Ethics and Information Technology

, Volume 14, Issue 1, pp 41–51 | Cite as

Robots and reality: a reply to Robert Sparrow

Original Paper


We commonly identify something seriously defective in a human life that is lived in ignorance of important but unpalatable truths. At the same time, some degree of misapprehension of reality may be necessary for individual health and success. Morally speaking, it is unclear just how insistent we should be about seeking the truth. Robert Sparrow has considered such issues in discussing the manufacture and marketing of robot ‘pets’, such as Sony’s doglike ‘AIBO’ toy and whatever more advanced devices may supersede it. Though it is not his only concern, Sparrow particularly criticizes such robot pets for their illusory appearance of being living things. He fears that some individuals will subconsciously buy into the illusion, and come to sentimentalize interactions that fail to constitute genuine relationships. In replying to Sparrow, I emphasize that this would be continuous with much of the minor sentimentality that we already indulge in from day to day. Although a disposition to seek the truth is morally virtuous, the virtue concerned must allow for at least some categories of exceptions. Despite Sparrow’s concerns about robot pets (and robotics more generally), we should be lenient about familiar, relatively benign, kinds of self-indulgence in forming beliefs about reality. Sentimentality about robot pets seems to fall within these categories. Such limited self-indulgence can co-exist with ordinary honesty and commitment to truth.


Authenticity ELIZA effect Ethics of belief Robert Nozick Robotics Robot pets Self-deception Self-perception Sentimentality The Matrix Truth 


We are sometimes inclined to say that subjective feelings of pleasure or contentment are worthless if they are based on a false understanding of ourselves, our situations in life, or the larger reality within which the human condition is embedded. Putting it another way, we want to point to something seriously defective—perhaps ‘inauthentic’—about a life that is lived in ignorance of important but unpalatable truths. At the same time, some misapprehensions of reality may actually be necessary for health and success. It is unclear just how fiercely we should insist on seeking the truth, or on others doing so. What, then, is the extent of our moral obligation to seek out unvarnished truth about ourselves, the situations in which we find ourselves, and the larger reality? Is fierce commitment to truth a moral virtue?

Such questions are provoked by Robert Sparrow’s “The March of the Robot Dogs”.1 Here, Sparrow is concerned about the morality of manufacturing and marketing robot ‘pets’, such as Sony’s doglike ‘AIBO’ toy, which was manufactured from 1999 to 2006, and whatever more advanced gadgets may supersede it in the future. Sparrow is especially critical of one ostensible justification for such devices—the claim that increasingly advanced and lifelike robot pets could be used to help aging and socially isolated people, by giving them the opportunity to interact with such toys much as they could with real animals. Such interactions—so goes this justification for robot pets—could deliver many of the benefits that people obtain from companionable relationships with actual pets. Sparrow finds this idea “bizarre”, “crazy”, “disturbing”, and socially irresponsible.2 He expresses a forthright commitment to the view that “illusory experiences do not count for anything in human life.”3 I argue here that Sparrow overreaches when he makes such claims.

More recently, Sparrow has co-written an article that is highly critical of proposed uses for robots in aged care—partly for companionship, but mainly for such tasks as physical assistance and household cleaning.4 Again, one element of the critique relates to sentimentalization, the unwarranted attribution of life and inner experience to lifeless, merely mechanical devices. Again, there is an element of moralistic overreach.

At this stage, I should emphasize that I am not comprehensively opposed to Sparrow’s ongoing critique of robotics as a field and of its possible applications. My aim here is in no sense the production of a general counter-critique. For example, nothing written here should suggest any disagreement with Sparrow’s scrutiny of the moral aspects of robotic weapons and weapons systems.5 It should not even suggest total disagreement with Sparrow’s concerns about robot pets and robot helpers. Widespread use of robot pets to cheer up the elderly would, indeed, be undesirable if it were incorporated into public policy and used as an excuse to lessen or avoid our other efforts to help frail, lonely people.6 Apart from the net consequences of such a development, it would reveal a callous, even contemptuous, attitude to socially isolated elder citizens. Likewise, the widespread provision of ‘helper’ robots would be undesirable if it came at the expense of reduced interaction with other human beings.7

Note, moreover, that Sparrow’s greater concern does not seem to be robot pets in themselves. It is the specter of lifelike robotic humans—or androids—that might one day be marketed as companions, even though they have no inner experience, so that any ‘relationship’ with such a device would be delusional.8 To consider just how far such relationships might go, readers might consult David Levy’s recent book, Love and Sex with Robots.9 While we might merely smile at someone who is fascinated by, and markedly fond of, her robot dog, we are likely to be less indulgent if she builds her life around interactions with an emotionless android that has become a surrogate friend, child, or lover. Being in this situation would surely be a misfortune for the individual. While the manufacturers of robot pets may be largely, or entirely, morally blameless, differences of degree do matter, and the manufacturers of robot friends, children, or lovers might be considerably more blameworthy.

I do, however, detect a kind puritanism, an unattractive valorization of self-denial, in some of Sparrow’s arguments, particularly in his criticism of robot pets. Many of his objections might stand even with the puritanical element removed, but it is still worthwhile identifying and analyzing that element. That will, accordingly, be my focus in what follows: I will argue that it is morally permissible to indulge in some sentimentality and adherence to discoverably false beliefs. Although a disposition to seek the truth is morally virtuous, the virtue concerned is likely to be quite complex and to allow for at least some flexibility and some categories of exceptions. Indeed, we indulge in much minor sentimentality on a daily basis, and this adds value to our lives.

