Skip to main content


Log in

Human Goals Are Constitutive of Agency in Artificial Intelligence (AI)

  • Research Article
  • Published:
Philosophy & Technology Aims and scope Submit manuscript


The question whether AI systems have agency is gaining increasing importance in discussions of responsibility for AI behavior. This paper argues that an approach to artificial agency needs to be teleological, and consider the role of human goals in particular if it is to adequately address the issue of responsibility. I will defend the view that while AI systems can be viewed as autonomous in the sense of identifying or pursuing goals, they rely on human goals and other values incorporated into their design, and are, as such, dependent on human agents. As a consequence, AI systems cannot be held morally responsible, and responsibility attributions should take into account normative and social aspects involved in the design and deployment of the said AI. My argument falls in line with approaches critical of attributing moral agency to artificial agents, but draws from the philosophy of action, highlighting further philosophical underpinnings of current debates on artificial agency.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. See Burr and Morley (2020) for a discussion of digital health technologies along the lines of the software mentioned.

  2. For sense (1), see Brooks (1991), for sense (2) Beer (1995); Nolfi and Floreano (2000).

  3. See Tan and Lim (2018) for a review of current advances in AI, including machine learning.

  4. This is a view held by Bryson and Kime (2011), in whose account the responsibility for AI systems should rest with the developer. While moral responsibility is not my main focus here, my view looks at human goals more broadly (including, for instance, the possibility of deliberation, or the involvement of institutions).

  5. Another example would be certain human actions as well, like skilled action (see Clark 2010). I will not discuss this here.

  6. For other debates on moral agency and artifacts more broadly, see Illies and Meijers (2009) and Peterson and Spahn (2011). For an expansion of Johnson’s (2006) critique, also see Johnson and Miller (2008).

  7. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for bringing this problem to my attention.

  8. This also helps set apart AI systems from other artifacts; see van de Poel (2020a: 399–400) for a comparison.

  9. See D’Oro and Sandis (2013) for a historical overview.

  10. Though I should note that they would not count as absolute presuppositions, which in Collingwood’s view do not have truth values. Rather, I take the falsity of these assumptions to lead to a worse account of AI behavior than approaches relying on different assumptions.

  11. See Cardoso et al. (2020) on autonomy and the Curiosity rover.

  12. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for this point.

  13. Also see Elliott (2017) for a discussion of transparency about values in a general philosophy of science context.

  14. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for raising this point.


  • Anscombe, G. E. M. (1957). Intention. Basil Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  • Asilomar AI Principles (2017). Principles developed in conjunction with the 2017 Asilomar conference [Benevolent AI 2017],

  • Barandiaran, X. E., Di Paolo, E., & Rohde, M. (2009). Defining agency: Individuality, normativity, asymmetry, and spatio-temporality in action. Adaptive Behavior, 17(5), 367–386.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bedau, M. (1992). Goal-directed systems and the good. The Monist, 75, 34–49.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Beer, R. D. (1995). A dynamical systems perspective on agent-environment interaction. Artificial Intelligence, 72(1–2), 173–215.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Behdadi, D., & Munthe, C. (2020). A normative approach to artificial moral agency. Minds & Machines, 30, 195–218.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Brooks, R.A. (1991). Intelligence without reason. In J. Myopoulos & R. Reiter (Eds.), Proceedings of the 12th International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (pp. 569–595). San Mateo: Morgan Kaufmann.

  • Bryson, J. J., & Kime, P. P. (2011). Just an artifact: Why machines are perceived as moral agents. In Twenty-second international joint conference on artificial intelligence.

  • Burr, C., & Morley, J. (2020). Empowerment or engagement? Digital health technologies for mental healthcare. In The 2019 Yearbook of the Digital Ethics Lab (pp. 67–88). Springer, Cham.

  • Cardoso, R. C., Farrell, M., Luckcuck, M., Ferrando, A., & Fisher, M. (2020). Heterogeneous verification of an autonomous Curiosity rover. In NASA Formal Methods Symposium (pp. 353–360). Springer, Cham.

  • Clark, R. (2010). Skilled activity and the causal theory of action. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 80(3), 523–555.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Collingwood, R. G. (2001). An essay on metaphysics. Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Davidson, D. (1963). Actions, reasons, and causes. The Journal of Philosophy, 60(23), 685–700.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • de Miranda, L. (2020). Artificial intelligence and philosophical creativity: From analytics to crealectics. Human Affairs, 30(4), 597–607.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dennett, D. C. (1987). The Intentional Stance. MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dennett, D. C. (1988). Précis of the intentional stance. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 11(3), 495–505.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dignum, V. (2017). Responsible autonomy. In Proceedings of the Twenty-Sixth International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (IJCAI’2017), pp. 4698–4704.

  • D’Oro, G., & Sandis, C. (2013). From anti-causalism to causalism and back: A century of the reasons/causes debate. Reasons and Causes: Causalism and Non-causalism in the Philosophy of Action, 1–47.

  • Elliott, K. C. (2017). A tapestry of values: An introduction to values in science. Oxford University Press.

