Tag: Mireille Hildebrandt

Antinomianism and purposes as reasons against computational law (Notes on Hildebrandt, Smart Technologies, Sections 7.3-7.4)

Many thanks to Jake Goldenfein for discussing this reading with me and coaching me through interpreting it in preparation for writing this post.

Following up on the discussion of sections 7.1-7.2 of Hildebrandt’s Smart Technologies an the End(s) of Law (2015), this post discusses the next two sections. The main questions left from the last section are:

  • How strong is Hildebrandt’s defense of the Rule of Law, as she explicates it, as worth preserving despite the threats to it that she acknowledges from smart technologies?
  • Is the instrumental power of smart technology (i.e, its predictive function, which for the sake of argument we will accept is more powerful than unassisted human prognostication) somehow a substitute for Law, as in its pragmatist conception?

In sections 7.3-7.4, Hildbrandt discusses the eponymous ends of law. These are not its functions as could be externally and sociologically validated, but rather its internally recognized goals or purposes. And these are not particular goals, such as environmental justice, that we might want particular laws to achieve. Rather, these are abstract goals that the law as an entire ‘regime of veridiction’ aims for. (“Veridiction” means “A statement that is true according to the worldview of a particular subject, rather than objectively true.” The idea is that the law has a coherent worldview of its own.

Hildebrandt’s description of law is robust and interesting. Law “articulates legal conditions for legal effect.” Legal personhood (a condition) entails certain rights under the law (an effect). These causes-and-effects are articulated in language, and this language does real work. In Austin’s terminology, legal language is performative–it performs things at an institutional and social level. Relatedly, the law is experienced as a lifeworld, or Welt, but not a monolithic lifeworld that encompasses all experience, but one of many worlds that we use to navigate reality, a ‘mode of existence’ that ‘affords specific roles, actors and actions while constraining others’. [She uses Latour to make this point, which in my opinion does not help.] It is interesting to compare this view of society with Nissenbaum’s ((2009) view of society differentiated into spheres, constituted by actor roles and norms.

In section 7.3.2, Hildebrandt draws on Gustav Radbruch for his theory of law. Consistent with her preceding arguments, she emphasizes that for Radbruch, law is antinomian, (a strange term) meaning that it is internally contradictory and unruly, with respect to its aims. And there are three such aims that are in tension:

  • Justice. Here, justice is used rather narrowly to mean that equal cases should be treated equally. In other words, the law must be applied justly/fairly across cases. To use her earlier framing, justice/equality implied that legal conditions cause legal effects in a consistent way. In my gloss, I would say this is equivalent to the formality of law, in the sense that the condition-effect rules must address the form of a case, and not treat particular cases differently. More substantively, Hildebrandt argues that Justice breaks down into more specific values: distributive justice, concerning the fair distribution of resources across society, and corrective justice, concerning the righting of wrongs through, e.g., torts.
  • Legal certainty. Legal rules must be binding and consistent, whether or not they achieve justice or purpose. “The certainty of the law requires its positivity; if it cannot be determined what is just, it must be decided what is lawful, and this from a position that is capable of enforcing the decision.” (Radbruch). Certainty about how the law will be applied, whether or not the application of the law is just (which may well be debated), is a good in itself. [A good example of this is law in business, which is famously one of the conditions for the rise of capitalism.]
  • Purpose. Beyond just/equal application of the law across cases and its predictable positivity, the law aims at other purposes such as social welfare, redistribution of income, guarding individual and public security, and so on. None of these purposes is inherent in the law, for Radbruch; but in his conception of law, by its nature it is directed by democratically determined purposes and is instrumental to them. These purposes may flesh out the normative detail that’s missing in a more abstract view of law.

Two moves by Hildebrandt in this section seem particularly substantial to her broader argument and corpus of work.

The first is the emphasis on the contrast between the antinomian conflict between justice, certainty, and purpose with the principle of legal certainty itself. Law, at any particular point in time, may fall short of justice or purpose, and must nevertheless be predictably applied. It also needs to be able to evolve towards its higher ends. This, for Hildebrandt, reinforces the essential ambiguous and linguistic character of law.