In the present case, it appears that any moral perils of robot pets are relatively insignificant. More generally, we should be lenient about familiar, relatively benign, kinds of self-indulgence in forming beliefs about reality. Once identified, these are easily recognized as part of our complex species-typical psychology. They can co-exist with ordinary honesty and commitment to truth.

Robot pets

In developing his case against robots pets, Sparrow first argues that relationships with real pets can have genuine and significant value.10 I find this part of Sparrow’s article persuasive, and I will proceed on the basis of some plausible assumptions that are in line with Sparrow’s views. First, there is, indeed, significant value in many such relationships. Second, much of this value depends on the fact that real animals have some kind of inner experience and capacity for emotions. In any event, these two assumptions apply to the central cases that Sparrow appears to have in mind, such as relationships between human owners and pet dogs. It is worth noting at this point that they are more questionable if we are thinking of pet goldfish, snakes, or tortoises. We will do well to keep these other cases in mind as we test the various arguments.

I will assume, thirdly, that Sparrow is correct that robot pets are unlikely, for the foreseeable future, to have any real emotions or other capacity for inner experience. Accordingly, I wish readers to keep in mind a timeframe that does not include any more distant future with genuinely sentient artificial entities. On all those assumptions, there is a clear sense in which some people can have genuine relationships with (some) pets, but no one can have such a relationship with a robot pet. Thus no interactions with such a device will have the serious moral significance of some interactions between human beings and (for example) real dogs.11 If that is so, there is an initial plausibility to the claim that treating robot animals as if they were real animals should be seen, as Sparrow suggests, to be “a sentimental excess that adds nothing to human life.”12 Jones is simply deluding herself—if self-delusion is ever a simple matter13—if she imagines, as she interacts with Robo-Fido, that she is involved in something like the relationship that is possible between a human being and a real dog.

Sparrow is actually quite skeptical as to whether any purchasers or recipients of robot pets consciously believe (or will believe in the future) that they are dealing with aware, emotional beings. His concern is that some individuals will, nonetheless, buy into the illusion and come to sentimentalize interactions that fail to constitute genuine relationships. He evidently finds it plausible that some of us could develop feelings of love and companionship for robot pets, despite knowing that these are really no more than complex toys. (Any such a danger will surely increase with the passage of time, as successive generations of robot pets become more technologically advanced and lifelike.) If an individual develops these inappropriate feelings, so Sparrow suggests, it can be explained only on the assumption that she subconsciously thinks of her robot pet as a genuine animal. In that case, she is acting in breach of a specific moral duty: “a duty to ourselves to avoid delusion and apprehend the world correctly.”14 Sparrow allows that it might seem more “foolish or misguided” than “unethical” for an aging, lonely person to seek happiness from an illusory relationship with a robot pet. However, he states firmly that manufacturers and marketers deserve moral condemnation if they encourage such illusory relationships by giving people opportunities to delude themselves subconsciously about the true nature of their ersatz pets.15

At this point, Sparrow’s argument is complete that manufacturers and marketers of robot pets deserve—or, at least, might one day deserve—moral condemnation. Note that this argument depends on one key claim, that we have a moral duty to ourselves to avoid delusion and apprehend the world correctly.16 But does any such duty exist? If so, how far-reaching is it?

A duty to avoid delusion?

Such a duty could have an impact on our moral lives that extends far beyond the case of robot pets. Consider the broader situation with information technology. For several decades now, computer professionals have been conscious of the so-called ELIZA effect: we have a tendency to think of (some) computer behaviors as expressions of feelings and conscious thoughts. The behaviors need not involve anything more than displaying sequences of alphanumeric symbols, as when an automatic teller machine shows the words “THANK YOU” on its screen at the end of a transaction.17 While no one is consciously taken in by this, it very likely has a subconscious impact. Otherwise, indeed, what would be the point?

Beyond this, it seems almost inevitable that we will sometimes anthropomorphize the computer systems with which we interact; and, indeed, much contemporary hardware and software design takes advantage of this. If the posited duty to avoid delusion, even relatively mild kinds of subconscious delusion, has real moral bite, there are enormous implications for the ways in which we should design, implement, and interact with information technology. Furthermore, the implications don’t end there: a vast range of human behavior involves anthropomorphizing non-human phenomena. Other aspects of our behavior involve emotional attachments that are not and cannot be reciprocated, such as our attachments to fictional characters in novels and movies. Then there are false understandings of ourselves and others that may actually be benign—I’ll soon come to some examples—and which should, perhaps, not be too closely scrutinized. It may be well to be aware of all this epistemic self-indulgence and try to avoid its downsides. Should we, however, really be so fierce, or puritanical, about the truth as to condemn all such self-indulgence across the board? Are those who encourage it, such as friends, novelists, and moviemakers, really committing a moral wrong?

