The Kant-Inspired Indirect Argument for Non-Sentient Robot Rights

AI and Ethics (2023)
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Some argue that robots could never be sentient, and thus could never have intrinsic moral status. Others disagree, believing that robots indeed will be sentient and thus will have moral status. But a third group thinks that, even if robots could never have moral status, we still have a strong moral reason to treat some robots as if they do. Drawing on a Kantian argument for indirect animal rights, a number of technology ethicists contend that our treatment of anthropomorphic or even animal-like robots could condition our treatment of humans: treat these robots well, as we would treat humans, or else risk eroding good moral behavior toward humans. But then, this argument also seems to justify giving rights to robots, even if robots lack intrinsic moral status. In recent years, however, this indirect argument in support of robot rights has drawn a number of objections. In this paper I have three goals. First, I will formulate and explicate the Kant-inspired indirect argument meant to support robot rights, making clearer than before its empirical commitments and philosophical presuppositions. Second, I will defend the argument against a number of objections. The result is the fullest explication and defense to date of this well-known and influential but often criticized argument. Third, however, I myself will raise a new concern about the argument’s use as a justification for robot rights. This concern is answerable to some extent, but it cannot be dismissed fully. It shows that, surprisingly, the argument’s advocates have reason to resist, at least somewhat, producing the sorts of robots that, on their view, ought to receive rights.

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Tobias Flattery
Wake Forest University


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