Philosophy & Technology

, Volume 32, Issue 4, pp 661–683 | Cite as

Transparency in Algorithmic and Human Decision-Making: Is There a Double Standard?

  • John ZerilliEmail author
  • Alistair Knott
  • James Maclaurin
  • Colin Gavaghan
Research Article


We are sceptical of concerns over the opacity of algorithmic decision tools. While transparency and explainability are certainly important desiderata in algorithmic governance, we worry that automated decision-making is being held to an unrealistically high standard, possibly owing to an unrealistically high estimate of the degree of transparency attainable from human decision-makers. In this paper, we review evidence demonstrating that much human decision-making is fraught with transparency problems, show in what respects AI fares little worse or better and argue that at least some regulatory proposals for explainable AI could end up setting the bar higher than is necessary or indeed helpful. The demands of practical reason require the justification of action to be pitched at the level of practical reason. Decision tools that support or supplant practical reasoning should not be expected to aim higher than this. We cast this desideratum in terms of Daniel Dennett’s theory of the “intentional stance” and argue that since the justification of action for human purposes takes the form of intentional stance explanation, the justification of algorithmic decisions should take the same form. In practice, this means that the sorts of explanations for algorithmic decisions that are analogous to intentional stance explanations should be preferred over ones that aim at the architectural innards of a decision tool.


Algorithmic decision-making Transparency Explainable AI Intentional stance 



The authors wish to thank the participants of two roundtables, one held in Oxford, November 23–24, 2017, in partnership with the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford, and the other in Dunedin, December 11–12, at the University of Otago.


This research was supported by a New Zealand Law Foundation grant (2016/ILP/10).

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

AK works for Soul Machines Ltd under contract. JZ, JM, and CG have no other disclosures or relevant affiliations apart from the appointments above.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of OtagoDunedinNew Zealand
  2. 2.Department of Computer ScienceUniversity of OtagoDunedinNew Zealand
  3. 3.Faculty of LawUniversity of OtagoDunedinNew Zealand

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