Sparrow himself suggests that the duty is only a weak one, since a degree of false belief may sometimes be useful or even, in a sense, virtuous. For example, exaggerated ideas of our abilities sometimes assist us in various kinds of performance, and mistaken beliefs might sometimes lead us to act in a way that is morally praiseworthy.18 These concessions are surely plausible: psychologists often claim that clinically depressed people have more accurate perceptions than others of their true abilities.19 Indeed, improbably optimistic beliefs about one’s abilities, one’s control of events, and one’s life in general, appear to facilitate superior health, happiness, and performance.20 According to Shelley E. Taylor and Jonathan D. Brown, for example, “unrealistically positive self-evaluations, exaggerated perceptions of control, and unrealistic optimism” are pervasive and enduring illusions that actually benefit mental health, the capacity for creative, productive work, and the ability to care for others.21 Relying in part on the work of Taylor and Brown, C.R. Snyder and Raymond L. Higgins refer to mounting evidence that “the veridical perception of reality as it pertains to oneself is not always adaptive.”22

Though he is aware of such considerations, Sparrow is convinced that there is a weak duty of the relevant kind. Furthermore, he suggests that our duty to avoid delusion prevails when the delusion can lead us to devote time and energy to an entirely worthless relationship, or rather a pseudo-relationship, such as that with a robot pet.23 Although he describes the duty to avoid delusion as a weak one, the tone of his entire article suggests that he sees unequivocal breaches as seriously immoral. Let us look more closely at this supposed duty.

A duty to myself?

A duty to avoid delusion and to apprehend the world correctly seems to have some odd features. For example, it might be difficult for an agent to know when she is breaching such a duty. A good example of this is the exaggeration of our own abilities: Jones may naively imagine herself to be a good driver, and she may also never have been led to question that belief.

Another puzzling feature of the duty, at least as it is described by Sparrow, is that it is owed to myself. I do not wish to deny outright that such duties can exist—perhaps the duties to avoid suicide and to cultivate our talents, proposed by Kant, can be seen as examples.24 Furthermore, there is an English-language idiom along the lines that “I owe it to myself to X”. However, in this usage, X-ing is usually some desirable and pleasant activity, such as buying a case of fine wine, taking a holiday overseas, or arranging to meet an attractive person. Sometimes X-ing is something difficult but rewarding: “I owe it to myself to apply for this job at Oxford.” Even then, taking time on this difficult task, which serves my own purposes, may be a sort of reward to myself for much effort in the service of others. Just for once, the thought seems to go, I will devote efforts to my own advancement.

Duties to ourselves, as individuals, are, at the least, controversial. Given the common usages, it is somewhat odd to claim that I owe it to myself to act in some way that I might find rather onerous, such as avoiding certain kinds of self-indulgence, if it offers me no reward that I actually want. Furthermore, some important moral theories, such as utilitarianism, will find it difficult to accommodate any such duties. Even if such duties exist, there is a question as to why they are not waivable, as is usually the case with duties owed solely to specific, fully-autonomous individuals. At least, this is usually the case with legal duties that are owed to individuals. Throughout the common law of tort and contract, commencing a civil suit for damages, or other remedies, is at the discretion of the individual who has been wronged. Counterexamples to the waivability of duties to individuals will usually involve some defect in the individual’s autonomy (perhaps the duty is owed to a child) and/or some element of alleged public interest (as with duties not to maim others, even if they consent).

Even if a clear example can be found of a non-waivable duty owed solely to a specific, autonomous individual, it will take some ingenuity to formulate and it will surely be atypical. It is unlikely to detract from the normal situation in which a specific autonomous person who is owed a duty by another such person is able to waive insistence on performance. That being so, it is unclear at this point why I (a rational and fully-autonomous adult) cannot simply decline to insist on my own performance of any duty to myself to avoid delusion and apprehend the world correctly. Why may I not waive my right to demand performance if the performance looks onerous and the benefit dubious?

Consider a concrete example of what might be involved, the kind of case that arises from Sparrow’s discussion. Imagine that I make a deliberate decision to buy an advanced and realistic robot pet—or perhaps I ask for one as a gift—knowing full well that I am likely to come to think of it (subconsciously) as if it were a real animal (and something more like a pet dog than a pet anaconda). I face up to this likelihood in advance and release myself, to the necessary extent, from the requirement to perform my duty to myself to avoid delusion and to apprehend the world correctly. In the process, perhaps I make a judgment that it would be worthwhile for me not to insist strictly on adherence to the truth. After all, so I tell myself, I will never consciously believe that the robot has feelings (the thought here is something like: “I may be self-indulgent, but I am not stupid”). I am sure that, in contexts demanding critical reflection, I will correctly pronounce that the robot is merely a toy, in which case it can hardly be said that I’ll be in error about its true nature.25

Furthermore, I can be confident that allowing myself to buy into this illusion will never prevent me from achieving important personal goals. After all, I could probably override my subconscious inclinations, if it ever became necessary, and act in accordance with my conscious beliefs. I even have some respectable evidence for this. In the past, I have sometimes had sentimental pangs when parting with material items to which I had grown attached, but this has never prevented me from acting with reasonable prudence in giving away old toys, trading in aging motor cars, upgrading my computer from time to time, and so on.

At the same time, so I reason, allowing myself to buy into the illusion subconsciously, at least from day to day, and in my less focused moments, might have various benefits. It might help me stave off boredom in lonely times, assist me in developing an enjoyably fascinated interest in the robot pet’s programmed, but largely unpredictable, development of ‘behaviors’, and help me obtain subjective feelings of happiness. All of this might even improve my health and life expectancy, which I think of as genuine goods.

