[This is the text of a lecture that I delivered at Tilburg University on the 24th of September 2019. It was delivered as part of the 25th Anniversary celebrations for TILT (Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology and Society). My friend and colleague Sven Nyholm was the discussant for the evening. The lecture is based on my longer academic article ‘Welcoming Robots into the Moral Circle: A Defence of Ethical Behaviourism’ but was written from scratch and presents some key arguments in a snappier and clearer form. I also include a follow up section responding to criticisms from the audience on the evening of the lecture. My thanks to all those involved in organizing the event (Aviva de Groot, Merel Noorman and Silvia de Conca in particular). You can download an audio version of this lecture, minus the reflections and follow ups, here or listen to it above]
My lecture this evening will be about the conditions under which we should welcome robots into our moral communities. Whenever I talk about this, I am struck by how much my academic career has come to depend upon my misspent youth for its inspiration. Like many others, I was obsessed with science fiction as a child, and in particular with the representation of robots in science fiction. I had two favourite, fictional, robots. The first was R2D2 from the original Star Wars trilogy. The second was Commander Data from Star Trek: the Next Generation. I liked R2D2 because of his* personality - courageous, playful, disdainful of authority - and I liked Data because the writers of Star Trek used him as a vehicle for exploring some important philosophical questions about emotion, humour, and what it means to be human.
In fact, I have to confess that Data has had an outsized influence on my philosophical imagination and has featured in several of my academic papers. Part of the reason for this was practical. When I grew up in Ireland we didn’t have many options to choose from when it came to TV. We had to make do with what was available and, as luck would have it, Star Trek: TNG was on every day when I came home from school. As a result, I must have watched each episode of its 7-season run multiple times.
One episode in particular has always stayed with me. It was called ‘Measure of a Man’. In it, a scientist from the Federation visits the Enterprise because he wants to take Data back to his lab to study him. Data, you see, is a sophisticated human-like android, created by a lone scientific genius, under somewhat dubious conditions. The Federation scientist wants to take Data apart and see how he works with a view to building others like him. Data, unsurprisingly, objects. He argues that he is not just a machine or piece of property that can be traded and disassembled to suit the whims of human beings. He has his own, independent moral standing. He deserves to be treated with dignity.
But how does Data prove his case? A trial ensues and evidence is given on both sides. The prosecution argue that Data is clearly just a piece of property. He was created not born. He doesn’t think or see the world like a normal human being (or, indeed, other alien species). He even has an ‘off switch’. Data counters by giving evidence of the rich relationships he has formed with his fellow crew members and eliciting testimony from others regarding his behaviour and the interactions they have with him. Ultimately, he wins the case. The court accepts that he has moral standing.
Now, we can certainly lament the impact that science fiction has on the philosophical debate about robots. As David Gunkel observes in his 2018 book Robot Rights:
“[S]cience fiction already — and well in advance of actual engineering practice — has established expectations for what a robot is or can be. Even before engineers have sought to develop working prototypes, writers, artists, and filmmakers have imagined what robots do or can do, what configurations they might take, and what problems they could produce for human individuals and communities.”
He continues, noting that this is a “potential liability” because:
“science fiction, it is argued, often produces unrealistic expectations for and irrational fears about robots that are not grounded in or informed by actual science.”
I certainly heed this warning. But, nevertheless, I think the approach taken by the TNG writers in the episode ‘Measure of a Man’ is fundamentally correct. Even if we cannot currently create a being like Data, and even if the speculation is well in advance of the science, they still give us the correct guide to resolving the philosophical question of when to welcome robots into our moral community. Or so, at least, I shall argue in the remainder of this lecture.
2. Tribalism and Conflict in Robot Ethics
Before I get into my own argument, let me say something about the current lay of the land when it comes to this issue. Some of you might be familiar with the famous study by the social psychologist Muzafer Sherif. It was done in the early 1950s at a summer camp in Robber’s Cave, Oklahoma. Suffice to say, it is one of those studies that wouldn’t get ethics approval nowadays. Sherif and his colleagues were interested in tribalism and conflict. They wanted to see how easy it would be to get two groups of 11-year old boys to divide into separate tribes and go to war with one another. It turned out to be surprisingly easy. By arbitrarily separating the boys into two groups, giving them nominal group identity (the ‘Rattlers’ and the ‘Eagles’), and putting them into competition with each other, Sherif and his research assistants sowed the seeds for bitter and repeated conflict.
