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Incorporating Ethics into Artificial Intelligence


This article reviews the reasons scholars hold that driverless cars and many other AI equipped machines must be able to make ethical decisions, and the difficulties this approach faces. It then shows that cars have no moral agency, and that the term ‘autonomous’, commonly applied to these machines, is misleading, and leads to invalid conclusions about the ways these machines can be kept ethical. The article’s most important claim is that a significant part of the challenge posed by AI-equipped machines can be addressed by the kind of ethical choices made by human beings for millennia. Ergo, there is little need to teach machines ethics even if this could be done in the first place. Finally, the article points out that it is a grievous error to draw on extreme outlier scenarios—such as the Trolley narratives—as a basis for conceptualizing the ethical issues at hand.

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  1. 1.

    Waymo (formerly the Google self-driving car project) alone reports that its driverless cars had logged over two million miles by the end of 2016. See

  2. 2.

    Granted, ‘is’ statements and ‘ought’ statements bleed into each other, but they still differ significantly. Compare a statement against the death penalty that pointed out that data show it does not deter killers, and one that holds that the state should never deliberately take a person’s life. See e.g. McDermott (2011: 88–114).

  3. 3.

    See Hsu (2016) and Harris (2015).

  4. 4.

    See e.g. van Inwagen (1997: 373–381) and Harris (2011).

  5. 5.

    This is, of course, a popular theme in science fiction, but for a serious treatment of the threat, see Joy (2000).

  6. 6.

    See Etzioni and Etzioni (2016a: 149–156, 2016b: 133–146).

  7. 7.

    See Beshears et al. (2009: 167–195) and Benartzi and Thaler (2013: 1152–1153).


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Correspondence to Amitai Etzioni.

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Etzioni, A., Etzioni, O. Incorporating Ethics into Artificial Intelligence. J Ethics 21, 403–418 (2017).

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  • Artificial intelligence
  • Autonomy
  • Ethics
  • Self-driving cars
  • Trolley problem