Legal Fictions and the Essence of Robots: Thoughts on Essentialism and Pragmatism in the Regulation of Robotics

In Mark Coeckelbergh, Janina Loh, Michael Funk, Joanna Seibt & Marco Nørskov (eds.), Envisioning Robots in Society – Power, Politics, and, Public Space. Amsterdam: pp. 103-111 (2018)
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The purpose of this paper is to offer some critical remarks on the so-called pragmatist approach to the regulation of robotics. To this end, the article mainly reviews the work of Jack Balkin and Joanna Bryson, who have taken up such ap- proach with interestingly similar outcomes. Moreover, special attention will be paid to the discussion concerning the legal fiction of ‘electronic personality’. This will help shed light on the opposition between essentialist and pragmatist methodologies. After a brief introduction (1.), in 2. I introduce the main points of the methodological debate which opposes pragmatism and essentialism in the regulation of robotics and I examine how legal fictions are framed from a pragmatist, functional perspective. Since this approach entails a neat separation of ontological analysis and legal rea- soning, in 3. I discuss whether considerations on robots’ essence are actually put into brackets when the pragmatist approach is endorsed. Finally, in 4. I address the problem of the social valence of legal fictions in order to suggest a possible limit of the pragmatist approach. My conclusion (5.) is that in the specific case of regulating robotics it may be very difficult to separate ontological considerations from legal reasoning—and vice versa—both on an epistemological and social level. This calls for great caution in the recourse to anthropomorphic legal fictions.

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Fabio Fossa
Politecnico di Milano


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