Could a robot have moral status?

By Josh Parikh 15 Aug 2017

From the Terminator to R2D2, science fiction has offered a vision of robots not merely as extraordinarily capable, but as objects worthy of moral treatment. Once relegated to science fiction, the rapid development of the Robotics Revolution makes these questions ever more relevant. Traditionally, Christians have been sceptical, assuming that humans are the only possible form of life worthy of moral treatment. However, I want to challenge this conventional wisdom, and suggest why Christians could be open to robots having moral status.

Firstly, the philosophical questions associated with the nature of the mind are complex, with a wide range of positions and little consensus among specialists. These include the ‘aboutness’ or intentionality of our thought; how to understand qualia (the way sensations like pain, taste or colour feel a certain way to us); understanding consciousness in light of modern science, and how the non-physical might interact with the physical. These questions are so difficult to understand that it’s helpful to exercise caution; it may well be that robot minds are possible and maybe even robot persons – and we should be careful not to assume this is impossible too quickly. Just as with other academic disciplines like medicine or engineering, taking the time to reflect and think on the best theories is a wise strategy.

Secondly, there’s a tradition of Christian physicalism, in which philosophers like Nancey Murphy and Peter Van Inwagen, and theologians like Joel Green, argue that humans are purely physical beings. This is based on certain philosophical arguments for the material nature of the person, and also on interpretations of key Biblical passages. For example, analysing the use of the Hebrew for soul, Glenn Peoples argues that ‘the word “soul” in our older translations is really an example where the writer was trying to refer to a creature, whether a human creature or a different creature’. This is not a claim that Christian physicalism is true – there are philosophers and theologians who disagree with Christian physicalism, such as JP Moreland and John Haldane (an excellent intra-mural discussion takes place here.)  But we should pause for thought before assuming that the only possible form of spiritually valuable life is non-physical.  If humans are physical beings, perhaps we could have other physical beings which might be worthy of moral status – such as sufficiently developed robots.

Finally, even if humans are essentially non-physical, that does not entail that all morally important beings must be like humans. Christian theology is open to other types of being which have moral worth – not least God himself as well as angels. If other life forms can be morally responsible, we must acknowledge that humanity does not have a monopoly on personhood.  We already accept that certain non-human, moral beings should be treated with respect, despite possessing no moral obligations themselves – notably animals. Christian thinkers from William Wilberforce and Hannah More to Mary Eberstadt and Charles Camosy in more recent times all condemn animal cruelty and argue humans have moral obligations to animals. Proverbs 12:10 states, ‘The righteous care for the needs of their animals, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel’, and many deeper analyses have taken place. Insofar as we have some moral obligation to animals, it’s plausible that we could have some moral obligation to robots as well, if they possessed such faculties that undergird moral status.

This doesn’t constitute a knockdown argument for robotic personhood or robotic moral status. All I want to do is push the burden of proof onto those who want to assert this is impossible, and suggest this question might be much more complex than we think – as does Nick Spencer from Theos. We must be cautious in light of new technological developments, before making rash and possibly dangerous judgments about our obligations to other beings, wary that the world may be much stranger than we ever thought.

Josh Parikh graduated from Oxford University in 2017 and spent a month as an intern with the Jubilee Centre, researching into a Christian perspective on robotics and artificial intelligence

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