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A Vindication of the Rights of Machines

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Abstract

This essay responds to the machine question in the affirmative, arguing that artifacts, like robots, AI, and other autonomous systems, can no longer be legitimately excluded from moral consideration. The demonstration of this thesis proceeds in four parts or movements. The first and second parts approach the subject by investigating the two constitutive components of the ethical relationship—moral agency and patiency. In the process, they each demonstrate failure. This occurs not because the machine is somehow unable to achieve what is considered necessary and sufficient to be a moral agent or patient but because the characterization of agency and patiency already fail to accommodate others. The third and fourth parts respond to this problem by considering two recent alternatives—the all-encompassing ontocentric approach of Luciano Floridi’s information ethics and Emmanuel Levinas’s eccentric ethics of otherness. Both alternatives, despite considerable promise to reconfigure the scope of moral thinking by addressing previously excluded others, like the machine, also fail but for other reasons. Consequently, the essay concludes not by accommodating the alterity of the machine to the requirements of moral philosophy but by questioning the systemic limitations of moral reasoning, requiring not just an extension of rights to machines, but a thorough examination of the way moral standing has been configured in the first place.

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Notes

  1. What is presented here in the form of a “vindication discourse” is an abbreviated version of an argument that is developed in greater detail and analytical depth in Gunkel (2012).

  2. Attempts to resolve this problem often take the form of a pseudo-science called physiognomy, which endeavors to infer an entity’s internal states of mind from the observation of its external expressions and behavior.

  3. Although it could be argued that Being is so general a criterion that it must escape this criticism, the fact of the matter is that Being is a concern of and for a particular being. In fact, Heidegger (1962, 32) famously defined the human being as that entity for whom Being is an issue: “Dasein is ontically distinctive in that it is ontological.” Understood in this way, it is possible to conclude that IE is just another form of anthropocentric ethics insofar as its ontocentric focus is the defining condition of human Dasein.

  4. This analytic moniker is something that is not ever used by Levinas, who is arguably the most influential moral thinker in the continental tradition. The term, however, has been employed by a number of Levinas’s Anglophone interpreters.

  5. Employing the term “deconstruction” in this particular context is somewhat problematic. This is because deconstruction does not necessarily sit well with Levinas’s own work. Levinas, both personally and intellectually, had a rather complex relationship with Jacques Derrida, the main proponent of what is often mislabeled “deconstructivism,” and an even more complicated, if not contentious one with Martin Heidegger, the thinker who Derrida credits with having first introduced the concept and practice.

  6. In stating this, we immediately run up against and need to confront the so-called problem of relativism—“the claim that no universally valid beliefs or values exist” (Ess 1996, 204). Although a complete response to this problem lies outside the scope of this particular essay, we should, at this point at least, recognize that “relativism” is not necessarily a pejorative term. For more on this issue see Scott (1967), Žižek (2006), and Gunkel (2012).

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Correspondence to David J. Gunkel.

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Gunkel, D.J. A Vindication of the Rights of Machines. Philos. Technol. 27, 113–132 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13347-013-0121-z

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