Machines and the face of ethics

Abstract

In this article I try to show in what sense Emmanuel Levinas’ ‘ethics as first philosophy’ moves our ethical thinking away from what has been called ‘centrist ethics’. Proceeding via depictions of the structure of Levinasian ethics and including references to examples as well as to some empirical research, I try to argue that human beings always already find themselves within an ethical universe, a space of meaning. Critically engaging with the writings of David Gunkel and Lucas Introna, I try to argue that these thinkers, rather than clarifying, distort our ethical understanding of how we stand in relation to artefacts. Drawing a distinction between how pervasive our ethical relationship to other human beings, and living animals, is and how the nature of artefacts is tied to us, I conclude by indicating that the aspiration to give artefacts an ethical face suggests a fantasy to avoid ethical responsibility and generates what I call a ‘compensatory logic’.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Notes

  1. 1.

    While moral agency focuses on whether an entity can act morally, moral patiency asks whether the entity is capable of, in some sense, suffering a loss essential to its self-integrity and being.

  2. 2.

    I am not here referring to any unified tradition in western philosophy. Nevertheless, as far as I can see, there have been many thinkers who have conceived of philosophy itself as always and already not only an ethical task, for to such a conception many would ascribe themselves, but more importantly to an understanding of thinking itself as ethically charged and even constituted. Some of these thinkers would include Socrates (see Wallgren 2006), St. Augustine and the early Christian thinkers, Nietzsche, Kirkegaard, Levinas and Wittgenstein.

  3. 3.

    Although I allude to Gunkel’s reading of Levinas, the account given in this paper will depict Levinas in a slightly different light than Gunkel’s interpretation. Some things I say will also be extensions or modifications of Levinas’ thoughts.

  4. 4.

    See also Darley and Batson (1973).

  5. 5.

    Here it is clear that I part with Levinas who is prone to ascribe the repression of the openness to the other and the introduction of norms and justice not so much to the dynamics I tried to shortly introduce, but to a dynamics that unfolds because there are many others, not simply the one I encounter now (Levinas 1985). I should also like to add that my own account is in indebted to the writings of my colleagues Backström (2007) and Nykänen (2002, 2014).

  6. 6.

    One should also add that especially in small scale farming, farmers usually have had and still have more direct and even affectionate relationships to their animals—this is one reason why animals are for the most part not slaughtered by the farmer him-/herself, and in any case, the act of slaughter always has a bearing on one’s conscience.

  7. 7.

    My point here is not to advocate vegetarianism, although I am in sympathy with vegetarians. My point here is simply to say that we are in an ethical relationship to animals, and the nature of that relation (which I do not qualify here) will have its bearing on meat-eating.

  8. 8.

    See for instance Northup (2014), Elkins (1976) and Davis (1966).

  9. 9.

    The same applies to all kinds of social structuring where humans are ordered and organised under social identities and categories. Elsewhere (Toivakainen 2014, 2015) I have tried to articulate how social and collective identities form a dynamical relationship to the ‘face’. As Levinas writes, the face “is what cannot become a content, which your thought would embrace; it is uncontainable, it leads you beyond (Levinas 1985, 86–87)”.

  10. 10.

    It is of course important to bear in mind that the descriptions I am giving are not descriptions of a ‘pencil’ as reduced to a purely instrumental ‘thing’. That ‘pencils’ gain their meaning through being artefacts/concepts does not diminish or rob them of anything or reduce them to mere human purposes, but is rather part of their ‘grammar’.

  11. 11.

    And here the diminishment should be understood in a double sense: By lessening the need for projection of “life” onto the object, it also lessens the use of our active imagination (quite in a similar manner as a movie displays the landscape that the novel described).

  12. 12.

    For more on the statistics of loneliness amongst elderly people see Dykstra (2009).

  13. 13.

    Elderly people’s loneliness and seclusion is not only a societal problem because most of these people have their own relatives (children, grandchildren) who in turn face the moral dilemma of how to live with the fact that they do not themselves take care of their own parents or grandparents but nevertheless want them to have a decent life.

  14. 14.

    For more, visit the Paro website at http://www.parorobots.com/.

  15. 15.

    As the general manager of an elderly home in Japan (that uses Paro dolls) Taku Kato-ono notes in an interview, animal therapy requires that the animals be taken care of, which the already scarce resources could not possibly allow for. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PNw4oicWmWU. Accessed January 4, 2015.

  16. 16.