[Radbruch] makes it clear that a law that is only focused on legal certainty could not qualify as law. Neither can we expect the law to achieve legal certainty to the full, precisely because it must attend to justice and to purpose. If the attribution of legal effect could be automated, for instance by using a computer program capable of calculating all the relevant circumstances, legal certainty might be achieved. But this can only be done by eliminating the ambiguity that inheres in human language: it would reduce interpretation to mindless application. From Radbruch’s point of view this would fly in the face of the cultural, value-laden mode of existence of the law. It would refute the performative nature of law as an artificial construction that depends on the reiterant attribution of meaning and decision-making by mindful agents.

Hildebrandt, Smart Technologies, p. 149

The other move that seems particular to Hildebrandt is the connection she draws between purpose as one of the three primary ends of law and purpose-binding a feature of governance. The latter has particular relevance to technology law through its use in data protection, such as in the GDPR (which she addresses elsewhere in work like Hildebrandt, 2014). The idea here is that purposes do not just imply a positive direction of action; they also restrict activity to only those actions that support the purpose. This allows for separate institutions to exist in tension with each other and with a balance of power that’s necessary to support diverse and complex functions. Hildebrandt uses a very nice classical mythology reference here

The wisdom of the principle of purpose binding relates to Odysseus’s encounter with the Sirens. As the story goes, the Sirens lured passing sailors with the enchantment of their seductive voices, causing their ships to crash on the rocky coast. Odysseus wished to hear their song without causing a shipwreck; he wanted to have his cake and eat it too. While he has himself tied to the mast, his men have their ears plugged with beeswax. They are ordered to keep him tied tight, and to refuse any orders he gives to the contrary, while being under the spell of the Sirens as they pass their island. And indeed, though he is lured and would have caused death and destruction if his men had not been so instructed, the ship sails on. This is called self-binding. But it is more than that. There is a division of tasks that prevents him from untying himself. He is forced by others to live by his own rules. This is what purpose binding does for a constitutional democracy.

Hildebrandt, Smart Technologies, p. 156

I think what’s going on here is that Hildebrandt understands that actually getting the GDPR enforced over the whole digital environment is going to require a huge extension of the powers of law over business, organization, and individual practice. From some corners, there’s pessimism about the viability of the European data protection approach (Koops, 2014), arguing that it can’t really be understood or implemented well. Hildebrandt is making a big bet here, essentially saying: purpose-binding on data use is just a natural part of the power of law in general, as a socially performed practice. There’s nothing contingent about purpose-binding in the GDPR; it’s just the most recent manifestation of purpose as an end of law.


It’s pretty clear what the agenda of this work is. Hildebrandt is defending the Rule of Law as a social practice of lawyers using admittedly ambiguous natural language over the ‘smart technologies’ that threaten it. This involves both a defense of law as being intrinsically about lawyers using ambiguous natural language, and the power of that law over businesses, etc. For the former, Hildebrandt invokes Radbruch’s view that law is antinomian. For the second point, she connects purpose-binding to purpose as an end of law.

I will continue to play the skeptic here. As is suggested in the quoted package, if one takes legal certainty seriously, then one could easily argue that software code leads to more certain outcomes than natural language based rulings. Moreover, to the extent that justice is a matter of legal formality–attention to the form of cases, and excluding from consideration irrelevant content–then that too weighs in favor of articulation of law in formal logic, which is relatively easy to translate into computer code.

Hildebrandt seems to think that there is something immutable about computer code, in a way that natural language is not. That’s wrong. Software is not built like bridges; software today is written by teams working rapidly to adapt it to many demands (Gürses and Hoboken, 2017). Recognizing this removes one of the major planks of Hildebrandt’s objection to computational law.

It could be argued that “legal certainty” implies a form of algorithmic interpretability: the key question is “certain for whom”. An algorithm that is opaque due to its operational complexity (Burrell, 2016) could, as an implementation of a legal decision, be less predictable to non-specialists than a simpler algorithm. So the tension in a lot of ‘algorithmic accountability’ literature between performance and interpretability would then play directly into the tension, within law, between purpose/instrumentality and certainty-to-citizens.