The study has become a classic, repeatedly cited as evidence of how easy it is for humans to get trapped in intransigent group conflicts. I mention it here because, unfortunately, it seems to capture what has happened with the debate about the potential moral standing of robots. The disputants have settled into two tribes. There are those that are ‘anti’ the idea; and there are those that are ‘pro’ the idea. The members of these tribes sometimes get into heated arguments with one another, particularly on Twitter (which, admittedly, is a bit like a digital equivalent of Sherif’s summer camp).
Those that are ‘anti’ the idea would include Noel Sharkey, Amanda Sharkey, Deborah Johnson, Aimee van Wynsberghe and the most recent lecturer in this series, Joanna Bryson. They cite a variety of reasons for their opposition. The Sharkeys, I suspect, think the whole debate is slightly ridiculous because current robots clearly lack the capacity for moral standing, and debating their moral standing distracts from the important issues in robot ethics - namely stopping the creation and use of robots that are harmful to human well-being. Deborah Johnson would argue that since robots can never experience pain or suffering they will never have moral standing. Van Wynsberghe and Bryson are maybe a little different and lean more heavily on the idea that even if it were possible to create robots with moral standing — a possibility that Bryson at least is willing to concede — it would be a very bad idea to do so because it would cause considerable moral and legal disruption.
Those that are pro the idea would include Kate Darling, Mark Coeckelbergh, David Gunkel, Erica Neely, and Daniel Estrada. Again, they cite a variety of reasons for their views. Darling is probably the weakest on the pro side. She focuses on humans and thinks that even if robots themselves lack moral standing we should treat them as if they had moral standing because that would be better for us. Coeckelbergh and Gunkel are more provocative, arguing that in settling questions of moral standing we should focus less on the intrinsic capacities of robots and more on how we relate to them. If those relations are thick and meaningful, then perhaps we should accept that robots have moral standing. Erica Neely proceeds from a principle of moral precaution, arguing that even if we are unsure of the moral standing of robots we should err on the side of over-inclusivity rather than under-inclusivity when it comes to this issue: it is much worse to exclude a being with moral standing to include one without. Estrada is almost the polar opposite of Bryson, welcoming the moral and legal disruption that embracing robots would entail because it would loosen the stranglehold of humanism on our ethical code.
To be clear, this is just a small sample of those who have expressed an opinion about this topic. There are many others that I just don’t have time to discuss. I should, however, say something here about this evening’s discussant, Sven and his views on the matter. I had the fortune of reading a manuscript of Sven’s forthcoming book Humans, Robots and Ethics. It is an excellent and entertaining contribution to the field of robot ethics and in it Sven shares his own views on the moral standing of robots. I’m sure he will explain them later on but, for the time being, I would tentatively place him somewhere near Kate Darling on this map: he thinks we should be open to the idea of treating robots as if they had moral standing, but not because of what the robots themselves are but because of what respecting them says about our attitudes to other humans.
And what of myself? Where do I fit in all of this? People would probably classify me as belonging to the pro side. I have argued that we should be open to the idea that robots have moral standing. But I would much prefer to transcend this tribalistic approach to the issue. I am not advocate for the moral standing of robots. I think many of the concerns raised by those on the anti side are valid. Debating the moral standing of robots can seem, at times, ridiculous and a distraction from other important questions in robot ethics; and accepting them into our moral communities will, undoubtedly, lead to some legal and moral disruption (though I would add that not all disruption is a bad thing). That said, I do care about the principles we should use to decide questions of moral standing, and I think that those on the anti of the debate sometimes use bad arguments to support their views. This is why, in the remainder of this lecture, I will defend a particular approach to settling the question of the moral standing of robots. I do so in the hope that this can pave the way to a more fruitful and less tribalistic debate.
In this sense, I am trying to return to what may be the true lesson of Sherif’s famous experiment on tribalism. In her fascinating book The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave Experiment, Gina Perry has revealed the hidden history behind Sherif’s work. It turns out that Sherif tried to conduct the exact same experiment as he did in Robber’s Cave one year before in Middle Grove, New York. It didn’t work out. No matter what the experimenters did to encourage conflict, the boys refused to get sucked into it. Why was this? One suggestion is that at Middle Grove, Sherif didn’t sort the boys into two arbitrary groups as soon as they arrived. They were given the chance to mingle and get to know one another before being segregated. This initial intermingling may have inoculated them from tribalism. Perhaps we can do the same thing with philosophical dialogue? I live in hope.
3. In Defence of Ethical Behaviourism
The position I wish to defend is something I call ‘ethical behaviourism’. According to this view, the behavioural representations of another entity toward you are a sufficient ground for determining their moral status. Or, to put it slightly differently, how an entity looks and acts is enough to determine its moral status. If it looks and acts like a duck, then you should probably treat it like you treat any other duck.