In some ways, of course, I might still be better off with a real dog, and it would doubtless be wrong for somebody else to engage in a scheme to deprive me of access to real pets on the basis that I can make do with an artificial one. This might be harmful to me in that a greater good is substituted by what may be a lesser one, and it could certainly show a lack of respect for me, especially if I am viewed essentially as a social problem to be solved. But there may be reasons why I prefer not to take responsibility for a real pet—this is a legitimate matter of tastes and priorities, and no one is morally required to pursue every possible good in her life. In any event, there might be many reasons why caring for a real dog does not suit my particular circumstances. In that case, why should I not indulge myself, much as I could a debtor of whom I am fond, by waiving strict performance of the general duty I owe myself?

By this point, the whole concept of a duty to myself to avoid delusion and to apprehend the world correctly is becoming more, rather than less, mysterious. Can we think more systematically about the possible foundations of such a duty? That might help clarify whether something like this duty exists and, if so, what form it takes.

Why might we want a correct apprehension of the world?

Why should I not indulge myself as I see fit in adopting whatever beliefs make my life more enjoyable? Admittedly, there will always be limits to how far this is practically possible, since belief is not entirely volitional—far from it. Nonetheless, we each have considerable ability to shape our own beliefs. In some cases I may believe something congenial and simply avoid looking for contrary evidence that might disturb my peace of mind. Why not do so? In other cases, we can seek out experiences, relationships, and so on, that could incline us to believe one way rather than another. Sometimes this can be done in a way that is perfectly clear-eyed.26 Surrounding ourselves with the company of religious believers is one way to make ourselves more likely to accept religious doctrines. Playing for hours with an advanced robotic toy might be a way of coming to believe, at least subconsciously, that it is a being with genuine inner experience. If these beliefs make life more pleasant for me, why should I not do whatever is needed to indulge in them?

Several possible reasons come to mind. First, having a correct apprehension of the world might simply be something I value for itself, or something that has objective non-instrumental value. Second, obtaining a correct apprehension of the world might well be instrumentally useful for the achievement of numerous other goals. Third and finally, the duty might be misdescribed: perhaps it is true that we each have a duty to avoid delusion and to apprehend the world correctly, but it is a duty we owe to others, rather than to ourselves. I will consider these possibilities in order.

Truth for its own sake

I might consciously set out to achieve a correct apprehension of the world as one of my goals, and I might believe that this is more important than achieving subjective feelings of pleasure and contentment. Robert Nozick’s famous experience machine thought experiment contains the powerful idea that we just do value living a life that is not an illusion. Nozick suggests, very persuasively, that we would choose not to plug into a machine that could provide us with a pleasant pseudo-reality, a ‘reality’ that is the mere simulation of experience. Instead, we want to do certain things, be certain ways, and connect in a substantial way with objective reality; these are more important to us than any amount of pleasure or contentment that might be provided by machines that could do our living for us.27 “Perhaps,” Nozick writes, “what we desire is to live (an active verb) ourselves, in contact with reality.”28

The morality of such a commitment to ‘the real’ became a popular topic of conversation and intellectual debate with the cinematic release of The Matrix in 1999. Early in the movie’s action, the main character, Neo, learns that the urban landscape where he has lived, grown, and worked is a computerized simulation of reality, not the real world. Neo is confronted with the choice of taking a red or a blue pill—in effect, choosing either exposure to an unknown reality whose existence he partly suspects or acquiescence in the ongoing illusion whose solidity he partly doubts. Another character, Cypher, deliberately chooses the pleasures of the simulated reality rather than continued knowledge of the real, but desolate, future world depicted in The Matrix and its sequels.29

In response to this intriguing set-up, a body of critical and philosophical literature soon appeared, debating the moral significance of Neo’s (and Cypher’s) choice.30 For example, Jennifer L. McMahon discusses The Matrix in terms of the burdens and benefits of living ‘authentically’, in the sense in which that word is sometimes used in existentialist philosophy. That is, authenticity consists in living with an acceptance of the truth about reality. McMahon concludes: “Though the truth may be sobering, it is all we have and all we are”.31 In support of this approach, we can imagine a life that is subjectively pleasant and contented—and which would be chosen from within—but in which the person concerned is pleased and contented only because she has some importantly false belief. For example, we would consider it to be a misfortune, rather than otherwise, to be despised by others, including people whom we love.32

These suggestions support the idea that having a correct apprehension of the world is objectively and non-instrumentally valuable, or at least that it is something that is actually valued for itself by beings like us. Thus, Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom seem to be on strong ground when they emphasize the importance of “enquiry, curiosity, interest, investigation, explanation-seeking” as components of human happiness. They add that “real enquiry presupposes that truth matters.”33 We are unsympathetic to a character, such as Cypher, who is portrayed as thinking otherwise.

However, this idea is consistent with the possibility that there are also other objectively valuable things—or other things that we actually value for themselves—which can come into conflict with this one. Perhaps that is why Cypher is not completely unintelligible to us. Other goals, therefore, might sometimes conflict with my goal of obtaining a correct apprehension of the world. Even if it is better to have a life actively lived in contact with reality, rather than one that is subjectively pleasant and contented, but marred by some form of pervasive ignorance or illusion, some situations might not fit readily into either of these starkly differentiated categories. Moreover, for human beings as we are actually constituted in our species-typical psychology, some good situations may inevitably involve, as one component, at least a degree of self-indulgence during our processes of belief formation.

