Analytic Relationality and the Relational Ethics of the Global South

Making the Case for Abeba Birhane’s Work


  • Julia Kwak Stanford University
  • Nakeema Stefflbauer Frauenloop and Stanford University


Relational ethics, Analytic Relationality, Abeba Birhane, AI Ethics


In this paper we consider how the work of Abeba Birhane relates to other theories of relationality from European and North American analytical philosophy, and ask whether, given Birhane’s critical perspective on western rationalism, analytic frameworks might be at all compatible. Analytic descriptions of relational ethics draw on Watson, Smith, Scanlon, Darwall, and Bovens’ theories of relationality and “being held responsible,” when an actor contravenes the norms of a relationship with others. Armed with these frameworks, analytical philosophers hope to critically evaluate and—eventually—regulate the global political economies of data and computing industries. Yet, critics like Birhane argue that such frameworks remain mired in the colonial project of western rationality, which is complicit in the digital colonization of the Global South. Even if these analytical relational frameworks address fora which debate accountability about the “many hands” responsible for algorithms, they refer to individual actors and responsibility within western corporate and institutional structures. Moreover, they presume an equal moral status for all actors, which in reality is often not the case since western technology disproportionately harms communities in the Global South. Meanwhile, relational ethics as Birhane formulates them offer an alternative view that arises from communities. These two philosophical approaches to relationality, while often at odds with one another, do share some conceptual histories and potential compatibilities. We argue the analytic enterprise can ground policy work with clear definitions of contested terms like “harm,” “understanding,” and “responsibility.” Birhane’s relational ethics also draw on both western rationality and concepts of lived experience in these communities. The synthesis of these two types of relationality may help develop an inclusive, actionable, enforceable AI ethics. Still, it is important to remember that in the Global South the relational focus is communities and their well-being, something analytical frameworks aspire to but have yet to adequately address.