Overall, the argument here is not compelling yet as a refutation of the idea of law implemented as software code.

As for purpose-binding and the law, I think this may well be the true crux. I wonder if Hildebrandt develops it later in the book. There are not a lot of good computer science models of purpose binding. Tschantz, Datta, and Wing (2012) do a great job mapping out the problem but that research program has not resulted in robust technology for implementation. There may be deep philosophical/mathematical reasons why that is so. This is an angle I’ll be looking out for in further reading.


Burrell, Jenna. “How the machine ‘thinks’: Understanding opacity in machine learning algorithms.” Big Data & Society3.1 (2016): 2053951715622512.

Gürses, Seda, and Joris Van Hoboken. “Privacy after the agile turn.” The Cambridge Handbook of Consumer Privacy. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2017. 1-29.

Hildebrandt, Mireille. “Location Data, Purpose Binding and Contextual Integrity: What’s the Message?.” Protection of Information and the Right to Privacy-A New Equilibrium?. Springer, Cham, 2014. 31-62.

Hildebrandt, Mireille. Smart technologies and the end (s) of law: novel entanglements of law and technology. Edward Elgar Publishing, 2015.

Koops, Bert-Jaap. “The trouble with European data protection law.” International Data Privacy Law 4.4 (2014): 250-261.

Nissenbaum, Helen. Privacy in context: Technology, policy, and the integrity of social life. Stanford University Press, 2009.

Tschantz, Michael Carl, Anupam Datta, and Jeannette M. Wing. “Formalizing and enforcing purpose restrictions in privacy policies.” 2012 IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy. IEEE, 2012.

Beginning to read “Smart Technologies and the End(s) of Law” (Notes on: Hildebrandt, Smart Technologies, Sections 7.1-7.2)

I’m starting to read Mireille Hildebrandt‘s Smart Technologies and the End(s) of Law (2015) at the recommendation of several friends with shared interests in privacy and the tensions between artificial intelligence and the law. As has been my habit with other substantive books, I intend to blog my notes from reading as I get to it, in sections, in a perhaps too stream-of-consciousness, opinionated, and personally inflected way.

For reasons I will get to later, Hildebrandt’s book is a must-read for me. I’ve decided to start by jumping in on Chapter 7, because (a) I’m familiar enough with technology ethics, AI, and privacy scholarship to think I can skip that and come back as needed, and (b) I’m mainly reading because I’m interested in what a scholar of Hildebrandt’s stature says when she tackles the tricky problem of law’s response to AI head on.

I expect to disagree with Hildebrant in the end. We occupy different social positions and, as I’ve argued before, people’s position on various issues of technology policy appears to have a great deal to do with ones social position or habitus. However, I know I have a good deal to learn about legal theory while having enough background in philosophy and social theory to parse through what Hildebrandt has to offer. And based on what I’ve read so far, I expect the contours of the possible positions that she draws out to be totally groundbreaking.

Notes on: Hildebrandt, Smart Technologies, §7.1-7.2

“The third part of this book inquires into the implications of smart technologies and data-driven agency for the law.”

– Hildebrandt, Smart Technologies,p.133

Lots of people write about how artificial intelligence presents an existential threat. Normally, they are talking about how a superintelligence is posing an existential threat to humanity. Hildebrandt is arguing something else: she is arguing that smart technologies may pose an existential threat to the law, or the Rule of Law. That is because the law’s “mode of existence” depends on written text, which is a different technical modality, with different affordances, than smart technology.

My take is that the mode of existence of modern law is deeply dependent upon the printing press and the way it has shaped our world. Especially the binary character of legal rules, the complexity of the legal system and the finality of legal decisions are affordances of — amongst things — the ICI [information and communication infrastructure] of the printing press.

– Hildebrandt, Smart Technologies, p.133

This is just so on point, it’s hard to know what to say. I mean, this is obviously on to something. But what?