Ethical behaviourism works through comparisons. If you are unsure of the moral status of a particular entity — for present purposes this will be a robot but it should be noted that ethical behaviourism has broader implications — then you should compare its behaviours to that of another entity that is already agreed to have moral status — a human or an animal. If the robot is roughly performatively equivalent to that other entity, then it too has moral status. I say “roughly” since no two entities are ever perfectly equivalent. If you compared two adult human beings you would spot performative differences between them, but this wouldn’t mean that one of them lacks moral standing as a result. The equivalence test is an inexact one, not an exact one.
There is nothing novel in ethical behaviourism. It is, in effect, just a moral variation of the famous Turing Test for machine intelligence. Where Turing argued that we should assess intelligence on the basis of behaviour, I am arguing that we should determine moral standing on the basis of behaviour. It is also not a view that is original to me. Others have defended similar views, even if they haven’t explicitly labelled it as such.
Despite the lack of novelty, ethical behaviourism is easily misunderstood and frequently derided. So let me just clarify a couple of points. First, note that it is a practical and epistemic thesis about how we can settle questions of moral standing; it is not an abstract metaphysical thesis about what it is that grounds moral standing. So, for example, someone could argue that the capacity to feel pain is the metaphysical grounding for moral status and that this capacity depends on having a certain mental apparatus. The ethical behaviourist can agree with this. They will just argue that the best evidence we have for determining whether an entity has the capacity to feel pain is behavioural. Furthermore, ethical behaviourism is agnostic about the broader consequences of its comparative tests. To say that one entity should have the same moral standing as another entity does not mean both are entitled to a full set of legal and moral rights. That depends on other considerations. A goat could have moral standing, but that doesn’t mean it has the right to own property. This is important because when I am arguing that we should apply this approach to robots and I am not thereby endorsing a broader claim that we should grant robots legal rights or treat them like adult human beings. This depends on who or what the robots is being compared to.
So what’s the argument for ethical behaviourism? I have offered different formulations of this but for this evening’s lecture I suggest that it consists of three key propositions or premises.
- (P1) The most popular criteria for moral status are dependent on mental states or capacities, e.g. theories focused on sentience, consciousness, having interests, agency, and personhood.
- (P2) The best evidence — and oftentimes the only practicable evidence — for the satisfaction of these criteria is behavioural.
- (P3) Alternative alleged grounds of moral status or criteria for determining moral status either fail to trump or dislodge the sufficiency of the behavioural evidence.
Therefore, ethical behaviourism is correct: behaviour provides a sufficient basis for settling questions of moral status.
I take it that the first premise of this argument is uncontroversial. Even if you think there are other grounds for moral status, I suspect you agree that an entity with sentience or consciousness (etc) has some kind of moral standing. The second premise is more controversial but is, I think, undeniable. It’s a trite observation but I will make it anyway: We don’t have direct access to one another’s minds. I cannot crawl inside your head and see if you really are experiencing pain or suffering. The only thing I have to go on is how you behave and react to the world. This is true, by the way, even if I can scan your brain and see whether the pain-perceiving part of it lights up. This is because the only basis we have for verifying the correlations between functional activity in the brain and mental states is behavioural. What I mean is that scientists ultimately verify those correlations by asking people in the brain scanners what they are feeling. So all premise (2) is saying is that if the most popular theories of moral status are to work in practice, it can only be because we use behavioural evidence to guide their application.
That brings us to premise (3): that all other criteria fail to dislodge the importance of behavioural evidence. This is the most controversial one. Many people seem to passionately believe that there are other ways of determining moral status and indeed they argue that relying on behavioural evidence would be absurd. Consider these two recent Twitter comments on an article I wrote about ethical behaviourism and how it relates to animals and robots:
First comment: “[This is] Errant #behaviorist #materialist nonsense…Robots are inanimate even if they imitate animal behavior. They don’t want or care about anything. But knock yourself out. Put your toaster in jail if it burns your toast.”
Second comment: “If I give a hammer a friendly face so some people feel emotionally attached to it, it still remains a tool #AnthropomorphicFallacy”
These are strong statements, but they are not unusual. I encounter this kind of criticism quite frequently. But why? Why are people so resistant to ethical behaviourism? Why do they think that there must be something more to how we determine moral status? Let’s consider some of the most popular objections.
4. Objections and Replies
In a recent paper, I suggested that there were seven (more, depending on how you count) major objections to ethical behaviourism. I won’t review all seven here, but I will consider four of the most popular ones. Each of these objections should be understood as an attempt to argue that behavioural evidence by itself cannot suffice for determining moral standing. Other evidence matters as well and can ‘defeat’ the behavioural evidence.
