Moral Agents or Mindless Machines? A Critical Appraisal of Agency in Artificial Systems

Hungarian Philosophical Review 4 (63):9-23 (2019)
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In this paper I provide an exposition and critique of Johnson and Noorman’s (2014) three conceptualizations of the agential roles artificial systems can play. I argue that two of these conceptions are unproblematic: that of causally efficacious agency and “acting for” or surrogate agency. Their third conception, that of “autonomous agency,” however, is one I have reservations about. The authors point out that there are two ways in which the term “autonomy” can be used: there is, firstly, the engineering sense of the term, which simply refers to the ability of some system to act independently of substantive human control. Secondly, there is the moral sense of the term, which has traditionally grounded many notions of human mor-al responsibility. I argue that the continued usage of “autonomy” in discussions of artificial agency complicates matters unnecessarily. This occurs in two ways: firstly, the condition of autonomy, even in its engineering sense, fails to accurately describe the way “autonomous” systems are developed in practice. Secondly, the continued usage of autonomy in the moral sense introduces unnecessary meta-physical baggage form the free will debate into discussions about moral agency. In order to understand the debate surrounding autonomy, we would therefore first need to settle many seemingly intractable metaphysical questions regarding the existence of free will in human beings.
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