Robots and responsibility

[Another excerpt from Reality (a primer)]

What worries many people about being told that the mind isn’t distinct from the body is what that might mean for human freedom and responsibility. If I create a robot that comes over and stomps through your garden, no one holds the robot responsible. It is just doing what it was programmed to do, and could not have done otherwise. But if the mind isn’t distinct from the body, and if our bodies are “programmed” by genetics, laws of nature, and biology to do what they do, then we are the same as robots. Out the window goes any freedom to do otherwise, and with it any tolerable notion of moral responsibility.

That would be terrible. But it’s being terrible doesn’t mean it isn’t so. Maybe we are totally determined, and what we do is determined by physical laws – just like everything else in the universe. Maybe our notions of freedom and moral responsibility are mere illusions, holdovers from times when we didn’t know as much about the world and ourselves as we do now. Maybe even one might say we need to hold on to these illusions, since so much of our lives are based upon them. But that being so would not make them any less illusory. This is a hard-line stance to take, and so it’s been called “hard determinism.”

Alternatively, one might wonder if “freedom” is really something other than being able to do otherwise than we what we actually do. The concept of freedom, like any important concept, is complicated. Part of it has to do with “wiggle room,” or a capacity to do this or that. But another part of it has to do with being in control of one’s actions. To see this, imagine driving a car that has a built-in capacity to drive itself. Suppose I decide to drive to the store to buy groceries….


Nibroc-Rock’s Project 17 unknown Death Egg Robot (from

You know what? That’s boring. Let’s ramp it up a bit. Suppose you and I create a giant death robot. I’m planning to get in the driver’s seat and take it over to crush a nearby city. You’re worried that I might chicken out at the last minute and take pity on the helpless, screaming citizens, so you program the robot to take control of itself and do the job if I start showing any signs of mercy. As it happens, you were wrong about me, and I gleefully drive the robot over to the city and smash it to smithereens, laughing like a maniac all the while. All of us would hold me responsible for such an incredibly evil (though admittedly spectacular) course of action. I wanted to do it, and I did it. But at the same time: I could not have done otherwise. Had I faltered, the robot would have taken control of its actions, and the same thing would have happened. Again: I am responsible for what I did, even though I could not have done otherwise. My actions were in this sense free.

It is an outrageous example, but it highlights a different aspect of freedom. Freedom is not just being able to do otherwise, but the capacity to act on our own desires. If I want to do something, and I have the power to do it and nothing stops me, and I do it – then I do it freely. Note that nothing need be said about being able to do otherwise.

This component of freedom is compatible with determinism (and so this view of freedom is called “compatibilism,” or sometimes “soft determinism”). If we go back to the garden-stomping robot, one change would make us consider the robot responsible for what it does: the addition of the robot’s own desires. If the robot desires to go around stomping through gardens, and does so, then we would hold it responsible for what it does. I suppose we might have to stipulate that the robots desires are its own desires, and not ones that have merely been programmed into it. Otherwise, it would once again be the programmer who is to blame.

Now this raises another set of questions. Are we responsible for the desires we end up with? Do we choose them? Do we choose them freely? Or are our desires programmed into us through society, genetics, and psychology? When do we say, “That desire is yours; you own it; you are responsible for it” instead of saying, “You were brainwashed”? My desire to help my neighbor, or to stomp through her garden, seems different from a drug-addict’s desire for more drugs, or a kleptomaniac’s desire to shoplift. The desires are mine, as opposed to ones I am somehow stuck with. Is there some way to make sense of this difference?

Some philosophers have argued that the difference depends on how sensitive these desires are to the circumstances. My desire to help my neighbor is very sensitive to who my neighbor is, our history, what she likes or would like, what my other plans are, and so on. Altering these circumstances would change whether I act on my desire, or even whether I have the desire at all. But an addict’s desires aren’t that sensitive to changes in the environment. It doesn’t matter who owns the drugs, or what I have to do to get them, or what my other plans are; I am still compelled to act on that desire. I am at the mercy of it. But does this simply take us back to – I can’t do otherwise than act on it? If so, then we are left wondering once again whether anyone can do otherwise in a deterministic universe.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
This entry was posted in Machines / gadgets / technology / games, Metaphysical musings. Bookmark the permalink.

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