In fact, I can easily imagine situations in which no serious moral blame attaches to someone who compromises her commitment to the truth. I may do this all the time to some relatively small extent—such as when I indulge in an inflated view of my own abilities, for example by not looking at the evidence closely and objectively. Of course, there is a sense in which having this inflated view might be innocent, i.e. my self-indulgence might not be deliberate. I might not even be aware of it. But even if it is pointed out to me, and the psychological mechanisms of inflated self-esteem are fully explained by a convincing authority, I am likely to be unrepentant.

Indeed, this is not far from my actual situation. Having read the work of Taylor and Brown, among others, I actually do realize that I am probably like most people in having a moment-by-moment sense of some of my own abilities that is rather exaggerated. Yet, although I believe that this is a normal psychological phenomenon, I have no wish to commence a stringent examination of how far it applies to my own case. Instead, I simply accept (a little ruefully) that I am doubtless as fallible as others in this particular regard. This common psychological characteristic may pervade my life, in the sense that it is always there, and doubtless affects many of my decisions, but I would not want things to be otherwise, given that I know the benefits of not looking too closely at my own weaknesses. At the same time, although it is pervasive, my false understanding of myself has limits. It will not lead me to take part in activities for which I am clearly unsuited (such as daredevil stunts on motor bikes). Even within the bounds of my current career and social interests, it will not necessarily lead me to arrogant posturing or to truly rash actions. Most importantly, this aspect of myself that I share with most people does not detract from other ways in which I value truth and am committed to seeking it.

Maintaining a slightly inflated or over-optimistic self-image—which involves putting an optimistic gloss on the evidence about themselves—is not the only way that decent and generally honest human beings depart from the purest of commitments to find the truth. Many small kinds of indulgence of others, and many kinds of sentimentality, appear to fall into the same category. I am thinking, for example, of our tendency to have an overly optimistic image of individuals who are important to us, such as family members and close friends.34 Of course, there are distinctions to be made here. A situation in which my relationship with a friend includes a slightly exaggerated sense of the amount of time that she spends thinking about me and my welfare is very different from one in which my supposed friend secretly despises me and holds onto the external trappings of friendship only for the numerous opportunities it will give her to mock me behind my back. In the former case, the self-deception involved may be a psychologically unavoidable part of a relationship that is valuable overall. In the latter case, the relationship is a sham and I am truly suffering a misfortune.

Similarly, decent and generally honest human beings may form many kinds of one-way emotional bonds. Many of us feel sentimental pangs about parting with childhood toys or beloved family vehicles, or experience strong emotions for popular entertainers whom we will never meet, or for sporting teams made up of individuals who know nothing about our existence. We become concerned about the fates of fictional characters in novels and movies, fuss lovingly over our garden plants, train sets, or collections of old books, or attribute unlikely emotions to our real pets (in most cases, creatures that resulted from thousands of years of breeding to appeal to human emotions). We can be choked up with love for more abstract things, such as nations and cultures, and for the songs and images that symbolize them.

All these bonds might seem inappropriate if we believe that such warm emotions are misguided, or foolish, whenever there’s no reasonable prospect of their reciprocation. Yet, in many concrete situations, the presence of this psychological characteristic of human beings may actually be good for the overall zestfulness of our approach to life, and hence to our health, longevity, and general flourishing. At the same time, it need not interfere in a fundamental way with our apprehension of the world’s true nature. For example, Smith might think of the plants in his garden with a degree of affection that they are quite incapable of reciprocating. He may subconsciously imagine that they are grateful, and he may be happier and healthier for it. However, his arguably sentimental attitude to plants does not entail that he consults them about family difficulties or hears them whispering advice about buying and selling on the stock market. In any context that calls for critical reflection, he will report that they are really just plants.

None of this undermines the claim that I have a good reason in most situations to aim for a generally correct apprehension of the world I live in. Unless there is some very powerful countervailing feature of my situation, I would not want to live with a comprehensively and fundamentally flawed picture of reality, or of the nature of my personal relationships. However, this consideration takes us only so far. At least when it comes to some familiar kinds of misapprehension of the world and sentimentality about its component parts, it fails to ground even a prima facie duty to insist fiercely on the unembroidered truth. Something more is required to support the element of puritanism in Sparrow’s approach.

The instrumental value of truth

Acting from a commitment to truth might sometimes be onerous, but do I owe it to myself to act that way because it will be (instrumentally) good for me? When the question is put like this, it sounds rather odd. There is a tension between having a prudential reason for acting in a particular way, or cultivating a certain disposition of character, and referring to a moral duty to oneself. Still, cultivating a commitment to truth, and acting in accordance with my commitment, might be good for me. Within a broadly neo-Aristotelian theory, this might be considered a moral reason for developing virtue.

