I am reading the article "The Measure and Mismeasure of Fairness: A Critical Review of Fair Machine Learning". In here there is a concept of "acting with animus", I wonder what this means in legal terms. For example (bold font added by me):

equal protection law—as established by the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment—prohibits government agents from acting with “discriminatory purpose” (Washington v. Davis, 1976). It bars policies undertaken with animus (i.e., it bars a form of taste-based discrimination, since acting with animus typically means sacrificing utility)

and again

under the statutory disparate impact standard, a practice may be deemed discriminatory if it has an unjustified adverse effect on protected groups, even in the absence of explicit categorization or animus

Is it something like the will to damage minorities? How do you prove it?

1 Answer 1


Read the last quote that you just posted. "in the absence of" means "without".

The phrases are trying to say that there are two ways to discriminate.

  • willfully, knowingly aiming to exclude minorities, and blaming it on the computer. Suppose somebody programs Siri to listen for that particular accent/affectation common in the black or hispanic community, and for those registered users, create a down-score for consideration for a credit card.

  • Totally inadvertently exclude minorities due to lack of design forethought. Face-based control inputs had a lot of problems recognizing black faces at one point. They missed it because the companies used employees for alpha-testing, and they didn't have any really dark skinned black people on staff. Or just doing dumb things with the algorithm, like looking at first and last names as a signal for poster reputation, with the unwitting effect that most Jews get 3 strikes before perma-ban, but most Mexicans get only one.

So the animus standard is about intent, and applies only to the first one. But the disparate impact standard is about effects as-felt, and applies to both cases.

The cautionary tale is "watch out for yourself; that you don't do the second one by accident." Not least, it will trigger an investigation either by authorities or private parties, as to which one you were doing (the consequences are quite different). The investigation itself will be highly embarrassing for the company in any case.

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