Could Social Robots Make Us Kinder or Crueller to Humans and Animals?


The Montréal Declaration for Responsible Development of Artificial Intelligence states that emerging technologies ought not “encourage cruel behaviour towards robots that take on the appearance of human beings or animals and act in a similar fashion.” The idea of a causal link between cruelty and kindness to artificial and living beings, human or animal, is controversial and underexplored, despite its increasing relevance to robotics. Kate Darling recently marshalled Immanuel Kant’s argument—that cruelty to animals promotes cruelty to people—to argue for an analogous link concerning social robots. Others, such as Johnson and Verdicchio, have counter-argued that animal analogies are often flawed, partly because they ignore social robots’ true nature, including their lack of sentience. This, they say, weakens Darling’s argument that social robots will have virtue-promoting or vice-promoting effects regarding our treatment of living beings. Certain ideas in this debate, including those of anthropomorphism, projection, animal analogies, and Kant’s causal claim, require clarification and critical attention. Concentrating on robot animals, this paper examines strengths and weaknesses on both sides of this argument. It finds there is some reason for thinking that social robots may causally affect virtue, especially in terms of the moral development of children and responses to nonhuman animals. This conclusion has implications for future robot design and interaction.

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    We use autonomous [30] here to mean the capacity to self-initiate action and to exhibit agency (relatively) independently of human control, including acts of self-maintenance and self-preservation (cf. a laptop computer).

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    Although Kant’s claim here relates to the development of virtue/vice, Kant himself was clearly not a virtue ethicist. Nor are the details of his deontological position particularly relevant for Darling (or us), other than what bears on his causal claim about the effects of cruelty/kindness to animals.

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    Actually, some studies [53] suggest slaughter-workers have more human-directed aggression (and less empathy for animals). However, Johnson and Verdicchio may argue that these studies are not conclusive.

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    Note that Johnson and Verdicchio do acknowledge that the carryover effects of violent films and the like remains an “unresolved issue” [15, p 299].

  5. 5.

    It is a live, if unsettled, question whether routine slaughter-work causally predisposes to mistreatment of other animals and humans.

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    It is important to stress that empirical studies alone (e.g. see Sect. 2) cannot resolve these conceptual questions.

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    The word projection is itself perhaps redolent of an act involving misattributed qualities.

  8. 8.

    This is, of course, contestable. Johnson and Verdicchio deny it: “Moral patients derive their moral status from their capacity to suffer and be harmed” [15, p 295]. So would many others. Some, however, deny that sentience is necessary for moral patiency (though they may not attribute intrinsic moral standing to robots or nonliving entities) [83].


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We would like to thank the anonymous referees for their very helpful comments.


Funding was provided by Australian Research Council (AU) (Grant No. FT170100420) and the Melbourne Networked Society Institute.

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Correspondence to Simon Coghlan.

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Coghlan, S., Vetere, F., Waycott, J. et al. Could Social Robots Make Us Kinder or Crueller to Humans and Animals?. Int J of Soc Robotics 11, 741–751 (2019).

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  • Social robots
  • Companion robots
  • Animals
  • Moral virtue
  • Anthropomorphism
  • Children