On the Moral Equality of Artificial Agents

On the Moral Equality of Artificial Agents

Christopher Wareham (European School of Molecular Medicine and the University of Milan, Italy)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-2931-8.ch005


Artificial agents such as robots are performing increasingly significant ethical roles in society. As a result, there is a growing literature regarding their moral status with many suggesting it is justified to regard manufactured entities as having intrinsic moral worth. However, the question of whether artificial agents could have the high degree of moral status that is attributed to human persons has largely been neglected. To address this question, the author developed a respect-based account of the ethical criteria for the moral status of persons. From this account, the paper employs an empirical test that must be passed in order for artificial agents to be considered alongside persons as having the corresponding rights and duties.
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Moral Status And Personhood

Moral theorists use the word ‘person’ in a way that is different to the common usage of the term. In moral theory, a person is a being with particular types of interests, such as an interest in preference satisfaction, or particular capacities, such as the ability to reason. On the basis of these interests or capacities, persons are regarded as having the highest moral status. Significantly, it is a core intuition of moral and political theory that all persons have equal moral status and are thus attributed the same basic rights and duties.

It is important to note that in secular ethical theory not all humans are persons.7 For instance, foetuses and humans that are severely cognitively impaired lack the relevant interests or capacities that persons have.8 More pertinently to the issue at hand, in order to avoid arbitrary anthropocentrism, most moral theorists accept that non-humans can in principle have the status of persons. For instance, if an alien or an animal had the relevant interests or capacities, it would be a person. Indeed, some theorists have argued that higher mammals such as dolphins should be recognised as having higher moral status.9 Thus, if an artificial agent fulfilled the relevant criteria it should be considered as having rights and duties that persons have.

But what are the relevant criteria? In the rest of this section I examine the ethical basis for the higher moral status of persons in order to clarify criteria for equivalent moral status. Two main families of theory are thought to explain moral status: interest-based theories and respect-based theories. I argue that the former should be rejected, since they undermine the ideal that persons are moral equals. I argue that if respect-based accounts are suitably fleshed out they can provide adequate ethical criteria for the moral worth of persons.

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