To make her argument, Hildebrandt provides a crash course in philosophy of law and legal theory, distinguishing a number of perspectives that braid together into an argument. She discusses several different positions:

  • 7.2.1 Law as an essentially contested concept (Gallie). The concept of “law” [1] denotes something valuable, [2] covers intricate complexities, that makes it [3] inherently ambiguous and [4] necessarily vague. This [5] leads interested parties into contest over conceptions. The contest is [6] anchored in past, agreed upon exemplars of the concept, and [7] the contest itself sustains and develops the concept going forward. This is the seven-point framework of an “essentially contested concept”.
  • 7.2.2 Formal legal positivism. Law as a set of legal rules dictated by a sovereign (as opposed to law as a natural moral order) (Austin). Law as a coherent set of rules, defined by its unity (Kelsen). A distinction between substantive rules and rules about rule-making (Hart).
  • 7.2.3 Hermeneutic conceptions. The practice of law is about the creative interpretation of (e.g.) texts (case law, statutes, etc.) to application of new cases. The integrity of law (Dworkin) constrains this interpretation, but the projection of legal meaning into the future is part of the activity of legal practice. Judges “do things with words”–make performative utterances through their actions. Law is not just a system of rules, but a system of meaningful activity.
  • 7.2.3 Pragmatist conceptions (Realism legal positivism). As opposed to the formal legal positivism discusses earlier that sees law as rules, realist legal positivism sees law as a sociological phenomenon. Law is “prophecies of what the courts will do in fact, and nothing more pretentious” (Holmes). Pragmatism, as an epistemology, argues that the meaning of something is its practical effect; this approach could be seen as a constrained version of the hermeneutic concept of law.

To summarize Hildebrandt’s gloss on this material so far: Gallie’s “essentially contested concept” theory is doing the work of setting the stage for Hildebrant’s self-aware intervention into the legal debate. Hildebrandt is going to propose a specific concept of the law, and of the Rule of Law. She is doing this well-aware that this act of scholarship is engaging in contest.


I detect in Hildebrandt’s writing a sympathy or preference for hermeneutic approaches to law. Indeed, by opening with Gallie, she sets up the contest about the concept of law as something internal to the hermeneutic processes of the law. These processes, and this contest, are about texts; the proliferation of texts is due to the role of the printing press in modern law. There is a coherent “integrity” to this concept of law.

The most interesting discussion, in my view, is loaded in to what reads like an afterthought: the pragmatist conception of law. Indeed, even at the level of formatting, pragmatism is buried: hermeneutic and pragmatist conceptions of law are combined into one section (7.2.3), where as Gallie and the formal positivists each get their own section (7.2.1 and 7.2.2).

This is odd, because the resonances between pragmatism and ‘smart technology’ are, in Hildebrandt’s admission, quite deep:

Basically, Holmes argued that law is, in fact, what we expect it to be, because it is this expectation that regulates our actions. Such expectations are grounded in past decisions, but if these were entirely deterministic of future decisions we would not need the law — we could settle for logic and simply calculate the outcome of future decisions. No need for interpretation. Holmes claimed, however, that ‘the life of law has not been logic. It has been experience.’ This correlates with a specific conception of intelligence. As we have seen in Chapter 2 and 3, rule-based artificial intelligence, which tried to solve problems by means of deductive logic, has been superseded by machine learning (ML), based on experience.

– Hildebrandt, Smart Technologies, p.142

Hildebrandt considers this connection between pragmatist legal interpretation and machine learning only to reject it summarily in a single paragraph at the end of the section.

If we translate [a maxim of classical pragmatist epistemology] into statistical forecasts we arrive at judgments resulting from ML. However, neither logic nor statistics can attribute meaning. ML-based court decisions would remove the fundamental ambiguity of human language from the centre stage of the law. As noted above, this ambiguity is connected with the value-laden aspect of the concept of law. It is not a drawback of natural language, but what saves us from acting like mindless agents. My take is that an approach based on statistics would reduce judicial and legislative decisions to administration, and thus collapse the Rule of Law. This is not to say that a number of administrative decisions could not be taken by smart computing systems. It is to confirm that such decisions should be brought under the Rule of Law, notably by making them contestable in a court of law.

