Ethics and Information Technology

, Volume 8, Issue 4, pp 195–204 | Cite as

Computer systems: Moral entities but not moral agents

  • Deborah G. JohnsonEmail author


After discussing the distinction between artifacts and natural entities, and the distinction between artifacts and technology, the conditions of the traditional account of moral agency are identified. While computer system behavior meets four of the five conditions, it does not and cannot meet a key condition. Computer systems do not have mental states, and even if they could be construed as having mental states, they do not have intendings to act, which arise from an agent’s freedom. On the other hand, computer systems have intentionality, and because of this, they should not be dismissed from the realm of morality in the same way that natural objects are dismissed. Natural objects behave from necessity; computer systems and other artifacts behave from necessity after they are created and deployed, but, unlike natural objects, they are intentionally created and deployed. Failure to recognize the intentionality of computer systems and their connection to human intentionality and action hides the moral character of computer systems. Computer systems are components in human moral action. When humans act with artifacts, their actions are constituted by the intentionality and efficacy of the artifact which, in turn, has been constituted by the intentionality and efficacy of the artifact designer. All three components – artifact designer, artifact, and artifact user – are at work when there is an action and all three should be the focus of moral evaluation.


action theory artifact artificial moral agent intentionality moral agent technology 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Science, Technology, and SocietyUniversity of VirginiaCharlottesvilleUSA

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