Against Relationality

A Response to Abeba Birhane


  • Mimi St. Johns Stanford University


For over 100 years, social critics have decried the transformation of the west into a mechanized and mathematical society — not only in terms of technology — but also because values are increasingly assessed quantitatively without much regard for human existential and spiritual fulfillment. Dr. Abeba Birhane, “Algorithmic injustice: a relational ethics approach” (2021) comments on this societal mechanization in the context of machine learning’s effects on marginalized communities.  She argues that the western rationalist position creates a “veneer of objectivity” and positions itself as “value-free, neutral, and amoral,” while leading to harmful social impacts of “historical inequalities” and “asymmetrical power hierarchies, ”which  are mathematicised by western thought. According to Birhane, we should be critical of rationality and consider “the lived experience of marginalized communities.” If we practice a relational ethics, we can attain a better qualitative assessment of AI’s social harms. Yet while Birhane presents relational ethics as an alternative to western rational quantitative systems of power, her own methodology derives significantly from the western sources she blames.