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Virtue and Vice in Our Relationships with Robots: Is There an Asymmetry and How Might it be Explained?


In previous work, drawing on virtue ethics, I have argued that we may demonstrate morally significant vices in our treatment of robots. Even if an agent’s “cruel” treatment of a robot has no implications for their future behaviour towards people or animals, I believe that it may reveal something about their character, which in turn gives us reason to criticise their actions. Viciousness towards robots is real viciousness. However, I don’t have the same intuition about virtuous behaviour. That is to say, I see no reason to think that “kind” treatment of a robot reflects well on an agent’s character nor do I have any inclination to praise it. At first sight, at least, this is puzzling: if we should morally evaluate some of our relationships with robots why not all of them? In this paper, I argue that these conflicting intuitions may be reconciled by drawing on further claims about the nature of virtue and vice and the moral significance of self-deception. Neglecting the moral reality of the targets of our actions is little barrier to vice and may sometimes be characteristic of it. However, virtue requires an exercise of practical wisdom that may be vitiated by failure to attend to the distinction between representation and reality. Thus, while enjoying representations of unethical behaviour is unethical, acting out fantasies of good behaviour with robots is, at best morally neutral. Only in the rare circumstance where someone might be forgiven for mistaking a robot for a real animal or person may spontaneous responses to robots be virtuous.

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  1. For evidence of the willingness of people to attribute race to robots on the basis of the colour of their surfaces, see Bartneck et al. [5]. For discussion of the implications of such a tendency for the ethics of our relationships with robots, see Sparrow [6, 7].

  2. It is natural to think that part of what might make this wrong would be whatever upset it might cause you. However, if your ex’s activity isn’t (independently) morally wrong it’s unclear why it should be so upsetting. Moreover, the claim that your being upset constitutes a reason to criticise your ex-partner’s actions depends on such treatment of a robot being (independently) morally wrong.

  3. See, for instance, the remarks attributed to Ron Arkin in Hill [27].

  4. Moreover, no matter what we are inclined to say about the implications of enjoying "violent" videogames or pornography for behaviour, it seems highly unlikely that our enjoyment of particular sorts of representations doesn't shape our behaviour in the real world at all. For instance, advertising functions by associating the fantasy of pleasure with representations of products that consumers then become more inclined to purchase. Companies that rely on our buying their products spend a lot of money on advertising precisely because it works.

  5. Some supposedly educational uses of robots already seem to draw on this idea. For instance, the idea that after looking after a robot pet, children will be better able to look after a real pet seems to require that we can learn kindness—and not just to avoid cruelty—by practising with robots.

  6. Not recognising virtue in an individual may mean that we fail to praise or appropriately honour them, but they are unlikely to cease to be virtuous because of that, nor is the community likely to lose the benefit of the exercise of their virtue. However, a failure to recognise vice in someone is likely to allow them to continue to be vicious, to the detriment of their character and of those around them.

  7. Designing robots to influence the behaviour of those who interact with them would raise a number of ethical issues beyond the scope of my discussion here, especially where this involves deliberately deceiving users about the nature or capacities of the robots. See, for instance, Boden et al. [40] and Sparrow and Sparrow [41].


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I would like to thank Massimiliano (Max) Cappuccio and Omar Mubin for the invitation to present a keynote at the Interdisciplinary Workshop on Robots & AI in Society at Western Sydney University in 2018, which formed the basis of the current manuscript; I owe especial thanks to Max for his patience while I completed it. Thanks are also owed to Justin Oakley, Michael Flood, and Christoph Bartneck for discussions and/or correspondence during the drafting process.


This study was supported by the Australian Research Council’s Centres of Excellence funding scheme (Project CE140100012). The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Australian Research Council.

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Sparrow, R. Virtue and Vice in Our Relationships with Robots: Is There an Asymmetry and How Might it be Explained?. Int J of Soc Robotics 13, 23–29 (2021).

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