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Carebots and Caregivers: Sustaining the Ethical Ideal of Care in the Twenty-First Century


In the early twenty-first century, we stand on the threshold of welcoming robots into domains of human activity that will expand their presence in our lives dramatically. One provocative new frontier in robotics, motivated by a convergence of demographic, economic, cultural, and institutional pressures, is the development of “carebots”—robots intended to assist or replace human caregivers in the practice of caring for vulnerable persons such as the elderly, young, sick, or disabled. I argue here that existing philosophical reflections on the ethical implications of carebots neglect a critical dimension of the issue: namely, the potential moral value of caregiving practices for caregivers. This value, I argue, gives rise to considerations that must be weighed alongside consideration of the likely impact of carebots on care recipients. Focusing on the goods internal to caring practices, I then examine the potential impact of carebots on caregivers by means of three complementary ethical approaches: virtue ethics, care ethics, and the capabilities approach. Each of these, I argue, sheds new light on the contexts in which carebots might deprive potential caregivers of important moral goods central to caring practices, as well as those contexts in which carebots might help caregivers sustain or even enrich those practices, and their attendant goods.

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  1. The most well-known of these is the daVinci Surgical System manufactured and marketed by Intuitive Surgical, Inc., but others include Medsys’ LapMan and Titan Medical Inc.’s Amadeus.

  2. See Singer (2009) for an excellent discussion of emerging military robotics and their implications.

  3. Consider as examples iRobot’s popular Roomba, Friendly Robotics’ Robomower, Sony’s AIBO, and Meccano’s Spykee.

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  7. The only way to avoid this conclusion, beyond the one I suggest, is to presuppose a deontological framework, perhaps of a Kantian sort, that entails individual moral obligations to provide care and dictates that we may not employ indirect technological means of meeting these obligations. I am not optimistic, however, about the viability of such a claim.

  8. It is of course possible that caregivers might choose to share caring practices with robots rather than surrender them, as I will note. However, given the widespread acknowledgment of the burdens of giving care, we cannot discount the possibility that many potential caregivers will, once they trust the safety and skill of carebots, transfer significant caring duties to them.

  9. It is worth noting, with reference to our discussions of virtue above, that Noddings identifies engrossment with the capacity for empathy as “feeling with” (30).

  10. Noddings argues for a stronger view that caring relations are the first and ultimate source of our conception of the good (1984, 99). Even if this view is rejected as too strong (which I do not assert), the weaker claim that an appreciation of caring relations is essential to any adequate conception of the good has intuitive plausibility.


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Correspondence to Shannon Vallor.

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Vallor, S. Carebots and Caregivers: Sustaining the Ethical Ideal of Care in the Twenty-First Century. Philos. Technol. 24, 251 (2011).

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  • Carebots
  • Capabilities
  • Virtue ethics
  • Care ethics