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Welcoming Robots into the Moral Circle: A Defence of Ethical Behaviourism


Can robots have significant moral status? This is an emerging topic of debate among roboticists and ethicists. This paper makes three contributions to this debate. First, it presents a theory—‘ethical behaviourism’—which holds that robots can have significant moral status if they are roughly performatively equivalent to other entities that have significant moral status. This theory is then defended from seven objections. Second, taking this theoretical position onboard, it is argued that the performative threshold that robots need to cross in order to be afforded significant moral status may not be that high and that they may soon cross it (if they haven’t done so already). Finally, the implications of this for our procreative duties to robots are considered, and it is argued that we may need to take seriously a duty of ‘procreative beneficence’ towards robots.

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  1. The term ‘duty’ is used in this paper in a sense that is interchangeable with cognate terms such as ‘responsibility’ or ‘obligation’. It used to denote a normative requirement or restriction placed on someone’s conduct that means that this conduct is not a matter of personal preference but is, rather, ethically mandated.

  2. To see what Sophia is like go to

  3. As Gunkel 2018b, p. 116 points out, the gesture was not completely unprecedented. The Japanese have recognized a non-legal kind of robot citizenship in the past for artificial creatures such as Paro (the robotic seal).

  4. Porter’s tweet is available at: (accessed 10/7/2018).

  5. The argument has some similarities with the ‘no-relevant-difference’ argument presented by Schwitzgebel and Garza (2015). But their argument is not grounded in the behaviourist view and is open to multiple possible understandings of a ‘relevant difference’. It also encourages the search for disconfirming evidence over confirming evidence.

  6. Kant was famously unwilling to accept that animals had moral status and drew a sharp distinction between practical reason (from which he derived his moral views) and theoretical reason (from which he derived his epistemological/metaphysical views). But others who have adopted a Kantian approach to philosophy have been more open to expanding the moral circle, e.g. Schopenhauer (on this see Puryear 2017). It is also worth noting, in passing, that the position adopted in the text has another affinity with Kantianism in that, just as Kant tended to reduce the metaphysical to the epistemological, ethical behaviourism tends to reduces the ethical to the epistemological. The author is indebted to an anonymous reviewer and Sven Nyholm for helping him to understand how Kant’s reasoning relates to the argument defended in the text.

  7. For a comprehensive discussion of the potential metaphysical grounds for moral status, see Jaworska and Tannenbaum 2018. For specific discussions of consciousness, preference-satisfaction and personhood as grounds of moral status see Sebo (2018), Singer (2009), Regan 1983) and Warren (2000). For a discussion of the moral foundations of rights see Sumner (1987) and, as applied to robot rights, Gunkel (2018b).

  8. An anonymous reviewer asks: what if it was a confirmed zombie? The ethical behaviourist would respond that this is an impossible hypothetical: one could not have confirmatory evidence of a kind that would suffice to undermine the behavioural evidence.

  9. One potential consequence of ethical behaviourism is that it should make us more skeptical of theories of moral status that purport to rely on highly uncertain or difficult to know properties. For example, some versions of sentientism hold an entity can be sentient without displaying any outward signs of sentience. But if this is correct, radical uncertainty about moral status might result since there is no behavioural evidence that could be pointed to that could confirm or disconfirm sentience. An ethical behaviourist would reject this approach to understanding sentience on the grounds that for sentience to work as a ground for moral status it would have to be knowable through some outward sign of sentience. For a longer discussion of sentience and moral uncertainty see Sebo (2018).

  10. A skeptic of evolution (e.g. a proponent of intelligent design) might dispute this, but if one believes in an intelligent designer then arguably one should perceive less of a morally significant difference between the efficient causes of humans and robots: both will be created by intelligent designers. That said, a theistic intelligent designer would have distinctive properties (omniscience, omnibenevolence) and those might make a difference to moral status. This issue is raised again in connection with the final cause objection, below.

  11. If anything the opposite might be true. Theists might wish to ground moral status in non-observable metaphysical properties like the presence of a soul, but such properties run into the same problems as the strong form of sentientism (discussed in footnote 9). There are other possible religious approaches to moral status but religious believers confront similar epistemic limits to non-believers in the practical implementation of those approaches and this constrains how they can interpret and apply theories of moral status.

  12. Connected to this, an anonymous reviewer also points out that Kant (unlike many modern Kantians), in the Metaphysics of Morals, argued that although servitude was permissible servants were still owed duties of moral respect.

  13. It might also be the case, as an anonymous reviewer points out, that our historical forebears conveniently overlooked or ignored the moral relevance of performative equivalency because doing so served other (e.g. economic) interests.

  14. It should also be noted that the historical mistreatment of groups of human beings would call into question other grounds of moral status such as ontology and efficient cause. So history does not speak against the performative equivalency standard any more than it speaks against those standards.

  15. Gunkel has subsequently (Gunkel 2018a, b) expanded the analysis to include robots.

  16. That said, the performative equivalency view is not necessarily in tension with the relational view because the fact that people want to give robots names, invite them into their homes, and make them human-like in other ways is probably what drives people to create robots that are performatively equivalent. The author is indebted to an anonymous reviewer for suggesting this point.

  17. Schwitzgebel and Garza (2015) have an extended discussion of AI-fragility (or the lack thereof) and what it might mean for moral status. They initially agree with the position adopted in this article but also suggest that certain aspects of machine ontology might warrant greater moral protection.

  18. Contrariwise, if replaceability undermines the need for certain kinds of moral protections, then perhaps we need a new set of moral norms for entities that are easily replaceable. But this new set of norms would then apply to humans just as much as it would apply to robots.

  19. Article 12 of the UNCRPD recognises the right to equal recognition before the law of persons with disabilities and includes, specifically, the right to recognition of legal capacity (roughly: the capacity to make decisions on their own behalf).

  20. For an example of how this objection might play out, consider the controversy that Rebecca Tuvel’s article ‘In Defence of Transracialism’ (2017) provoked when she argued that transgenderism and transracialism could be viewed as analogous phenomena.

  21. Bryson may think there are other moral/ethical benefits that outweigh these costs in the case of humans—it is not clear from her writings. What is clear is that she thinks that human well-being trumps robotic well-being.

  22. It is also sometimes criticized for being redolent of eugenics. However, Savulescu would argue that there are significant moral differences between what he is proposing and the morally repugnant policies of historical eugenicists. He is not claiming that people ought to be sterilized or prevented from having children in the interests of racial or cognitive purity. He is focusing on the need to benefit potential offspring; not on harming or restricting potential parents.

  23. Matthijs Maas has suggested to the present author that the hacking risk is quite severe. As he sees it “if a robot capable of suffering gets hacked, this would allow the attacker to inflict massively scalable, unbounded suffering or indignity on the AI (e.g. by speeding up its clock-time, making it suffer subjective millennia of humiliation). The amount of suffering that could be inflicted on a robot is therefore much higher than that which could be inflicted on a human”. This might give very good reason not to create robots with moral status.


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The author would like to thank Matthijs Maas, Sven Nyholm and four anonymous reviewers and for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article. He would also like to thank audiences at NUI Galway and Manchester University for enduring earlier presentations of its core argument.

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Correspondence to John Danaher.

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Danaher, J. Welcoming Robots into the Moral Circle: A Defence of Ethical Behaviourism. Sci Eng Ethics 26, 2023–2049 (2020).

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  • Robots
  • Moral status
  • Moral standing
  • Ethical behaviourism
  • Procreative beneficence