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Margarita Boenig-Liptsin on Dignity and the Calculus of Human Worth

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On Thursday, March 10, 2022, the Office of AUP’s President Celeste M. Schenck hosted the sixth event in its Presidential Lecture Series: a lecture by Margarita Boenig-Liptsin, Director of the Human Contexts and Ethics Program in the Division of Computing, Data Science and Society at the University of California Berkeley. Boenig-Liptsin currently holds a fellowship at the Institut d’Études Avancées as the Sorbonne Université – Paris IEA Chair on "Major Change.” The Presidential Lecture Series, titled “Technology and the Human Future,” invites speakers to participate in live online events, so they might engage with both theory and practice in responding to the question of how technology will continue affecting our lives beyond the Covid-19 pandemic. Boenig-Liptsin presented on the topic of “Human Dignity and the Calculus of Human Worth.” 

Boenig-Liptsin’s lecture explored the ways in which conceptions of human dignity have co-evolved alongside technologies used in the calculus of human worth. She explored the development of social-technical discoveries from state tracking of populations to more granular techniques allowing for new forms of both centralized state power and citizen engagement, right up until modern data protection and privacy concerns. “We require the understanding of both the social and technical systems together in order to understand how societies have come to be the way they are and to co-evolve and shape a future,” she explained. 

Today, data science is used to establish risk assessments in a wide variety of cases that deal with the notion of human dignity, such as algorithms used to assess defendants' likelihood of committing crimes or individuals' suitability for a certain job or medical procedure. Boenig-Liptsin explored cases in which issues of bias and systemic racial injustice have been prevalent in the use of such technologies: for example, by deprioritizing Black patients or rating Black defendants as higher risk. 

“Such calculations of human worth, facilitated by computing, have reframed the self and forms of human action that are the center of ethical thought,” explained Boenig-Liptsin, drawing on recent examples such as France’s pass sanitaire to illustrate how the social and technical aspects of such systems are inherently interwoven, to the point where technologies are deemed essential in daily life. The calculus of human worth is, as Boenig-Liptsin noted, subjective; its definition has the power to constrain how we live as human beings. She also explained how definitions of dignity are not fixed and are subject to cultural specificities. 

The second part of Boenig-Liptsin’s talk took a historical approach to these issues, beginning with exploring changing definitions of human dignity throughout Western tradition, from the Greco-Roman concept of dignity as the human ability to exert virtuous control over oneself and one's environment to the Kantian view of Modern Western philosophy that humans are rational autonomous agents with the capacity to choose their own fate. She also touched on policy history, discussing the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which posited that dignity was inalienable and therefore present in every human being. She noted that this notion of dignity is often brought up in relation to biotechnology, for example in the context of stem cell research or abortion, though not yet in data privacy debates. 

Next, Boenig-Liptsin explored three historical moments in the development of computing: the use of punchcards and sorting machines by the Vichy regime to identify Jews during the Second World War, the era of public computing in the 60s and 70s, and the ubiquitous computing moment of today. “Each of these eras has a certain technology at its heart,” she explains. “Each is also coproduced with governance and comes with resistance to the calculus of human worth.”  

She ended her talk by arguing that calculability has moral limits: while technology allows us to calculate aspects of human worth, it also allows for the oppression of the calculable subject. She noted that the incalculable is often deemed irrelevant in modern society, despite being extremely useful in individual cases. The Covid-19 pandemic has further tested the limits of calculability in the context of human dignity. Boenig-Liptsin believes that best practices need to be shared among teachers and scholars in order to explore the technical, cultural and legal techniques used to cultivate dignity in computing systems. Following her presentation, Boenig-Liptsin took questions from the online audience. You can see the full lecture recording below.