At the least, it seems apparent that having true beliefs about the world (including my own abilities) will be useful to me in a large class of cases. Having true beliefs can assist me in achieving many goals, whether they involve personal survival and success, the survival and success of family members and others whom I care about, more limited objectives such as obtaining recognition in my career, or highly specific ones such as navigating successfully to a friend’s street address. Conversely, false beliefs about the world are likely, in a large class of cases, to lead to my wasting time and energy, failing to achieve my goals, and perhaps being exploited by others.35 To borrow an example from W.K. Clifford, if I wish my ship to have a safe trading voyage I had better find out what state of seaworthiness it is in, and then initiate whatever repairs are needed.36

In many cases, therefore, knowledge is power—the power to take steps calculated to achieve our goals—while to be ignorant is to be weak and vulnerable. All this suggests that ignorance is generally a state to be feared and avoided, and that individuals who are likely to deceive us about the facts of the world are a danger to us. Given our dependence, in so many cases, on having a correct apprehension of the world, it is readily explicable that lies, deceptions, and frauds are commonly objects of social condemnation, and that some kinds of deception and fraud are serious crimes in most legal systems.

Yet this does not yet seem to ground a truly universal duty to obtain a correct apprehension of the world. Let us concede that a commitment to truth is morally virtuous, if a moral virtue is understood as a disposition of character that can assist my own survival and success in life. However, it remains unclear whether or not the moral virtue consists in a disposition of character to seek the truth come what may. If that is the nature of the virtue, it might give the supposed duty under discussion an appropriate aretaic foundation. Might the virtue, however, be something more complex, discerning, and typically Aristotelian, such as a commitment to seek the truth to the right extent, in the right way, and in the right circumstances? Perhaps it is internal to the virtue that it allows us to be deceived—even with clear eyes—about such things as our own abilities and the abilities, virtues, and good intentions of our loved ones. Perhaps it allows for even more than that. Nothing considered so far indicates otherwise.

It does seem clear that simple gullibility is not a virtue, but the discussion to this point suggests that a capacity for some kinds of relatively constrained and controlled self-indulgence about the truth may actually be beneficial. In a case such as that of subconsciously buying into the reality of robot pets—while consciously being aware of what one is doing—it is unclear that the harms to the individual concerned must outweigh the benefits. At the same time, this kind of self-indulgence seems continuous with other kinds that appear to be consistent with an appropriate commitment to the truth.

At this stage, we have found no foundation for something as simple as an unqualified duty to myself to avoid delusion and apprehend the world correctly, even if the duty is said to be a prima facie one, able to be defeated by other features that are operative in a situation. On the contrary, everything we have considered suggests that the virtue of commitment to the truth is complex and subtle. In many situations, an obligation to act in accordance with this virtue may demand that I seek the precise truth about many issues and aspects of the world. But just what it demands from specific situation to specific situation will depend on the details of actual cases.

A duty to others?

As already acknowledged, having an incorrect apprehension of the world will tend (in a large class of cases) to reduce our ability to achieve our own goals, while making us vulnerable to manipulation. Related to this, our usefulness in assisting family members, friends, lovers, colleagues, fellow citizens, and other persons or beings will often be compromised if we operate with an incorrect apprehension of the world. To borrow Clifford’s example again, the crewmen of my ship may be gravely endangered if they set off on a long voyage after I have failed (despite my suspicions) to check the ship’s seaworthiness.37 Furthermore, our individual processes of forming beliefs weave their way into the larger stock of beliefs in our society, and affect its overall accuracy and usefulness.38 Accordingly, it is not strange that a disposition to seek and insist upon the truth is socially admired, as is the mere possession of useful knowledge. From a social viewpoint, the admirability of a commitment to truth is quite justified. Viewed this way, gullibility and ignorance are obviously vices rather than virtues.

Generally speaking, then, we should encourage each other to avoid delusion, seek a correct apprehension of the world, and build extensive and useful knowledge bases. Someone who usually acts otherwise is likely to be a social drone, if not a positive danger to others. Again, however, this does not entail that particular kinds of false belief and sentimentality are never socially useful. Our familiar propensities for self-indulgence about how we assess our own abilities, our capacity for anthropomorphism, and so on, seem to co-exist in normal human psychology with the kind of honesty and intellectual integrity that others can rely upon.

Furthermore, it is relatively easy for others to be aware of familiar kinds of false apprehension and to take them into account. If Smith subconsciously imagines that Kylie Minogue values his personal loyalty when he buys a copy of her new CD, this is unlikely to mislead anyone else who normally relies on Smith’s good sense, honesty, and integrity. Likewise if Jones subconsciously thinks she is adored by her pet anaconda, or by her cool and aloof purebred cat. Neither Smith nor Jones need be stigmatized as a parasitic or dangerous individual. They are not exploiting or harming anyone else. I do not wish to deny that we often, or usually, have a duty to others to avoid delusion and seek a correct apprehension of the world, but it does not appear to extend, even prima facie, to these sorts of things.

Robots revisited

When our reasons for avoiding delusion and seeking a correct apprehension of the world are considered in some depth, as above, it soon becomes implausible that truth operates as an important value in respect of all aspects of all situations. Indeed, we seem to need a margin for indulgence in some continual misapprehension of reality, such as some limited over-confidence in our abilities, in order to flourish. Less necessary to our welfare may be the limited degree of anthropomorphic sentimentalization to which we are prone—such as the common anthropomorphization of cars and computers39—or of the exaggerated feelings that many people have for sporting teams, popular entertainers, fictional characters, and even pet snakes. Even if this is less necessary to us than the adaptive illusions about ourselves commonly identified by psychologists, it is typically human. More importantly, it may do a certain amount of good at little cost, whether to ourselves, to other individuals whom we especially care about, or to the public interest.