    I will simply give the account as it came to me in the discussion. The main importance of this example is not that it is empirically accurate, but rather that it displays a structure of thought and attitudes.

  17. 17.

    I would like to point out that anyone who claims that cleaning robots ‘give us more time with our nearest’ should consider at least two essential points. (a) Is the source to our lack of time with our loved ones due to insufficient technologies or to the life-styles we have become accustomed to. (b) Cleaning is of course not essentially contrary to spending time with loved ones. One can clean together and for instance cook dinner afterwards, spending intensive moments with each other. The problem is not that we have ‘too little time’, but with what we do with the time that we have; how we live our lives and the social structures we abide with.

References

  1. Backström, J. (2007). The fear of openness. Åbo: Åbo University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Benso, S. (2000). The face of things: A different side of ethics. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Berreby, D. (2005). Us and them: Understanding your tribal mind. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Calarco, M. (2008). Zoographies: The question of the animal from Heidegger to Derrida. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Darley, J. M., & Batson, C. D. (1973). From Jerusalem to Jericho: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27(1), 100–108.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Davis, D. B. (1966). The problem of slavery in western culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Derrida, J. (2008). The animal that therefore I am. In Mallet, M.-L. (Ed.), (trans: David, W.). New York, NY: Fordham University Press.

  8. Dykstra, P. A. (2009). Older adult loneliness: Myths and realities. European Journal of Aging. doi:10.1007/s10433-009-0110-3.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Elkins, S. M. (1976). Slavery: A problem in American institutional and intellectual life (3rd revised ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Ellul, J. (1976). The ethics of freedom. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Ellul, J. (1990). The technological bluff (trans: Bromiley, W. G.). Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

  12. Floridi, L. (2002). On the intrinsic value of information objects and the info-sphere. Ethics and Information Technology, 4, 287–304.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Floridi, L. (2013). The ethics of information. New York NY: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Gunkel, J. D. (2012). The machine question. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Hitlin, S., & Vaisey, S. (2010). Handbook of the sociology of morality. New York, NY: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Introna, L. (2014). Ethics and the flesh: Being touched by the otherness of things. In O. Pétursdóttir (Ed.), Ruin memories: Material, aesthetics and the archeology of the recent past. Oxford: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Joyce, R. (2001). The myth of morality. Cambridge, UK; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

  18. Kant, I. (2002). Groundwork for the metaphysics of morals (trans: Wood, A. W.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

  19. Levinas, E. (1969). Totality and infinity: An essay on exteriority (trans: Lingis, A.). Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University.

  20. Levinas, E. (1985). Ethics and infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo/Emmanuell Levinas (trans: Cohen, R. A.). Pittsburgh, PA: Duquense University Press.

  21. Mumford, L. (2010). Technics and civilization, fourth edition with a new foreword by Langdon Winner. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Northup, S. (2014). 12 years a slave. London: William Collins.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Nykänen, H. (2002). The “I” the “You” and the soul: An ethics of conscience. Åbo: Åbo Akademi University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Nykänen, H. (2014). Conscience and collective pressure. Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology, 21(1), 51–56.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Sorle, T., & Draper, H. (2014). Robot cares, ethics and older people. Ethics and Information Technology, 16, 183–195.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Toivakainen, N. (2014). Social robots as mirrors of (failed) communion. In Seibt, J., Hakli, R., & Nørskov, M. (Eds.), Sociable robots and the future of social relations. Volume 273 of frontiers in artificial intelligence and applications. Amsterdam: IOS Press.

  27. Toivakainen, N. (2015). The moral roots of conceptual confusion in artificial intelligence research. American Philosophical Association Newsletter. Philosophy and Computers, 14(2), 20–31.

  28. Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together. New York, NY: Basic Books.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Wallgren, T. (2006). Transformative philosophy. New York, NY: Lexington Books.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Westerlund, F. (2014). Heidegger and the problem of phenomenality. Helsinki: Philosophical Studies from the University of Helsinki, Unigrafia.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Wittgenstein, L. (1967). Philosophical investigations (trans: Anscombe, G .E. M). Oxford: Blackwell.

  32. Wittgenstein, L. (1980). Culture and value (trans: Winch, P.). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Niklas Toivakainen.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Toivakainen, N. Machines and the face of ethics. Ethics Inf Technol 18, 269–282 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-015-9372-y

Download citation

Keywords

  • Ethics
  • Face
  • Relationship
  • Responsibility
  • Compensatory