Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

Friday, April 13, 2018

On Rights and Robots

My colleague at Notre Dame, philosopher Don Howard, has posted this piece called "Whether Robots Deserve Human Rights Isn't the Correct Question.  Whether Humans Really Have Them Is."  He opens with this:

While advances in robotics and artificial intelligence are cause for celebration, they also raise an important question about our relationship to these silicon-steel, human-made friends: Should robots have rights?

A being that knows fear and joy, that remembers the past and looks forward to the future and that loves and feels pain is surely deserving of our embrace, regardless of accidents of composition and manufacture — and it may not be long before robots possess those capacities.

Yet, there are serious problems with the claim that conscious robots should have rights just as humans do, because it’s not clear that humans fundamentally have rights at all. The eminent moral philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, put it nicely in his 1981 book, "After Virtue": "There are no such things as rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and in unicorns."

It's not obvious to me that all "advances in robotics and artificial intelligence are cause for celebration" -- some are, certainly, but some might be more cause for concern -- but put that aside. I also agree (how could one not?) that "robots" do not possess or "deserve" "human rights."  They are, and will remain, machines.  The moral questions they present have to do with how they are used and not, say, with how they are treated by governments.

I understand, of course, the MacIntyre critique of "rights" and "rights talk", but think that taking just the "witches and unicorns" quote out of context gets both MacIntyre, and the facts of the matter, not-quite-right.  Contrary to Howard's report, "most people" do not believe "that rights are conferred upon people by the governments under which they live" and, with all due respect, it is simply a (mistaken) ipse dixit to state that "[t]here simply is no objective basis for [claims that human persons ought to be treated in certain ways, and not in others, by virtue of what human persons are and are for]."

Certainly, Howard is correct to remind us that our thinking and talking about morality is incomplete if it revolves entirely around "rights" and does not include attention to "virtues."  But, it seems to me (and I'm certain it seems to MacIntyre) that meaningful "virtue-talk" depends no less than meaningful "rights-talk" on there being certain things that are, objectively, true about persons.


Garnett, Rick | Permalink