Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Monday, March 8, 2021

Bridging the gap: the case for an ‘Incompletely Theorized Agreement’ on AI policy

Stix, C., Maas, M.M.
AI Ethics (2021). 


Recent progress in artificial intelligence (AI) raises a wide array of ethical and societal concerns. Accordingly, an appropriate policy approach is urgently needed. While there has been a wave of scholarship in this field, the research community at times appears divided amongst those who emphasize ‘near-term’ concerns and those focusing on ‘long-term’ concerns and corresponding policy measures. In this paper, we seek to examine this alleged ‘gap’, with a view to understanding the practical space for inter-community collaboration on AI policy. We propose to make use of the principle of an ‘incompletely theorized agreement’ to bridge some underlying disagreements, in the name of important cooperation on addressing AI’s urgent challenges. We propose that on certain issue areas, scholars working with near-term and long-term perspectives can converge and cooperate on selected mutually beneficial AI policy projects, while maintaining their distinct perspectives.

From the Conclusion

AI has raised multiple societal and ethical concerns. This highlights the urgent need for suitable and impactful policy measures in response. Nonetheless, there is at present an experienced fragmentation in the responsible AI policy community, amongst clusters of scholars focusing on ‘near-term’ AI risks, and those focusing on ‘longer-term’ risks. This paper has sought to map the practical space for inter-community collaboration, with a view towards the practical development of AI policy.

As such, we briefly provided a rationale for such collaboration, by reviewing historical cases of scientific community conflict or collaboration, as well as the contemporary challenges facing AI policy. We argued that fragmentation within a given community can hinder progress on key and urgent policies. Consequently, we reviewed a number of potential (epistemic, normative or pragmatic) sources of disagreement in the AI ethics community, and argued that these trade-offs are often exaggerated, and at any rate do not need to preclude collaboration. On this basis, we presented the novel proposal for drawing on the constitutional law principle of an ‘incompletely theorized agreement’, for the communities to set aside or suspend these and other disagreements for the purpose of achieving higher-order AI policy goals of both communities in selected areas. We, therefore, non-exhaustively discussed a number of promising shared AI policy areas which could serve as the sites for such agreements, while also discussing some of the overall limits of this framework.