(A) The Material Cause Objection
The first objection is that the ontology of an entity makes a difference to its moral standing. To adopt the Aristotelian language, we can say that the material cause of an entity (i.e. what it is made up of) matters more than behaviour when it comes to moral standing. So, for example, someone could argue that robots lack moral standing because they are not biological creatures. They are not made from the same ‘wet’ organic components as human beings or animals. Even if they are performatively equivalent to human beings or animals, this ontological difference scuppers any claim they might have to moral standing.
I find this objection unpersuasive. It smacks to me of biological mysterianism. Why exactly does being made of particular organic material make such a crucial difference? Imagine if your spouse, the person you live with everyday, was suddenly revealed to be an alien from the Andromeda galaxy. Scientists conduct careful tests and determine that they are not a carbon-based lifeform. They are made from something different, perhaps silicon. Despite this, they still look and act in the same way as they always have (albeit now with some explaining to do). Would the fact that they are made of different stuff mean that they no longer warrant any moral standing in your eyes? Surely not. Surely the behavioural evidence suggesting that they still care about you and still have the mental capacities you used to associate with moral standing would trump the new evidence you have regarding their ontology. I know non-philosophers dislike thought experiments of this sort, finding them to be slightly ridiculous and far-fetched. Nevertheless, I do think they are vital in this context because they suggest that behaviour does all the heavy lifting when it comes to assessing moral standing. In other words, behaviour matters more than matter. This is also, incidentally, one reason why it is wrong to say that ethical behaviourism is a ‘materialist’ view: ethical behaviourism is actually agnostic regarding the ontological instantiation of the capacities that ground moral status; it is concerned only with the evidence that is sufficient for determining their presence.
All that said, I am willing to make one major concession to the material cause objection. I will concede that ontology might provide an alternative, independent ground for determining the moral status of an entity. Thus, we might accept that an entity that is made from the right biological stuff has moral standing, even if they lack the behavioural sophistication we usually require for moral standing. So, for example someone in a permanent coma might have moral standing because of what they are made of, and not because of what they can do. Still, all this shows is that being made of the right stuff is an independent sufficient ground for moral standing, not that it is a necessary ground for moral standing. The latter is what would need to be proved to undermine ethical behaviourism.
(B) The Efficient Cause Objection
The second objection is that how an entity comes into existence makes a difference to its moral standing. To continue the Aristotelian theme, we can say that the efficient cause of existence is more important than the unfolding reality. This is an objection that the philosopher Michael Hauskeller hints at in his work. Hauskeller doesn’t focus on moral standing per se, but does focus on when we can be confident that another entity cares for us or loves us. He concedes that behaviour seems like the most important thing when addressing this issue — what else could caring be apart from caring behaviour? — but then resiles from this by arguing that how the being came into existence can undercut the behavioural evidence. So, for example, a robot might act as if it cares about you, but when you learn that the robot was created and manufactured by a team of humans to act as if it cares for you, then you have reason to doubt the sincerity of its behaviour.
It could be that what Hauskeller is getting at here is that behavioural evidence can often be deceptive and misleading. If so, I will deal with this concern in a moment. But it could also be that he thinks that the mere fact that a robot was programmed and manufactured, as opposed to being evolved and developed, makes a crucial difference to moral standing. If that is what he is claiming, then it is hard to see why we should take it seriously. Again, imagine if your spouse told you that they were not conceived and raised in the normal way. They were genetically engineered in a lab and then carefully trained and educated. Having learned this, would you take a new view of their moral standing? Surely not. Surely, once again, how they actually behave towards you — and not how they came into existence — would be what ultimately mattered. We didn’t deny the first in vitro baby moral standing simply because she came into existence in a different way from ordinary human beings. The same principle should apply to robots.
Furthermore, if this is what Hauskeller is arguing, it would provide us with an unstable basis on which to make crucial judgments of moral standing. After all, the differences between humans and robots with respect to their efficient causes is starting to breakdown. Increasingly, robots are not being programmed and manufactured from the top-down to follow specific rules. They are instead given learning algorithms and then trained on different datasets with the process sometimes being explicitly modeled on evolution and childhood development. Similarly, humans are increasingly being designed and programmed from the top down, through artificial reproduction, embryo selection and, soon, genetic engineering. You may object to all this tinkering with the natural processes of human development and conception. But I think you would be hard pressed to deny a human that came into existence as a result of these process the moral standing you ordinarily give to other human beings.