  • Ezenkwu, C. P., & Starkey, A. (2019). Machine autonomy: Definition, approaches, challenges and research gaps. In Intelligent Computing-Proceedings of the Computing Conference (pp. 335–358). Springer, Cham.

  • Floridi, L., & Sanders, J. W. (2004). On the morality of artificial agents. Minds and Machines, 14(3), 349–379.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Floridi, L. (2008). The method of levels of abstraction. Minds and Machines, 18(3), 303–329.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Friedman, B., Kahn, P., & Borning, A. (2006). Value sensitive design and information systems. Advances in Management Information Systems, 6, 348–372.

    Google Scholar 

  • Froese, T., Virgo, N., & Izquierdo, E. (2007). Autonomy: A review and a reappraisal. In European Conference on Artificial Life (pp. 455–464). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

  • Gabriel, I. (2020). Artificial intelligence, values, and alignment. Minds & Machines, 30, 411–437.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Grodzinsky, F. S., Miller, K. W., & Wolf, M. J. (2008). The ethics of designing artificial agents. Ethics and Information Technology, 10(2–3), 115–121.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gunkel, D. J. (2012). The machine question: Critical perspectives on AI, robots, and ethics. MIT Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Hacker, P. M. S. (2019). Wittgenstein: Meaning and mind (Volume 3 of an Analytical Commentary on the Philosophical Investigations), Part 1: Essays. John Wiley & Sons.

  • Hanfling, O. (2003). Wittgenstein and the human form of life. Routledge.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Illies, C., & Meijers, A. (2009). Artefacts without agency. The Monist, 92(3), 420–440.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Johansson, L. (2010). The functional morality of robots. International Journal of Technoethics, 1(4), 65–73.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Johnson, D. (2006). Computer systems: Moral entities but not moral agents. Ethics and Information Technology, 8(4), 195–204.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Johnson, D. G., & Miller, K. W. (2008). Un-making artificial moral agents. Ethics and Information Technology, 10(2–3), 123–133.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Johnson, D. G., & Verdicchio, M. (2017). Reframing AI discourse. Minds and Machines, 27(4), 575–590.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Johnson, D. G., & Verdicchio, M. (2018). Why robots should not be treated like animals. Ethics and Information Technology, 20(4), 291–301.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Johnson, D. G., & Verdicchio, M. (2019). AI, agency and responsibility: The VW fraud case and beyond. Ai & Society, 34(3), 639–647.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kitcher, P. (2011a). Science in a democratic society. Prometheus Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kitcher, P. (2011b). The ethical project. Harvard University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Matthias, A. (2004). The responsibility gap: Ascribing responsibility for the actions of learning automata. Ethics and Information Technology, 6(3), 175–183.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Maturana, H.R., & Varela, F.J. (1980). Autopoiesis and cognition: The realization of the living. Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science, 42. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.

  • Nolfi, S., & Floreano, D. (2000). Evolutionary robotics: The biology, intelligence, and technology of self-organizing machines. MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Papineau, D. (2020). Naturalism, The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

  • Peterson, M., & Spahn, A. (2011). Can technological artefacts be moral agents? Science and Engineering Ethics, 17(3), 411–424.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Popa, E. (2020). Artificial life and ‘nature’s purposes’: The question of behavioral autonomy. Human Affairs, 30(4), 587–596.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schlosser, M. (2019), “Agency”, The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (Winter 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

  • Schumann, G. (Ed.). (2019). Explanation in action theory and historiography: Causal and teleological approaches. Routledge.

  • Sehon, S. (2010). Teleological explanation. A companion to the philosophy of action. Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tan, K. H., & Lim, B. P. (2018). The artificial intelligence renaissance: Deep learning and the road to human-level machine intelligence. APSIPA Transactions on Signal and Information Processing, 7.

  • Tigard, D. W. (2020). There is no techno-responsibility gap. Philosophy & Technology, 1–19.

  • van de Poel, I. (2020a). Embedding values in artificial intelligence (AI) systems. Minds and Machines, 30(3), 385–409.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • van de Poel, I. (2020b). Three philosophical perspectives on the relation between technology and society, and how they affect the current debate about artificial intelligence. Human Affairs, 30(4), 499–511.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • van den Hoven, J. (2005). Design for values and values for design. Information Age, 4, 4–7.

    Google Scholar 

  • Von Wright, G. H. (1971). Explanation and understanding. Routledge & Kegan Paul.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wiener, N. (1960). Some moral and technical consequences of automation. Science, 131, 1355–1358.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wittgenstein, L. (1958). The blue and brown books. Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wittgenstein, L. (2009). Philosophical investigations, 4th edition, P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte (eds. and trans.), Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Download references


I would like to thank Daniel Kodaj, Gunnar Schumann, László Bernáth, and the anonymous referees for their feedback, which has helped improve this article. This paper has been presented at the seminar “New Work on the Metaphysics of Teleology”, held at Central European University.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Elena Popa.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Popa, E. Human Goals Are Constitutive of Agency in Artificial Intelligence (AI). Philos. Technol. 34, 1731–1750 (2021).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: