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Moral Intelligence

Habermas theory of communicative action is an attempt to remedy biases of perception held

by rational agents by elucidating their fallacious qualities via dialogue. This paper will show that artificial
intelligence (AI), specifically in regards to natural language processing, has the theoretical capability to
engage in Habermasian communication; in AI nomenclature this could be termed a philosophical Turing
The theory presented by Habermas has its roots in Kants conception of rationality and will.
Unlike Kant, Habermas descriptively recognizes the fallible habits of social interaction and seeks to
reconcile these imperfections with the normative end of a state of rational equilibrium. This is to say
that Kant attempted to treat philosophy as a hard science with definitive, boolean morals, whereas
Habermas approaches the field from the premise that individual rational agents each have a priori states
inherited from the prevailing habits of their culture and that these states exist on a dynamic moral
spectrum. How agents perceive their respective a posteriori experiences is governed by their present
state of mind, which, in turn, is ultimately governed by the starting, a priori, state.
It is that fluid continuum of recursive perception that is at the crux of the authors theory of
dialogue. The claim is that each agent must attempt to adopt the other agents perceptions, to see
things from the others eyes, in order to pinpoint where differences lie, to see where intentions
intersect, and, ultimately, to achieve an equilibrium between their contentious points of view. The
underlying implication is that successful communication depends on both parties having the capacity for
this theory of mind.
Habermas thesis is that the dimension of moral-practical insight possesses its own
developmental logic that is independent of the developmental logic of cognitive-technical knowledge
(Owen, 4). For Habermas, knowledge-constituting interests became the point of fusion among several
distinct philosophical programs. These included Kantian transcendental reflection on object-

constitution, neo-Kantian distinctions among modes of gaining knowledge, Marxian anthropological

concern for species natural history, and phenomenological attention to prescientific understandings and
the lifeworld (Carson, 502).
The paradox of rationality is that its precision depends on an agents moral ethos (originally
imparted to him by a priori happenstance and successively updated based on a posteriori aberrations),
but this ethos is also the source of imprecision. The developmental path of this ethos can be considered
in much the same way as Descartes allegory of the traveler lost in the forest; an agent is born in a state
of moral ignorance (in the middle of the forest), and he is given very low level values of A is good and
B is bad from his current environment. In order to find the way to moral certainty (out of the forest),
he must set his compass based on these adoptions and adjust these tacit beliefs when they become
incongruent with the encountered reality. The conundrum here is that the same compass that one uses
to intentionally determine moral certainty is also the same one that unintentionally inhibits one from
recognizing internal flaws of moral direction. It is only when the compass points north and south
(exhibits contradiction) that one can realize flaws inherent in the a priori moral configuration.
For Habermas, speech is how humans discover and confront moral dilemmas. It is through the
competitive dynamic of the game theory of dialogue that moral equilibrium is reached, and it is the fact
that individual a priori configurations are unique that offers hope for the intangible goal of rationalizing
microcosms of moral maxims within a universal framework.
Thus far, the prerequisites of intelligent dialogue have been discussed using the vernacular of
philosophers, but the same basis could have been established using the vernacular of scientists. I will
err on the side of brevity since this is not a technical paper, but it is necessary to quickly deviate in order
for the reader to have a high level overview of how AI generally functions. The above synthesis of
Habermas theory could be expressed under the parlance of machine learning.

If a programmer composed a genetic algorithm for determining moral certainty using the
authors framework, the workflow would be something like follows. Each agent would consist of a
container containing variables (chromosomes) that express subsets of moral value (genes). The
program would be initialized with a pool of agents each containing an arbitrary, probabilistically random
genetic code. For example, the genetic composition expressing pleasure/pain would have a very low
(approaching zero) probability for preferring pain. These agents would then compete with others to
predict moral solutions to sets of training data. For example, a training problem might ask: A train is
barreling down the tracks out of control. At a fork in the tracks, do you send it toward a car or a child?
The agents would then make their Bayesian predictions determined by their genetic code. After each
round of this the agents would be bred with each other, with the genes of the winning agents being
adopted by the next generation of agents with greater frequency than the losing agents. After iterating
over the entire set of training data, the program would have established a pool of fit agents capable of
encountering novel sets of data. It is important to note that running the same program with the same
initial configurations and the same training data would actually generate different pools of fit agents
since valuations of accuracy are determined by Bayesian probabilities.
As you can see, this process is susceptible to the same paradox mentioned earlier with the
moral compass, e.g. how does the programmer assign weights to the genes (a priori configuration) and
how comprehensive is the training data (a posteriori encounters)? Obviously, these are good questions
and necessarily require answers involving lots of complex math before implementation, but the point
here is to briefly show that the artificial algorithm of raising an intelligent/rational machine is, in theory,
not as disjointed from the natural course of raising an intelligent/rational child as a technically
uninclined reader may think. The description of artificial points more to the source than anything else,
in much the same way that an artificial diamond is chemically comparable to a natural one. It is an

interesting aside that it is actually a lack of imperfections that is sometimes considered to be an

indicator of an artificial diamond.
The parallel to draw here between Habermasian moral intelligence and AI is that we once again
find ourselves at the conclusion that it is the very act of competing against opposing points of view that
catalyzes a movement of the compass away from moral inaccuracies. I should note that when, in the
future, the state of AI has matured to a certain point, it will actually be the competition between human
morals and machine morals that make each more accurate. Harvards race test of implicit associations is
a great example of where human morals fail due to what one would assume to be our a priori neural
constraints (Greenwald). Its also important to note the concern that Habermas theory of
communication may become distorted by the technological unconscious, where communicative
technologies have proliferated to such an extent that the processes they provide have dropped below
conscious awareness while remaining part of our everyday cognitive activities (Clapperton, 72). Before
discussing the future of AI any further it would be prudent to discuss its evolution, showing the
similarities between it and the evolution of moral theory as it pertains to Habermas.
In AI, natural language processing (NLP) is the field that attempts to create semantic algorithms
that allow machines to be able to interpret the meaning of textual content. Terry Winograd was a
pioneer in this field and the creator of one of the earliest attempts at NLP, a program called SHRDLU. For
the sake of disambiguation, shrdlu was the qwerty equivalent of a computer keyboard in use at the
time, but this is unimportant. The general description of this program is that it was a virtual world of
geometric objects, and users could interact with the program, giving it commands. For example, one
could type put the red object on top of the square, and SHRDLU would complete the request or, if
necessary, reply with queries such as, do you mean the red triangle or the red circle? or, more simply,
I dont understand your request.

The limitation of the algorithm behind SHRDLU was that it was hard-coded in a syllogistic
fashion, which is to say that the programs abilities to interpret text were entirely imparted to it by the
programmers provision of explicit logic. There were no probabilistic (un)certainties involved like
mentioned earlier with the genetic algorithm, and attempts to expand the SHRDLU approach to wider
scopes proved to be too big of a problem to tackle via explicit syllogism. *Winograd+ adds that the
deductive nature of the formalisms used by AI researchers forced them to adopt an objectivist position,
but that these formalisms failed to account for the informal, phenomenological knowledge or
experience that an understander deploys when interpreting utterances (Mallery, 19).
In hindsight, this attempt was somewhat akin to Kants original exposition of reason as an
infallible mode of persuasion. Much like Habermas evolution of the Kantian theory seeks to explicate
the role of communication as a corrective facilitator of a priori imperfections, the AI landscape explored
by SHRDLU showed the limitations of a program that did not have the capacity to measure fallibility.
Kant would have said that something either is or isnt rational based on the ability of the actions maxim
to be adopted as a universal law of nature; Habermas says that we can call something rational in so
much as we have an ability to explore contradictory points of view through communication. SHRDLU
would have said that something either is or isnt completely understood based on its syllogistic
comprehension; newer generations of AI NLP say that we can assign certain probabilities of
understanding in so much as we have a defined, Bayesian measure of our experiential certainty.
The biggest flaw in the SHRDLU strategy is that it had no theory of mind; everything was
presented as Boolean fact, and while the program could learn certain things from the user, it was all via
explicit exchange. SHRDLU was missing a key component of communicative theory: the ability to infer
meaning by adopting the users point of view. We can think of communication as consisting of three
realms: objective fact, subjective opinion, and decisive action (Lematre, 119). SHRDLU only targeted
the first stage. Some examples will help to clarify these three realms for the reader.

Suppose an agent is making an argument about global warming. After giving a general
introduction and diving into the body of the proposal, the audience should be given basic facts. For
example, global temperatures have risen by X degrees over the past X years. The audience may accept
this as a documented truth or an aberrant falsehood. Next, the agent states the opinion: if
temperatures continue to rise at this rate, we will have to deal with problem Y somewhere around the
year 20YY. At this point, the reader must judge the quality of this claim. Is it an accurate assumption
that temperatures will continue to grow at the same rate? Will problem Y really occur due to this?
Finally, the agent concludes the argument by saying that because of these issues we must alter our
current course by committing to action Z. Now the audience decides whether or not to be swayed by
this finale. Will action Z actually stop the problem? If action Z is chosen, then resources must be
diverted away from this other, unrelated problem: which one of these takes precedence?
In order for AI to achieve Habermasian communication, the technology must be able to engage
in this type of dialogue. It must be able to judge the truth of facts by assessing their accuracy, the
validity of opinions by rationalizing competing points of view, and, ultimately, the course of action to be
taken based on an updated view of the situation. As was stated at the beginning of this paper, the fact
that both agents in a dialogue are capable of adopting the others point of view is an implicit assumption
of this framework. Said another way, one can only successfully participate in this give and take if one
has the capacity for the three realms of speech stated above. One way to test the capacity of AI
technology is to see how well a program can generate its own facts, opinions, and conclusions when
confronted with novel situations.
The current state of AI is just beginning to bridge the gap between the realm of fact and the
realm of opinion. The preponderance of textual content made available by the internet was the catalyst
of information needed to complete the objectives originally attempted by SHRDLU. Current AI programs
are able to make use of resources such as Wikipedia, Wordnet, and other open source projects to create

neural networks of words, bodies of text associated with those words, and links between all of these
nodes. The algorithm known as PageRank composed by Googles founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin,
was an early version of these sources of neural networks. The algorithm simply scored the authority of a
website based on how many other websites linked to it. It is an interesting aside that Terry Winograd,
the author of SHRDLU, mentored Page while he was at Stanford and also assisted in Googles
development in its early years (Page). Tangentially, Googles predictive search feature is another
example of a basic NLP concept known as the n-gram.
The implementations of todays state of the art AI programs are generating impressive results.
For example, a recent paper authored by Kaparthy and published by Stanford has demonstrated an
ability to compose textual descriptions of images it has not previously encountered. This is
accomplished using the same conceptual process of machine learning discussed at the beginning of this
paper. Admittedly, the scientific implementation is much more complicated than this oversimplification,
but a technical presentation of AI is not the intention of this paper. The program is trained on data
consisting of pictures and human composed descriptions. After the training phase, the algorithm is
presented with a dataset containing only images for which it generates a description. This set of images
also has corresponding human descriptions so that the two captions can be compared after the fact, but
the algorithm does not have the privilege of these descriptions during its own composition.
A comparative example follows: (1) human caption: guy sitting on chair tunes his guitar and
(2) machine caption: man in black shirt is playing guitar (Kaparthy, 8). As you can see from this
isolated abstract, the original problem of theory of mind has not been completely solved since the
machine was unable to infer the finer detail that the guitar was not actually being played due to the
observation that the man was using his hand to adjust the tuning knobs instead of positioning his fingers
between frets. The machine was unable to adopt the mans state of mind to this specific of degree, but
it was able to adopt it to a larger degree. Its also important to remember that the very design of

