The Social-Role Defense of Robot Rights

Daniel Estrada's Made of Robots has launched a Hangout on Air series in philosophy of technology. The first episode is terrific!

Robot rights cheap yo.

Cheap: Estrada's argument for robot rights doesn't require that robots have any conscious experiences, any feelings, any reinforcement learning, or (maybe) any cognitive processing at all. Most other defenses of the moral status of robots assume, implicitly or explicitly, that robots who are proper targets of moral concern will exist only in the future, once they have cognitive features similar to humans or at least similar to non-human vertebrate animals.

In contrast, Estrada argues that robots already deserve rights -- actual robots that currently exist, even simple robots.

His core argument is this:

1. Some robots are already "social participants" deeply incorporated into our social order.

2. Such deeply incorporated social participants deserve social respect and substantial protections -- "rights" -- regardless of whether they are capable of interior mental states like joy and suffering.

Let's start with some comparison cases. Estrada mentions corpses and teddy bears. We normally treat corpses with a certain type of respect, even though we think they themselves aren't capable of states like joy and suffering. And there's something that seems at least a little creepy about abusing a teddy bear, even though it can't feel pain.

You could explain these reactions without thinking that corpses and teddy bears deserve rights. Maybe it's the person who existed in the past, whose corpse is now here, who has rights not to be mishandled after death. Or maybe the corpse's relatives and friends have the rights. Maybe what's creepy about abusing a teddy bear is what it says about the abuser, or maybe abusing a teddy harms the child whose bear it is.

All that is plausible, but another way of thinking emphasizes the social roles that corpses and teddy bears play and the importance to our social fabric (arguably) of our treating them in certain ways and not in other ways. Other comparisons might be: flags, classrooms, websites, parks, and historic buildings. Destroying or abusing such things is not morally neutral. Arguably, mistreating flags, classrooms, websites, parks, or historic buildings is a harm to society -- a harm that does not reduce to the harm of one or a few specific property owners who bear the relevant rights.

Arguably, the destruction of hitchBOT was like that. HitchBOT was cute ride-hitching robot, who made it across the length of Canada but who was destroyed by pranksters in Philadelphia when its creators sent it to repeat the feat in the U.S. Its destruction not only harmed its creators and owners, but also the social networks of hitchBOT enthusiasts who were following it and cheering it on.

It might seem overblown to say that a flag or a historic building deserves rights, even if it's true that flags and historic buildings in some sense deserve respect. If this is all there is to "robot rights", then we have a very thin notion of rights. Estrada isn't entirely explicit about it, but I think he wants more than that.

Here's the thing that makes the robot case different: Unlike flags, buildings, teddy bears, and the rest, robots can act. I don't mean anything too fancy here by "act". Maybe all I mean or need to mean is that it's reasonable to take the "intentional stance" toward them. It's reasonable to treat them as though they had beliefs, desires, intentions, goals -- and that adds a new richer dimension, maybe different in kind, to their role as nodes in our social network.

Maybe that new dimension is enough to warrant using the term "rights". Or maybe not. I'm inclined to think that whatever rights existing (non-conscious, not cognitively sophisticated) robots deserve remain derivative on us -- like the "rights" of flags and historic buildings. Unlike human beings and apes, such robots have no intrinsic moral status, independent of their role in our social practices. To conclude otherwise would require more argument or a different argument than Estrada gives.

Robot rights cheap! That's good. I like cheap. Discount knock-off rights! If you want luxury rights, though, you'll have to look somewhere else (for now).

[image source] Update: I changed "have rights" to "deserve rights" in a few places above.

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