What Confucian Ethics Can Teach Us About Designing Caregiving Robots for Geriatric Patients

Digital Society 2 (1) (2023)
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Caregiving robots are often lauded for their potential to assist with geriatric care. While seniors can be wise and mature, possessing valuable life experience, they can also present a variety of ethical challenges, from prevalence of racism and sexism, to troubled relationships, histories of abusive behavior, and aggression, mood swings and impulsive behavior associated with cognitive decline. I draw on Confucian ethics, especially the concept of filial piety, to address these issues. Confucian scholars have developed a rich set of theoretical resources for dealing with beloved but imperfect elders, and navigating the challenges of supporting seniors whose ethical commitments are unreliable. These resources provide a way to reconcile two important but conflicting desiderata: to value and care for seniors, but also to clear-mindedly deal with their moral shortcomings. In particular, they articulate a duty to remonstrate with our elders when they err. Confucian filial piety can helpfully inform robot design and use in geriatric care. They can be used to strengthen and protect emotional connections in important relationships, but should not be used to reinforce patient preferences when doing so damages relationships or their ability to act morally. Rather than conceive of patient wellbeing as in tension with moral behavior, and care as a burden for caregivers, not a source of value and meaning, Confucian accounts of filial piety help identify both new areas of concern and new potential in the development of caregiving technologies, ones which see these goods as complementary.

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Alexis Elder
University of Minnesota, Duluth


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