Could Social Robots Make Us Kinder or Crueller to Humans and Animals?

  • Simon CoghlanEmail author
  • Frank Vetere
  • Jenny Waycott
  • Barbara Barbosa Neves


The Montréal Declaration for Responsible Development of Artificial Intelligence states that emerging technologies ought not “encourage cruel behaviour towards robots that take on the appearance of human beings or animals and act in a similar fashion.” The idea of a causal link between cruelty and kindness to artificial and living beings, human or animal, is controversial and underexplored, despite its increasing relevance to robotics. Kate Darling recently marshalled Immanuel Kant’s argument—that cruelty to animals promotes cruelty to people—to argue for an analogous link concerning social robots. Others, such as Johnson and Verdicchio, have counter-argued that animal analogies are often flawed, partly because they ignore social robots’ true nature, including their lack of sentience. This, they say, weakens Darling’s argument that social robots will have virtue-promoting or vice-promoting effects regarding our treatment of living beings. Certain ideas in this debate, including those of anthropomorphism, projection, animal analogies, and Kant’s causal claim, require clarification and critical attention. Concentrating on robot animals, this paper examines strengths and weaknesses on both sides of this argument. It finds there is some reason for thinking that social robots may causally affect virtue, especially in terms of the moral development of children and responses to nonhuman animals. This conclusion has implications for future robot design and interaction.


Social robots Companion robots Animals Moral virtue Anthropomorphism Children 



We would like to thank the anonymous referees for their very helpful comments.


Funding was provided by Australian Research Council (AU) (Grant No. FT170100420) and the Melbourne Networked Society Institute.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Computing and Information Systems, Melbourne School of EngineeringThe University of MelbourneParkvilleAustralia
  2. 2.School of Social SciencesMonash UniversityClaytonAustralia

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