Contrary to Nozick’s story, perhaps what we (or those of us who are impressed by his thought experiment) really want is something fairly complex. We want to be in a position to obtain a generally correct apprehension of our world, while also reserving at least a marginal and more-or-less controllable capacity for misapprehension when it comes to a range of facts about our own abilities and other relatively personal things that are important to our emotional well-being. Some situations involving a limited misapprehension of the truth may be goods for the individuals concerned, rather than states of being harmed. In that case, the idea of a duty to myself and/or others to seek the truth, even a weak or prima facie duty, is too simple for acceptance. It seems more accurate to say this:
  • Obtaining a correct apprehension of the world is usually valuable to ourselves as individuals, and to those with whom we interact.

  • At the same time, some categories of misapprehension (usually or often) contribute to our well-being.

  • Some categories of benign misapprehension are familiar and more-or-less predictable. They are largely to do with self-perception, but go beyond it. Moreover, new situations arise in human experience, and it may not be possible to formulate a closed list of categories.

  • Our hunger for a correct apprehension of the world exists side by side with tendencies that lead to benign kinds of misapprehension. All of this is part of our complex psychological nature.

If some situations involving misapprehension of the truth are goods for the individuals concerned, what follows about other individuals who make the misapprehension possible? Think of novelists, moviemakers, the promoters of professional athletes and entertainers (or the athletes and entertainers themselves), vendors of pet serpents, or simply our loved ones when they treat us kindly. If we had a serious responsibility to avoid misapprehensions of the truth in all situations, these people might all be charged with encouraging us to fail in our duty. That is, however, implausible. Indeed, it would be offensively paternalistic, not to say priggish, to suggest that all these should reform their ways so that we are not encouraged or tempted to indulge in misapprehension of the world. More often than not, these illusion-makers are our benefactors rather than our enemies. Doubtless we should buy only provisionally into illusions and indulge only cautiously in sentimentality.

Our favored illusions should yield, where needed, to the claims of truth, and there are situations—such as in science and scholarship—where a fierce and unalloyed commitment to truth is entirely appropriate and illusion-making is out of place.40 But some situations that involve a degree of misapprehension of the truth are actually goods for the individuals involved. The illusion-makers who assist those goods to come into being appear to be worthy of moral commendation.

Of course, it is all a matter of circumstance and degree. It is one thing for Smith to feel love and concern at a time when his favorite pop star has encountered a widely-publicized personal crisis. It is another for him to mutate into an obsessed, potentially dangerous, stalker. In the case of robot pets, perhaps there is a point at which our moral eyebrows are justifiably raised. Imagine that Jones begins acting as if she has a very deep relationship with such a cybernetic gadget (despite her occasional protestations that she is well aware of what the device really is). The situation might eventually be analogous to that of an individual who is secretly despised by the children whom she adores and to whom she devotes herself—and who give her life its experienced sense of meaning. But this theoretical possibility does not provide a reason for moral condemnation of manufacturers and marketers who simply make robot pets available. If Jones and I each acquire such a device, and are clear-eyed about its real nature, it is surely our responsibility if we nonetheless allow ourselves to become unhealthily obsessed.

The situation will be rather different if it involves people who are in no position to accept that responsibility. What if a caregiver intentionally uses a robot pet or a robot helper to delude an elderly patient who is already delusional? Here, it seems, we have good reason for moral condemnation. This is remote from the situations I’ve discussed where a mentally healthy adult (or younger person) willingly suspends disbelief and suspicion. Once again, it’s a matter of circumstances and a discerning commitment to the truth. In any event, it is misleading and excessively puritanical to insist on commitment to truth at all costs and in all circumstances, or to assign moral blame to anyone who plays the role of illusion-maker.

Going more cosmic

Sparrow’s argument ends with a final warning about underlying trends in robotics, but there are clearly related issues that its author does not consider, and which are more cosmic in nature. For the present, I shall content myself with some fairly general observations that may put the non-instrumental importance of truth in a broader perspective.

Consider the situation with religious belief. It is a truism that the respective bodies of doctrine associated with the world’s major religions contradict each other. At the same time, each contradicts—and is contradicted by—secular worldviews that allow no explanatory role for the activities of supernatural beings or the operation of such principles as karma. Whichever religious or secular worldview is approximately correct—if any of them are—it is clear that billions of people are currently living with apprehensions of their world that are fundamentally and comprehensively false.

Furthermore, some religious worldviews that are likely to be fundamentally false are taught as dogma to children. As Jonathan Glover emphasizes, children need to learn an enormous amount about the world very quickly and are disposed to accept what they are taught by their elders. This makes them highly vulnerable to propaganda.41 Early teachings about matters of religious faith are likely to become subjectively foundational within the thinking of growing children, many of whose other beliefs (acquired in a later life) are likely to be molded around the supposed truth of at least the central doctrines that were learned from parents and other authority figures. In the extreme, as J. L. Mackie points out, children are not only indoctrinated with the one-sided teaching of a particular (and false) worldview but are also taught “the view that it would be wicked to even consider any contrary opinions.”42

This situation may well be unfortunate, but it is largely accepted in modern, pluralist societies. Should this be revisited? Note that religion is not the only realm of belief that requires consideration if we take seriously the misfortune of living with a false apprehension of reality. For example, we may wonder whether the lives of all people who lived prior to the rise of modern science in the seventeenth century were terribly unfortunate, in so far as the individuals concerned possessed fundamentally flawed understandings of the physical world. Indeed, are we any more fortunate, given the likelihood that many of our scientific theories will be superseded?