(C) The Final Cause Objection
The third objection is that the purposes an entity serves and how it is expected to fulfil those purposes makes a difference to its moral standing. This is an objection that Joanna Bryson favours in her work. In several papers, she has argued that because robots will be designed to fulfil certain purposes on our behalf (i.e. they will be designed to serve us) and because they will be owned and controlled by us in the process, they should not have moral standing. Now, to be fair, Bryson is more open to the possibility of robot moral standing than most. She has said, on several occasions, that it is possible to create robots that have moral standing. She just thinks that that this should not happen, in part because they will be owned and controlled by us, and because they will be (and perhaps should be) designed to serve our ends.
I don’t think there is anything in this that dislodges or upsets ethical behaviourism. For one thing, I find it hard to believe that the fact that an entity has been designed to fulfil a certain purpose should make a crucial difference to its moral standing. Suppose, in the future, human parents can genetically engineer their offspring to fulfil certain specific ends. For example, they can select genes that will guarantee (with the right training regime) that their child will be a successful athlete (this is actually not that dissimilar to what some parents try to do nowadays). Suppose they succeed. Would this fact alone undermine the child’s claim to moral standing? Surely not, and surely the same standard should apply to a robot. If it is performatively equivalent to another entity with moral standing, then the mere fact that it has been designed to fulfil a specific purpose should not affect its moral standing.
Related to this, it is hard to see why the fact that we might own and control robots should make a critical difference to their moral standing. If anything, this inverts the proper order of moral justification. The fact that a robot looks and acts like another entity that we believe to have moral standing should cause us to question our approach to ownership and control, not vice versa. We once thought it was okay for humans to own and control other humans. We were wrong to think this because it ignored the moral standing of those other humans.
That said, there are nuances here. Many people think that animals have some moral standing (i.e. that we need to respect their welfare and well-being) but that it is not wrong to own them or attempt to control them. The same approach might apply to robots if they are being compared to animals. This is the crucial point about ethical behaviourism: the ethical consequences of accepting that a robot is performatively equivalent to another entity with moral standing depends, crucially, on who or what that other entity is.
(D) The Deception Objection
The fourth objection is that ethical behaviourism cannot work because it is too easy to be deceived by behavioural cues. A robot might look and act like it is in pain, but this could just be a clever trick, used by its manufacturer, to foster false sympathy. This is, probably, the most important criticism of ethical behaviourism. It is what I think lurks behind the claim that ethical behaviourism is absurd and must be resisted.
It is well-known that humans have a tendency toward hasty anthropomorphism. That is, we tend to ascribe human-like qualities to features of our environment without proper justification. We anthropomorphise the weather, our computers, the trees and the plants, and so forth. It is easy to ‘hack’ this tendency toward hasty anthropomorphism. As social roboticists know, putting a pair of eyes on a robot can completely change how a human interacts with it, even if the robot cannot see anything. People worry, consequently, that ethical behaviourism is easily exploited by nefarious technology companies.
I sympathise with the fear that motivates this objection. It is definitely true that behaviour can be misleading or deceptive. We are often misled by the behaviour of our fellow humans. To quote Shakespeare, someone can ‘smile and smile and be a villain’. But what is the significance of this fact when it comes to assessing moral status? To me, the significance is that it means we should be very careful when assessing the behavioural evidence that is used to support a claim about moral status. We shouldn’t extrapolate too quickly from one behaviour. If a robot looks and acts like it is in pain (say) that might provide some warrant for thinking it has moral status, but we should examine its behavioural repertoire in more detail. It might emerge that other behaviours are inconsistent with the hypothesis that it feels pain or suffering.
The point here, however, is that we are always using other behavioural evidence to determine whether the initial behavioural evidence was deceptive or misleading. We are not relying on some other kind of information. Thus, for example, I think it would be a mistake to conclude that a robot cannot feel pain, even though it performs as if it does, because the manufacturer of the robot tells us that it was programmed to do this, or because some computer engineer can point to some lines of code that are responsible for the pain performance. That evidence by itself — in the absence of other countervailing behavioural evidence — cannot undermine the behavioural evidence suggesting that the robot does feel pain. Think about it like this: imagine if a biologist came to you and told you that evolution had programmed the pain response into humans in order to elicit sympathy from fellow humans. What’s more, imagine if a neuroscientist came to you and and told you she could point to the exact circuit in the brain that is responsible for the human pain performance (and maybe even intervene in and disrupt it). What they say may well be true, but it wouldn’t mean that the behavioural evidence suggesting that your fellow humans are in pain can be ignored.
This last point is really the crucial bit. This is what is most distinctive about the perspective of ethical behaviourism. The tendency to misunderstand it, ignore it, or skirt around it, is why I think many people on the ‘anti’ side of the debate make bad arguments.
5. Implications and Conclusions
That’s all I will say in defence of ethical behaviourism this evening. Let me conclude by addressing some of its implications and heading off some potential misunderstandings.
