China’s Social Credit System: Autonomy and Moral Growth

China’s Social Credit System: Autonomy and Moral Growth

by Jessie Pitsillides

In the previous two articles on China’s Social Credit System (SCS), we looked at what the SCS is, how it works, and how we can critically examine its role in society. Sociological theories, like the Panopticon and Positive vs. Negative liberty, are important to keep in mind when considering how the SCS might impact individual liberty and the implications for governments surveilling its citizens. This third instalment will talk about how citizens can regulate their own behaviour, and how the SCS limits that ability.

Inherent within the consideration of issues of liberty and surveillance is the notion that citizens can make decisions of their own accord, some of which are moral decisions. If one can make a moral decision in line with their own values, then they possess liberty; they can formulate their own belief system upon which they base their decisions instead of making reactive choices based on what occurs in a  socially coercive system. Moral agency assumes one is self-ruling, and autonomy can be considered a criterion for individual liberty; therefore, the ability to engage in moral decision-making indicates the existence of individual liberty. When considering whether surveillees (those being watched) possess liberty, it is important to consider whether their actions can ever be considered ethical, since if one acts morally, they are acting of their own accord and thus are afforded freedom of thought and expression.  

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Gamification and the reduction of moral value of decisions  

The gamified elements in the SCS detach decision-makers from the reasons that may make their actions desirable, which can put those actions at risk of losing their moral value. Kant's definition of moral action is that one's actions are morally “right” when they align with the moral rules dictated to them by their own reason. Those actions have moral value as long as they are motivated by respect for that moral law. One's actions have moral value if one does the “right” thing because they want to do so (Westacott, 2019). Thus, according to Kant, if a citizen chooses the ‘right’ way only because they know it will positively impact their Social Credit score, then they may be doing the “right” thing, but they shouldn't be given moral credit, since their motive is self-interested.  

The SCS quantifies how “good” actions are by identifying which behaviours increase or decrease a person’s scores. While most behaviours can be categorised as either “moral” or “immoral”, the issue is that socially accepted, “moral” behaviour is arbitrarily chosen by the State; while this fact may appear innocuous in cases of purchasing video games or eating unhealthily—mostly non-moral situations—when taken to the extreme, behaviours like free speech or protesting may eventually carry moral value, leading those who choose to speak against their government, for example, to be seen as behaving immorally. It is in these instances that the act of being surveilled can be incompatible with moral agency, and hence, individual liberty.  

Surveillance hinders individual moral growth  

The price that citizens pay for the utilitarian benefits of surveillance, such as reduced crime rates, is a diminution of moral character, and a sacrifice of their liberty. Any observer in a surveillance situation is indifferent to the justification of their citizens' behaviour; while citizens may do the wrong thing less often, surveillance has the potential to hinder an individual's moral growth, and hence their ability to exercise their liberty. This potential is discussed by the modern philosopher Emrys Westacott in his paper Philosophy and the Panopticon, where he states that surveillance brings one's duty to their State and their self-interest closer together (Westacott, 2019). The more robust the surveillance system is, the more likely it is that moral transgressions are detected and punished. However, the issue is that moral transgressions are conflated with State-determined behavioural transgressions, allowing the State to not only determine which actions are moral, but to also hijack one's intent to act morally—one does not act morally, but beneficially, in the eye of the  State. While these two concepts may not be mutually exclusive, the fact that there is no clarity on intentions or motives means that there is no space for the citizen to actually consider and act upon their own internal framework of right and wrong. Morality shifts from being internally determined by the individual to externally demanded by the State and consequently internalised, as discussed by Foucault, thus reducing the need for morality in decision-making. This leads to the lessening of one's moral character, equating to a lack of exercising freedom of thought and expression.  

China's SCS allows the diminution of moral character, as a person who does not act upon their  internal framework of right and wrong is a person who is more easily coerced and impressionable. 