machine learning is that the program attempts to become smarter from each successive moment of
feedback (a posteriori), so perhaps the program up to that point had only encountered enough images
in the training data to recognize the identity of a guitar and of a male and then compose the idea of the
man playing the guitar based on the textual knowledge that a guitar is an instrument that is played by
people. When the algorithm is confronted with the human annotation after the fact, it should (in
theory) be capable of deducing that its description was not 100% accurate but still on target.
Turning now to the future potential of AI to pass the philosophical Turing test and participate in
communicative dialogue, it becomes necessary to address a concern mentioned earlier, that while
technology may attempt to simplify our lives, it also runs the risk of, counter-intuitively, complicating
the decision making process by increasing the amount of mental processing that occurs on a
subconscious, implicit level. On one hand, Habermas considers that complexity allows for the
emancipation of thought and action (i.e., linguistic communication) from the false totalities of
absolutism and monolithic, dictatorial, instrumental reason. On the other hand, Habermas is also
suspicious of complexity. If it is not grounded in the simplicity that is its origin, complexity threatens to
become not [emancipatory] pluralism, but irrational deviation (Rasch, 70).
While it is somewhat comforting to know that AI itself is not presenting a novel challenge to the
authors theory, it does not dismiss the concern that the automation of machine intelligence risks the
level of consciousness exercised by moral agents. But the reality is that the problem of consciousness
cuts both ways. AI offers the chance to explore our implied morals from an objective point of view. It is
this exploration is the crucial element to the Habermasian critique; it is another way in which prevailing
a priori points of view can be challenged and held to the fire by a third party.
This paper has shown the similarities between the authors conception of dialogue as a recursive
function for rational understanding and the development of AI methodologies for advances within the
field of NLP. When these technical potentials are realized in the future, it will offer humans the ability to

engage moral philosophy with a new pair of eyes, but it will also present a stress for how we relate to
technology. The hope is that the dueling competition between human consciousness and machine
intelligence will be the iron that sharpens the iron, which is very much in line with Habermas desire for
communication to be the force driving us toward more highly evolved states of moral equilibria.

Annotated Bibliography
Carson, Cathryn. "Science as Instrumental Reason: Heidegger, Habermas, Heisenberg." Continental
Philosophy Review 42.4 (2009). Springer Link. Springer Netherlands. Web. 8 Nov. 2014.
The author discusses the history of dialogic theorys development during the 20th century,
specifically highlighting the philosophical interplay between Heideggers uncertainty principle and
scientific positivism. Carson asserts that the intricacies inherent in the theory of relativity upend the
tradition of critical objectivism, supporting the Habermasian belief that the physical sciences do not
stand as a solitary force of critical conjecture. Similar to the law that the precisions of position and
velocity measurements are inversely correlated, the author claims that viewing physical sciences with an
infinitude of certainty hampers ones ability to understand changes within the theory of physics, i.e. that
ignoring the social sciences inhibits the epistemic reflection of the physical sciences.
Clapperton, Robert. A Technogenetic Simulation Game for Professional Communication Coursework. U of
Waterloo, 2014.
The author addresses the intricate relationship between reason and argumentation. Contrasted
to Habermas, who considers argumentation to be the medium through which reason is transferred,
Clapperton argues that argumentation is the rite of reason, which is to say that reason cannot be
properly attained unless it has been forged from the interplay of competing ideas. This theory of reason
as argument is described as a triad of structure, form, and strategy.
Greenwald, Anthony, Eric Uhlmann, Andrew Poehlman, and Mahzarin Banaji. "Understanding and Using
the Implicit Association Test: III. Meta-Analysis of Predictive Validity." Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology 97.1 (2009): 17-41.
The authors survey 122 research reports that make use of the implicit association test. Their
findings conclude that for socially sensitive topics, the predictive validity of self-report measures was
remarkably low and the incremental validity of IAT measures was relatively high. In the studies
examined in this review, high social sensitivity of topics was most characteristic of studies of racial and
other intergroup behavior. In those topic domains, the predictive validity of IAT measures significantly
exceeded the predictive validity of self-report measures.
Karparthy, Andrej, and Li Fei-Fei. Deep Visual-Semantic Alignments for Generating Image Descriptions.
Stanford U, 2014.
The author presents a state of the art algorithm for generating linguistic descriptions of still
images via the use of deep neural networks. The success of this adaption of semantic visualization
depends on (1) a semantic capacity to probabilistically predict textual relationships by the use of a
bidirectional recurrent neural network and (2) a visual capacity for recognizing which fragments of a
picture correspond to which fragments of the descriptive text. By applying this model to a set of
training data, the algorithm is able to inductively learn a visual-semantic vocabulary.
Lematre, Christian, and Amal Fallah-Seghrouchni. "A Multiagent Systems Theory of Meaning Based on
the Habermas/ Bhler Communicative Action Theory." Advances in Artificial Intelligence 1952 (2000):
116-25. Springer Link. Springer Berlin Heidelberg. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.
The authors provide a tree logic structure of Habermas Communicative Action Theory,
consisting of three components: the objective world, the subjective world, and the practical world. This
low-level structure occurs within a higher-level multiagent system of social commitments, which are