Such imagined perils as those associated with technologically advanced robot pets pale into insignificance when compared to the widespread misapprehension of fundamental reality that has always been, and still remains, an element of human experience. The same applies to many broader concerns relating to information technology, such as our general proclivity to anthropomorphize computer behaviors. In some situations, this may mislead us in important ways, as Hofstadter and many others have warned.43 In other situations, however, the illusion may be harmless or even beneficial.


Nothing I have written above should be taken as a blanket defense of intellectual dishonesty. In particular, none of my arguments excuse the kind of dishonesty displayed when supposedly rational inquirers blind themselves and others to inconvenient facts, or their plausible implications. If this happens within a process of scholarly or scientific inquiry—a paradigm case of human beings’ ongoing and collective attempt to apprehend the world correctly—it is clearly culpable. Truth does matter.

What seems clear, however, is that we should cut each other, and ourselves, some intellectual slack when it comes to familiar, relatively benign, kinds of self-indulgence in forming beliefs about the facts of life. I expect that we can tolerate a great deal: people’s over-optimism and overly favorable self-perceptions; their comforting interpretations of the characteristics and motives of loved ones and mammalian pets (with which they might, indeed, have genuine relationships); and their subconscious assumptions that they can have genuine relationships with pet reptiles, fictional characters, sporting teams, popular entertainers, and readily anthropomorphized personal possessions. In many such cases, until a line is crossed into severe delusion or obsession, this sort of thing can be accepted with a shrug and a knowing smile. Once identified, it is easily recognized as part of our complex species-typical psychology. It can co-exist with ordinary honesty and commitment to truth.


  1. 1.

    Sparrow (2002).

  2. 2.

    Sparrow, Robot Dogs, p. 308.

  3. 3.

    Sparrow, Robot Dogs, p. 316.

  4. 4.

    Sparrow and Sparrow (2006).

  5. 5.

    Most recently: Sparrow (2009).

  6. 6.

    Sparrow, Robot Dogs, pp. 308–309.

  7. 7.

    Sparrow and Sparrow, In the Hands of Machines, pp. 151–153.

  8. 8.

    Sparrow, Robot Dogs, pp. 316–317.

  9. 9.

    Levy (2007).

  10. 10.

    Sparrow, Robot Dogs, pp. 309–312.

  11. 11.

    Sparrow, Robot Dogs, pp. 313–314.

  12. 12.

    Sparrow, Robot Dogs, pp. 315.

  13. 13.

    For the complexities of any concept of self-deception and the difficulties of holding agents responsible for being self-deceived, see Levy (2004).

  14. 14.

    Sparrow, Robot Dogs, pp. 315.

  15. 15.

    Sparrow, Robot Dogs, pp 315.

  16. 16.

    Again, I don't suggest that this is the only argument available to Sparrow, or the only argument that he relies upon. It is, however, a central argument, and its acceptance would commit us to the kind of puritanism about truth that I am attempting to identify and criticize.

  17. 17.

    Hofstadter (1995), p. 157.

  18. 18.

    Sparrow, Robot Dogs: 315. See also Sparrow and Sparrow, In the Hands of Machines, p. 155.

  19. 19.

    See, e.g., Taylor and Brown (1988), p. 196.

  20. 20.

    Taylor and Brown (1988); Snyder and Higgins (1988).

  21. 21.

    Taylor and Brown (1988), pp. 194, 197–199.

  22. 22.

    Snyder and Higgins, Excuses: 32 (emphasis in the text).

  23. 23.

    Sparrow, Robot Dogs, p. 315.

  24. 24.

    Kant (1948).

  25. 25.

    Compare the discussion of fictive judgments and critical contexts in Joyce (2001), pp. 190–194.

  26. 26.

    Levy, Self-Deception, pp. 297–98.

  27. 27.

    Nozick (1974).

  28. 28.

    Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p. 45.

  29. 29.

    The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003).

  30. 30.

    This is surveyed in Blackford (2004).

  31. 31.

    McMahon (2002), p. 177.

  32. 32.

    Similar misfortunes are discussed in another context by Nagel (1979), p. 4–6.

  33. 33.

    Benson and Stangroom (2006), pp. 179–80.

  34. 34.

    E.g., Taylor and Brown, Illusion and Well-Being, p. 195.

  35. 35.

    Compare Joyce's discussion of the instrumental value of truth Joyce (2001), pp. 178–179.

  36. 36.

    Clifford (1999), pp. 70–71.

  37. 37.

    Clifford (1999), pp. 70–71.

  38. 38.

    Clifford (1999), pp. 73–74. Compare Joyce (2001), p. 179.

  39. 39.

    These examples are mentioned by Sparrow, Robot Dogs, p. 312.

  40. 40.

    Benson and Stangroom (2006)

  41. 41.

    Glover (2001).

  42. 42.

    Mackie (1977).

  43. 43.

    See generally Hofstadter, The Ineradicable Eliza Effect and Its Dangers.



I wish to thank Rob Sparrow for his encouragement and assistance in personal communications regarding the subject matter of this paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Humanities and Social ScienceUniversity of NewcastleCallaghanAustralia

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