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Robotic Nudges: The Ethics of Engineering a More Socially Just Human Being


Robots are becoming an increasingly pervasive feature of our personal lives. As a result, there is growing importance placed on examining what constitutes appropriate behavior when they interact with human beings. In this paper, we discuss whether companion robots should be permitted to “nudge” their human users in the direction of being “more ethical”. More specifically, we use Rawlsian principles of justice to illustrate how robots might nurture “socially just” tendencies in their human counterparts. Designing technological artifacts in such a way to influence human behavior is already well-established but merely because the practice is commonplace does not necessarily resolve the ethical issues associated with its implementation.

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  1. For the purposes of this paper, we are using the term “autonomy” in the sense of how it is normally defined within the realm of ethics (i.e., having the meaningful ability to make choices about one’s life); within the realm of robotics, “autonomy” typically refers to a robot or other intelligent system making a decision without a “human in the loop”.

  2. Embodiment and situatedness can of course overlap but they are two distinct concepts. Embodiment: A robot has a physical presence (a body). This spatial reality has consequences in its dynamic interactions with the world that cannot be simulated faithfully. Situatedness: A robot is an entity situated and surrounded by the real world. It does not operate upon abstract representations of reality, but rather reality itself (Arkin 1998).

  3. If constructing robots that could promote the aims of ethics, or more specifically social justice, is technically possible, a question arises about whether a moral imperative exists to build the technology (an issue that we will not seek to address here).

  4. Emphasizing the importance of the measures needed to address social justice, a United Nations committee states that “The well-being of citizens requires broad-based and sustainable economic growth, economic justice, the provision of employment opportunities, and more generally the existence of conditions for the optimal development of people as individuals and social beings” (2010, 7). Scholarly communities are just beginning to examine what role robots may have in relation to social justice concerns.

  5. The context we are discussing here relates more directly to professional practice (and not research environments). In the latter case, there are rules and regulations governing whether manipulation is appropriate (for example, those pertaining to IRB review and informed consent).


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Correspondence to Jason Borenstein.

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Borenstein, J., Arkin, R. Robotic Nudges: The Ethics of Engineering a More Socially Just Human Being. Sci Eng Ethics 22, 31–46 (2016).

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  • Autonomy
  • Design ethics
  • Nudges
  • Paternalism
  • Robot ethics
  • Robot companions
  • Rawls
  • Social justice