Minds and Machines

, Volume 14, Issue 1, pp 67-83

First online:

Information, Ethics, and Computers: The Problem of Autonomous Moral Agents

  • Bernd Carsten StahlAffiliated withCentre for Computing and Social Responsibility, De Montfort University

Rent the article at a discount

Rent now

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


In modern technical societies computers interact with human beings in ways that can affect moral rights and obligations. This has given rise to the question whether computers can act as autonomous moral agents. The answer to this question depends on many explicit and implicit definitions that touch on different philosophical areas such as anthropology and metaphysics. The approach chosen in this paper centres on the concept of information. Information is a multi-facetted notion which is hard to define comprehensively. However, the frequently used definition of information as data endowed with meaning can promote our understanding. It is argued that information in this sense is a necessary condition of cognitivist ethics. This is the basis for analysing computers and information processors regarding their status as possible moral agents. Computers have several characteristics that are desirable for moral agents. However, computers in their current form are unable to capture the meaning of information and therefore fail to reflect morality in anything but a most basic sense of the term. This shortcoming is discussed using the example of the Moral Turing Test. The paper ends with a consideration of which conditions computers would have to fulfil in order to be able to use information in such a way as to render them capable of acting morally and reflecting ethically.

autonomous moral agent ethics meaning information morality responsibility