composed of a contextual relationship between a promisor and a promisee. The validity of objective fact
is judged on a binary basis of true or false, while the validity of subjective claims is either acceptance of
rejection, and the validity of context is a positive or negative critique of an agents conclusion.
Mallery, John, Roger Hurwitz, and Gavan Duffy. "Hermeneutics: From Textual Explication to Computer
Understanding?" (1986). DSpace@MIT. MIT. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.
The authors proffer a hermeneutical framework within which to view the ideological
foundations and goals of artificial intelligence. They analyze the then-current desire to mechanize
textual (communicative) understanding via concrete, syllogistic algorithms, and they conclude that this
is incongruous with the reality and that inherent in human intelligence is not the capacity for perfection
but the capacity for deficient completeness. This conclusion is reached in parallel to the historical
development of Winograds transition from SHRDLUs implication of a spatiotemporal, hard intelligence
to a fluid, calculus of natural reasoning. This is to say that, as suggested by Habermas ideal speech
situation, the intentions of communication rely on the subjects abilities to infer plausibility and reason
harmoniously, which requires a capacity for theory of mind in an attempt for the listener to adopt the
speakers mental habitat.
Owen, Dadvid. Between Reason and History Habermas and the Idea of Progress. SUNY, 2002.
The author discusses Habermas theory of social evolution and the distinction between the two
types of consciousness, cognitive-technical empiricism and moral-practical, social relationships. This
evolution occurs when these two structures independently (through exogenous processes) realize a
logically coherent intersection. The former structure of integrative experience is, by nature, an
egocentric process, while the latter is decentering from experience in an attempt to neutrally engage
the former. Equilibrium is found when the habits of the experiential are replaced with the deduced
morality of the neutral perspective.
Page, Larry. "Lawrence or Larry Page's Page." Stanford University InfoLab. Stanford. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.
This is a very basic webpage showing Pages relationship to Winograd and his place within the
history of Google.
Rasch, William. "Theories of Complexity, Complexities of Theory: Habermas, Luhmann, and the Study of
Social Systems." German Studies Review 14.1 (1991): 65-83. Jstor. The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Web. 15 Nov. 2014. <>.
The author explicates the symbiosis between reason and complexity, the dilemma being that
the presence of complexity represents the potential for emancipation but also threatens the integrity of
adherence to objectivity. The danger is that within a sphere of communication with zero complexity the
ability for new direction is absent and within a system with too much complexity the chance for fallible
direction is multiplicative. Habermas finds solace from this conundrum in a recursive reflection of
communication, via both reconstruction and critique, with the intent of whittling complexities to
simplicities. However, the author objects to this solution, reasoning that the tautological nature of
complexity is a such that complexity is a description of a systems (in)ability to be reduced to
simplifications, i.e. that a system that can be simplified is necessarily non-complex. This raises the
concern that Habermas end of critical consensus through discourse is unattainable due to the
implication that simplification through restriction is not emancipatory.