and affiliation that justify beliefs along ideological, religious, ethnic, or partisan lines. In such a world, justification may conceivably come to rest on the argument popularized by Richard Pryor and Groucho Marx: Who are you going to believe: me, or your lying eyes?

The danger of our present moment, in short, is that we will be frustrated in our efforts to reach agreement with our fellow citizens on what we ought to believe and why. This is not an epistemic crisis, it is a social one. We should not be misled into believing that the increased difficulty of justifying our beliefs to one another within our community somehow puts truth further out of our grasp. To do so would be to embrace the möbius strip of epistemology Orwell put in the mouths of his totalitarians:

Anything could be true. The so-called laws of nature were nonsense. The law of gravity was nonsense. “If I wished,” O’Brien had said, “I could float off this floor like a soap bubble.” Winston worked it out. “If he thinks he floats off the floor, and if I simultaneously think I see him do it, then the thing happens.” Suddenly, like a lump of submerged wreckage breaking the surface of water, the thought burst into his mind: “It doesn’t really happen. We imagine it. It is hallucination.” He pushed the thought under instantly. The fallacy was obvious. It presupposed that somewhere or other, outside oneself, there was a “real” world where “real” things happened. But how could there be such a world? What knowledge have we of anything, save through our own minds? All happenings are in the mind. Whatever happens in all minds, truly happens.

This kind of equation of enforced belief with truth can only hold up where–as in the ideal totalitarian state–justification is both socially uncontested and entirely a matter of motivated reasoning. Thankfully, that is not our world–nor do I belive it ever can truly be. To be sure, there are always those who will try to move us toward such a world for their own ends–undermining our ability to forge common grounds for belief by fraudulently muddying the correlations between the voices we trust and the world we observe. But there are also those who work very hard to expose such actions to the light of day, and to reveal the fabrications of evidence and manipulations of social proof that are currently the cause of so much concern. This is good and important work. It is the work of building a community around identifying and defending shared principles of proof. And I continue to believe that such work can be successful, if we each take up the responsibility of supporting and contributing to it. Again, this is not an epistemic issue, it is a social one.

The fact that this kind of work is necessary in our community and our time may be unwelcome, but it is not cause for panic. Our standards of justification–the things we will accept as proof–are within our control, so long as we identify and defend them, together. Those who would undermine these standards can only succeed if we despair of the possibility that we can, across our political community, come to agreement on what justifications are valid, and put beliefs thus justified into practice in the governance of our society. I believe we can do this, because I believe that there are more of us than there are of them–that there are more people of goodwill and reason than there are nihilist opportunists. If I am right, and if enough of us give enough of our efforts to defending the bonds of justification that allow us to agree on sufficient truths to organize ourselves towards a common purpose, we will have turned the totalitarian argument on its head. Orwell’s totalitarians were wrong about truth, but they may have been right about proof.

Letter Opposing New York Right of Publicity Bill

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Following the lead of the indefatigable Jennifer Rothman, I’ve posted the following letter to the members of the New York State Assembly and Senate opposing the current draft of the pending bill to replace New York’s venerable privacy tort with a right of publicity. I hope one of them will take me up on my offer to host discussion of the implications of this legislation at the St. John’s Intellectual Property Law Center.

Sheff NY ROP Letter 2017-6-16