Blame-Laden Moral Rebukes and the Morally Competent Robot: A Confucian Ethical Perspective


Empirical studies have suggested that language-capable robots have the persuasive power to shape the shared moral norms based on how they respond to human norm violations. This persuasive power presents cause for concern, but also the opportunity to persuade humans to cultivate their own moral development. We argue that a truly socially integrated and morally competent robot must be willing to communicate its objection to humans’ proposed violations of shared norms by using strategies such as blame-laden rebukes, even if doing so may violate other standing norms, such as politeness. By drawing on Confucian ethics, we argue that a robot’s ability to employ blame-laden moral rebukes to respond to unethical human requests is crucial for cultivating a flourishing “moral ecology” of human–robot interaction. Such positive moral ecology allows human teammates to develop their own moral reflection skills and grow their own virtues. Furthermore, this ability can and should be considered as one criterion for assessing artificial moral agency. Finally, this paper discusses potential implications of the Confucian theories for designing socially integrated and morally competent robots.

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  1. 1.

    The Confucianism discussed in this paper is mainly focused on “classical Confucianism,” or “early Confucianism,” or “pre-Qin Confucianism.” In particular, this paper discusses Confucian ethics developed by early Confucian scholars before the creation of the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE) represented by Confucius (551–479 BCE) and Mencius (372–289 BCE). When discussing the Confucian scholarship on blame and remonstration, we also included the work of Wang Fuzhi (1619–1692) who was a prominent Confucian scholar during the late Ming dynasty (1368–1644).

  2. 2.

    We note that robot persuasion is of course not always beneficial; teachers have raised a number of concerns regarding the persuasive capabilities of robots (Serholt et al. 2017).

  3. 3.

    These are the first two Confucian robot ethics principles. See Liu (2017) for detailed discussion of the three Confucian robot ethics principles.


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This work was funded in part by National Science Foundation grant IIS-1909847.

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Correspondence to Qin Zhu.

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Zhu, Q., Williams, T., Jackson, B. et al. Blame-Laden Moral Rebukes and the Morally Competent Robot: A Confucian Ethical Perspective. Sci Eng Ethics 26, 2511–2526 (2020).

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  • Blame-laden moral rebukes
  • Morally competent robots
  • Confucian ethics
  • Robot ethics
  • Role ethics
  • Moral cultivation