China's SCS allows the diminution of moral character, as a person who does not act upon their  internal framework of right and wrong is a person who is more easily coerced and impressionable. The SCS’s gamification leads to the trivialisation of both morality and freedom. By turning the process of moral decision-making into what is effectively a point-based game, it not only removes the intrinsic motivation to act morally, but also robs citizens of the perspective to actually process and make such decisions. Gamification offers a deceptive liberation that is insidious in its ability to control its subjects; actions are rendered more trivial by assigning them points and rewards, while consequences are real and tangible and interfere with one's liberty. In Kant's essay, ‘What is Enlightenment’ he described enlightenment as "the human being's  emergence from his self-incurred minority". The “minority” is one's inability to utilise their own understanding without aid from someone else, and this minority is “self-incurred” when it exists because of  one's lack of courage to use their own understanding without others’ direction (Immanuel Kant, 2019). Rather than allowing principles by which one makes decisions to be determined by external factors, such as political leaders, Kant connected self-government and morality by calling upon the will of an individual to determine their guiding principles for themselves. He called an enlightened individual one that "dared to be wise", and that motivated their higher, rational self as a way of exercising their individual liberty (Immanuel Kant, 2019). When considering gamification, one must distinguish between the freedom to choose and autonomy. For example, while a citizen may feel that they are free to donate a portion of their income to a charitable cause and may do so especially when incentivised by a higher score, the decision to donate the money may not actually  reflect what is important to that individual in the long term. Thus, while the decision made by that citizen is unrestrained (remember negative liberty), it is not completely autonomous. If it were, the individual would be committed to that decision and if they were to reflect on it, the decision would represent their deepest values, rather than simply be a product of their instincts being manipulated through gamification. Thus, gamification strategies serve to limit one's sense of autonomy, weakening the liberty of the surveilled to make enlightened decisions; surveillance states do not allow their citizens to truly become enlightened. 

He called an enlightened individual one that "dared to be wise", and that motivated their higher, rational self as a way of exercising their individual liberty (Immanuel Kant, 2019).

Importance of Privacy  

This act of diminishing autonomy and reducing one's ability to make choices that stem from their true volition is intensified by the constant observation of citizens and the breach of privacy that the SCS exercises. While there is debate around how privacy should be defined, it is agreed that on an individual level, privacy affords one a degree of autonomy, and protects one's dignity. If one is not autonomous, they are not free, as their choices are not wholly self-ruled (autonomy is a Greek word that literally means self-ruling), but based upon the desires of an external body, whether that be the State or observer.  

Privacy affords one the space to consider things more thoughtfully and to engage with concepts  which may not be aligned with the ideologies of the State or of those in power more deeply. Privacy allows one to consider these issues without fear of judgement, allowing one to act with an internal locus of control rather than deferring to a more powerful, external locus when it comes to decision-making, which is key in the development and progression of society at large. As J.S Mill Stated in On Liberty and Other Writings, the key to a just and happy political community is individual freedom (John Stuart Mill, 2002), and hence an individual right to privacy; it is only when citizens have the space and ability to challenge those who have power over them that there is a healthy relationship between the State and the individual, in which the individual is not coerced.  

However, one must consider the notion that surveillance systems only function when offered a  certain level of transparency by the individual surveillees.

However, one must consider the notion that surveillance systems only function when offered a  certain level of transparency by the individual surveillees. The SCS and other surveillance  mechanisms can only collect data about an individual's physical actions but not the intent behind  those actions. For example, what is transparent is that an individual has left their house; what is less transparent is why they have gone out. Therefore, as alluded to earlier, even though one's actions  may be in line with what is deemed socially acceptable by the State, their lower self, their unfiltered passions and desires, are still intact. Therefore, since the privacy of one's true intent still exists, no matter how much one conforms to the desires of the observer, their lower self and their own desires are still intact.

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Jessie Pitsillides
Jessie Pitsillides

Jessie Pitsillides is an 18-year-old prospective Harvard student, and the founder of MentorJr, an organisation focused on fixing inequality within the education system. Here, she talks about the origins of the organisation, and where she sees it going next.

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