First, let me re-emphasise that ethical behaviourism is about the principles we should apply when assessing the moral standing of robots. In defending it, I am not claiming that robots currently have moral standing or, indeed, that they will ever have moral standing. I think this is possible, indeed probable, but I could be wrong. The devil is going to be in the detail of the behavioural tests we apply (just as it is with the Turing test for intelligence).
Second, there is nothing in ethical behaviourism that suggests that we ought to create robots that cross the performative threshold to moral standing. It could be, as people like Bryson and Van Wysnberghe argue, that this is a very bad idea: that it will be too disruptive of existing moral and legal norms. What ethical behaviourism does suggest, however, is that there is an ethical weight to the decision to create human-like and animal-like robots that may be underappreciated by robot manufacturers.
Third, acknowledging the potential risks, there are also potential benefits to creating robots that cross the performative threshold. Ethical behaviourism can help to reveal a value to relationships with robots that is otherwise hidden. If I am right, then robots can be genuine objects of moral affection, friendship and love, under the right conditions. In other words, just as there are ethical risks to creating human-like and animal-like robots, there are also ethical rewards and these tend to be ignored, ridiculed or sidelined in the current debate.
Fourth, and related to this previous point, the performative threshold that robots have to cross in order to unlock the different kinds of value might vary quite a bit. The performative threshold needed to attain basic moral standing might be quite low; the performative threshold needed to say that a robot can be a friend or a partner might be substantially higher. A robot might have to do relatively little to convince us that it should be treated with moral consideration, but it might have to do a lot to convince us that it is our friend.
These are topics that I have explored in greater detail in some of my papers, but they are also topics that Sven has explored at considerable length. Indeed, several chapters of his forthcoming book are dedicated to them. So, on that note, it is probably time for me to shut up and hand over to him and see what he has to say about all of this.
Reflections and Follow UpsAfter I delivered the above lecture, my colleague and friend Sven Nyholm gave a response and there were some questions and challenges from the audience. I cannot remember every question that was raised, but I thought I would respond to a few that I can remember.
1. The Randomisation Counterexample
One audience member (it was Nathan Wildman) presented an interesting counterexample to my claim that other kinds of evidence don’t defeat or undermine the behavioural evidence for moral status. He argued that we could cook-up a possible scenario in which our knowledge of the origins of certain behaviours did cause us to question whether it was sufficient for moral status.
He gave the example of a chatbot that was programmed using a randomisation technique. The chatbot would generate text at random (perhaps based on some source dataset). Most of the time the text is gobbledygook but on maybe one occasion it just happens to have a perfectly intelligible conversation with you. In other words, whatever is churned out by the randomisation algorithm happens to perfectly coincide with what would be intelligible in that context (like picking up a meaningful book in Borges’s Library of Babel). This might initially cause you to think it has some significant moral status, but if the computer programmer came along and told you about the randomisation process underlying the programming you would surely change your opinion. So, on this occasion, it looks like information about the causal origins of the behaviour, makes a difference to moral status.
Response: This is a clever counterexample but I think it overlooks two critical points. First, it overlooks the point I make about avoiding hasty anthropomorphisation towards the end of my lecture. I think we shouldn’t extrapolate too much from just one interaction with a robot. We should conduct a more thorough investigation of the robot’s (or in this case the chatbot’s) behaviours. If the intelligible conversation was just a one-off, then we will quickly be disabused of our belief that it has moral status. But if it turns out that the intelligible conversation was not a one-off, then I don’t think the evidence regarding the randomisation process would have any such effect. The computer programmer could shout and scream as much as he/she likes about the randomisation algorithm, but I don’t think this would suffice to undermine the consistent behavioural evidence. This links to a second, and perhaps deeper metaphysical point I would like to make: we don’t really know what the true material instantiation of the mind is (if it is indeed material). We think the brain and its functional activity is pretty important, but we will probably never have a fully satisfactory theory of the relationship between matter and mind. This is the core of the hard problem of consciousness. Given this, it doesn’t seem wise or appropriate to discount the moral status of this hypothetical robot just because it is built on a randomisation algorithm. Indeed, if such a robot existed, it might give us reason to think that randomisation was one of the ways in which a mind could be functionally instantiated in the real world.
I should say that this response ignores the role of moral precaution in assessing moral standing. If you add a principle of moral precaution to the mix, then it may be wrong to favour a more thorough behavioural test. This is something I discuss a bit in my article on ethical behaviourism.
