Philosophy & Technology

, Volume 27, Issue 1, pp 9–29 | Cite as

Artificial Consciousness and Artificial Ethics: Between Realism and Social Relationism

Special Issue


I compare a ‘realist’ with a ‘social–relational’ perspective on our judgments of the moral status of artificial agents (AAs). I develop a realist position according to which the moral status of a being—particularly in relation to moral patiency attribution—is closely bound up with that being’s ability to experience states of conscious satisfaction or suffering (CSS). For a realist, both moral status and experiential capacity are objective properties of agents. A social relationist denies the existence of any such objective properties in the case of either moral status or consciousness, suggesting that the determination of such properties rests solely upon social attribution or consensus. A wide variety of social interactions between us and various kinds of artificial agent will no doubt proliferate in future generations, and the social–relational view may well be right that the appearance of CSS features in such artificial beings will make moral role attribution socially prevalent in human–AA relations. But there is still the question of what actual CSS states a given AA is capable of undergoing, independently of the appearances. This is not just a matter of changes in the structure of social existence that seem inevitable as human–AA interaction becomes more prevalent. The social world is itself enabled and constrained by the physical world, and by the biological features of living social participants. Properties analogous to certain key features in biological CSS are what need to be present for nonbiological CSS. Working out the details of such features will be an objective scientific inquiry.


Realism Social–relationism Machine question Artificial agents Moral status attribution Consciousness–satisfaction–suffering (CSS) Phenomenal–valuational holism Biomachine spectrum Artificial (or machine) consciousness Artificial (or machine) ethics Moral patients Moral agents Expanding ethical circle Other minds problem Social interaction Social constitutivity 



Work on this paper was assisted by grants from the EUCogII network, in collaboration with Mark Coeckelbergh, to whom I express gratitude. I am also grateful to Joanna Bryson and David Gunkel for inviting me to join with them in co-chairing the Turing Centenary workshop on The Machine Question, where this paper first saw life. Ideas in the present paper have also greatly benefitted from discussions with Mark Bishop, Rob Clowes, Ron Chrisley, Madeline Drake, David Gunkel, Joel Parthemore, Denis Roche, Wendell Wallach and Blay Whitby.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Engineering and InformaticsUniversity of SussexBrightonUK
  2. 2.Department of Psychology, GoldsmithsUniversity of LondonLondonUK

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