– Hildebrandt, Smart Technologies, p.143

This is a clear articulation of Hildebrandt’s agenda (“My take is that…”). It is also clearly an aligning the practice of law with contest, ambiguity, and interpretation as opposed to “mindless” activity. Natural language’s ambiguity is a feature, not a bug. Narrow pragmatism, which is aligned with machine learning, is a threat to the Rule of Law

Some reflections

Before diving into the argument, I have to write a bit about my urgent interest in the book. Though I only heard about it recently, my interests have tracked the subject matter for some time.

For some time I have been interested in the connection between philosophical pragmatism and the concerns about AI, which I believe can be traced back to Horkheimer. But I thought nobody was giving the positive case for pragmatism its due. At the end of 2015, totally unaware of “Smart Technologies” (my professors didn’t seem aware of it either…), I decided that I would write my doctoral dissertation thesis defending the bold thesis that yes, we should have AI replace the government. A constitution written in source code. I was going to back the argument up with, among other things, pragmatist legal theory.

I had to drop the argument because I could not find faculty willing to be on the committee for such a dissertation! I have been convinced ever since that this is a line of argument that is actually rather suppressed. I was able to articulate the perspective in a philosophy journal in 2016, but had to abandon the topic.

This was probably good in the long run, since it meant I wrote a dissertation on privacy which addressed many of the themes I was interested in, but in greater depth. In particular, working with Helen Nissenbaum I learned about Hildebrandt’s articles comparing contextual integrity with purpose binding in the GDPR (Hildebrandt, 2013; Hildebrandt, 2014), which at the time my mentors at Berkeley seemed unaware of. I am still working on puzzles having to do with algorithmic implementation or response to the law, and likely will for some time.

Recently, been working at a Law School and have reengaged the interdisciplinary research community at venues like FAT*. This has led me, seemingly unavoidably, back to what I believe to be the crux of disciplinary tension today: the rising epistemic dominance of pragmatist computational statistics–“data science”and its threat to humanistic legal authority, which is manifested in the clash of institutions that are based on each, e.g., iconically, “Silicon Valley” (or Seattle) and the European Union. Because of the explicitly normative aspects of humanistic legal authority, it asserts itself again and again as an “ethical” alternative to pragmatist technocratic power. This is the latest manifestation of a very old debate.

Hildebrandt is the first respectable scholar (a category from which I exclude myself) that I’ve encountered to articulate this point. I have to see where she takes the argument.

So far, however, I think here argument begs the question. Implicitly, the “essentially contested” character of law is due to the ambiguity of natural language and the way in which that necessitates contest over the meaning of words. And so we have a professional class of lawyers and scholars that debate the meaning of words. I believe the the regulatory power of this class is what Hildebrandt refers to as “the Rule of Law”.

While it’s true that an alternative regulatory mechanism based on statistical prediction would be quite different from this sense of “Rule of Law”, it is not clear from Hildebrandt’s argument, yet, why her version of “Rule of Law” is better. The only hint of an argument is the problem of “mindless agents”. Is she worried about the deskilling of the legal profession, or the reduced need for elite contest over meaning? What is hermeneutics offering society, outside of the bounds of its own discourse?


Benthall, S. (2016). Philosophy of computational social science. Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy12(2), 13-30.

Sebastian Benthall. Context, Causality, and Information Flow: Implications for Privacy Engineering, Security, and Data Economics. Ph.D. dissertation. Advisors: John Chuang and Deirdre Mulligan. University of California, Berkeley. 2018.

Hildebrandt, Mireille. “Slaves to big data. Or are we?.” (2013).

Hildebrandt, Mireille. “Location Data, Purpose Binding and Contextual Integrity: What’s the Message?.” Protection of Information and the Right to Privacy-A New Equilibrium?. Springer, Cham, 2014. 31-62.

Hildebrandt, Mireille. Smart technologies and the end (s) of law: novel entanglements of law and technology. Edward Elgar Publishing, 2015.