2. The Argument confuses how we know X is valuable with what makes X actually valuable
One point that Sven stressed in his response, and which he makes elsewhere too, is that my argument elides or confuses two separate things: (i) how we know whether something is of value and (ii) what it is that makes it valuable. Another way of putting it: I provide a decision-procedure for deciding who or what has moral status but I don’t thereby specify what it is that makes them have moral status. It could be that the capacity to feel pain is what makes someone have moral standing and that we know someone feels pain through their behaviour, but this doesn’t mean that they have moral standing because of their behaviour.
Response: This is probably a fair point. I may on occasion elide these two things. But my feeling is that this is a ‘feature’ rather than a ‘bug’ in my account. I’m concerned with how we practically assess and apply principles of moral standing in the real world, and not so much with what it is that metaphysically undergirds moral standing.
3. Proxies for Behaviour versus Proxies for Mind
Another comment (and I apologise for not remembering who gave it) is that on my theory behaviour is important but only because it is a proxy for something else, namely some set of mental states or capacities. This is similar to the point Sven is making in his criticism. If that’s right, then I am wrong to assume that behaviour is the only (or indeed the most important) proxy for mental states. Other kinds of evidence serve as proxies for mental states. The example was given of legal trials where the prosecution is trying to prove what the mental status of the defendant was at the time of an offence. They don’t just rely on behavioural evidence. They also rely on other kinds of forensic evidence to establish this.
Response: I don’t think this is true and this gets to a deep feature of my theory. To take the criminal trial example, I don’t think it is true to say that we use other kinds of evidence as proxies for mental states. I think we use them as proxies for behaviour which we then use as proxies for mental states. In other words, the actual order of inference goes:
- Other evidence → behaviour → mental state
- Other evidence → mental state
This is the point I was getting at in my talk when I spoke about how we make inferences from functional brain activity to mental state. I believe what happens when we draw a link between brain activity and mental state, what we are really doing is this:
- Brain state → behaviour → mental state
- Brain state → mental state.
Now, it is, of course, true to say that sometimes scientists think we can make this second kind of inference. For example, purveyors of brain based lie detection tests (and, indeed, other kinds of lie detection test) try to draw a direct line of inference from a brain state to a mental state, but I would argue that this is only because they have previously verified their testing protocol by following the “brain state → behaviour → mental state” route and confirming that it is reliable across multiple tests. This gives them the confidence to drop the middle step on some occasions, but ultimately this is all warranted (if it is, in fact, warranted – brain-based lie detection is controversial) because the scientists first took the behavioural step. To undermine my view, you would have to show that it is possible to cut out the behavioural step in this inference pattern. I don’t think this can be done, but perhaps I can be proved wrong.
This is perhaps the most metaphysical aspect of my view.
4. Default Settings and Practicalities
Another point that came up in conversation with Sven, Merel Noorman and Silvia de Conca, had to do with the default assumptions we are likely to have when dealing with robots and how this impacts on the practicalities of robots being accepting into the moral circle. In other words, even if I am right in some abstract, philosophical sense, will anyone actually follow the behavioural test I advocate? Won’t there be a lot of resistance to it in reality?
Now, as I mentioned in my lecture, I am not an activist for robot rights or anything of the sort. I am interested in the general principles we should apply when settling questions of moral status; not with whether a particular being, such as a robot, has acquired moral status. That said, implicit views about the practicalities of applying the ethical behaviourist test may play an important role in some of the arguments I am making.
One example of this has to do with the ‘default’ assumption we have when interpreting the behaviour of humans/animals vis-à-vis robots. We tend to approach humans and animals with an attitude of good faith, i.e. we assume their each of their outward behaviours is a sincere representation of their inner state of mind. It’s only if we receive contrary evidence that we will start to doubt the sincerity of the behaviour.
But what default assumption do we have when confronting robots? It seems plausible to suggest that most people will approach them with an attitude of bad faith. They will assume that their behaviours are representative of nothing at all and will need a lot of evidence to convince them that they should be granted some weight. This suggests that (a) not all behavioural evidence is counted equally and (b) it might be very difficult, in practice, for robots to be accepted into the moral circle.
Response: I don’t see this as a criticism of ethical behaviourism but, rather, a warning to anyone who wishes to promote it. In other words, I accept that people will resist ethical behaviourism and may treat robots with greater suspicion than human or animal agents. One of the key points of this lecture and the longer academic article I wrote about the topic was to address this suspicion and skepticism. Nevertheless, the fact that there may be these practical difficulties does not mean that ethical behaviourism is incorrect. In this respect, it is worth noting that Turing was acutely aware of this problem when he originally formulated his 'Imitation Game' test. The reason why the test was purely text-based in its original form was to prevent human-centric biases affecting its operation.
5. Ethical Mechanicism vs Ethical Behaviourism
After I posted this article, Natesh Ganesh posted a critique of my handling of the deception objection on Twitter. He made two interesting points. First, he argued that the thought experiment I used to dismiss the deception objection was misleading and circular. If a scientist revealed the mechanisms underlying my own pain performances I would have no reason to doubt that the pain was genuine since I already know that someone with my kind of neural circuitry can experience pain. If they revealed the mechanisms underlying a robot’s pain performances things would be different because I do not yet have a reason to think that a being with that kind of mechanism can experience genuine pain. As a result, the thought experiment is circular because only somebody who already accepted ethical behaviourism would be so dismissive of the mechanistic evidence. Here’s how Natesh expresses the point:
“the analogy in the last part [the response to the deception objection] seems flawed. Showing me the mechanisms of pain in entities (like humans) who we share similar mechanisms with & agree have moral standing is different from showing me the mechanisms of entities (like robots) whose moral standing we are trying to determine. Denying experience of pain in the 1st simply because I now know the circuitry would imply denying your own pain & hence moral standing. But accepting/ denying the 2nd if its a piece of code implicitly depends on whether you already accept/deny ethical behaviorism. It is just circular to appeal to that example as evidence.”
He then follows up with a second point (implicit in what was just said) about the importance of mechanical similarities between entities when it comes to assessing moral standing:
“I for one am more likely to [believe] a robot can experience pain if it shows the behavior & the manufacturer opened it up & showed me the circuitry and if that was similar to my own (different material perhaps) I am more likely to accept the robot experiences pain. In this case once again I needed machinery on top of behavior.”
What I would say here, is that Natesh, although not completely dismissive of the importance of behaviour to assessing moral standing, is a fan of ethical mechanicism, and not ethical behaviourism. He thinks you must have mechanical similarity (equivalence?) before you can conclude that two entities share moral standing.
Response: On the charge of circularity, I don’t think this is quite fair. The thought experiment I propose when responding to the deception objection is, like all thought experiments, intended to be an intuition pump. The goal is to imagine a situation in which you could describe and intervene in the mechanical underpinning of a pain performance with great precision (be it a human pain performance or otherwise) and ask whether the mere fact that you could describe the mechanism in detail or intervene in it would be make a difference to the entity’s moral standing. My intuitions suggest it wouldn’t make a difference, irrespective of the details of the mechanism (this is the point I make, above, in relation to the example given by Nathan Wildman about the robot whose behaviour is the result of a random-number generator programme). Perhaps other people’s intuitions are pumped in a different direction. That can happen but it doesn’t mean the thought experiment is circular.
What about the importance of mechanisms in addition to behaviour? This is something I address in more detail in the academic paper. I have two thoughts about it. First, I could just bite the bullet and agree that the underlying mechanisms must be similar too. This would just add an additional similarity test to the assessment of moral status. There would then be similar questions as to how similar the mechanisms must be. Is it enough if they are, roughly, functionally similar or must they have the exact same sub-components and processes? If the former, then it still seems possible in principle for roboticists to create a functionally similar underlying mechanism and this could then ground moral standing for robots.
Second, despite this, I would still push back against the claim that similar underlying mechanisms are necessary. This strikes me as being just a conservative prejudgment rather than a good reason for denying moral status to behaviourally equivalent entities. Why are we so confident that only entities with our neurological mechanisms (or something very similar) can experience pain (or instantiate the other mental properties relevant to moral standing)? Or, to put it less controversially, why should we be so confident that mechanical similarity undercuts behavioural similarity? If there is an entity that looks and acts like it is in pain (or has interests, a sense of personhood, agency etc), and all the behavioural tests confirm this, then why deny it moral standing because of some mechanical differences?
Part of the resistance here could be that people are confusing two different claims:
- Claim 1: it is impossible (physically, metaphysically) for an entity that lacks sufficient mechanical similarity (with humans/animals) to have the behavioural sophistication we associate with experiencing pain, having agency etc.
- Claim 2: an entity that has the behavioural sophistication we associate with experiencing pain, having agency (etc) but then lacks mechanical similarity to other entities with such behavioural sophistication, should be denied moral standing because they lack mechanical similarity.
Ethical behaviourism denies claim 2, but it does not, necessarily, deny claim 1. It could be the case that mechanical similarity is essential for behavioural similarity. This is something that can only be determined after conducting the requisite behavioural tests. The point, as always throughout my defence of the position, is that the behavioural evidence should be our guide. This doesn’t mean that other kinds of evidence are irrelevant but simply that they do not carry as much weight. My sense is that people who favour ethical mechanicism have a very strong intuition in favour of claim 1, which they then carry over into support for claim 2. This carry over is not justified as the two claims are not logically equivalent.