Josh Gellers


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Reading the ethicists: A review of articles on AI in the journal Science and Engineering Ethics

Thanks for taking the time to look through my book. It's an important first step to having a fair dialogue about tricky issues. I'll say from the outset that I initially sought to answer two questions in my book- (1) could robots have rights (I showed that this could easily be the case in terms of legal rights, which is already happening in the US in the form of pedestrian rights for personal delivery devices); and (2) should robots have rights (here I also answered in the affirmative by taking a broad view of the insights provided by the Anthropocene, New Materialism, and critical environmental law). As to your points, see my responses below.

  1. I disagree. In fact, some of the most vocal opponents of robot rights, like Joanna Bryson, argue that if we have robots worthy of rights, we will have designed them injustly. Her point is that if we figure out the rights question, it can help us to avoid designing robots that might qualify for rights. My position on this is that roboticists are going to do what they want (unless the government stops them), so we are headed for maximally human-like robots (see: Ishiguro and Hanson).
  2. I can sort of see where you're going with this, but I might say I agree in part and disagree in part. I agree that designers will not stop at useful personal assistants, but I don't see how robots that eventually advocate for themselves will nullify the usefulness of rights. Keep in mind that rights are a two-way street; they require responsibilities as well. If for some reason robots take it upon themselves to seize what they want, that might only strengthen the need for new human rights and perhaps responsibilities on behalf of the companies creating these machines. It will still be important (perhaps more so) for society to determine what kind of moral status autonomous systems might warrant.
  3. I appreciate the positive feedback. However, I would say that the cognitivist approach to moral status is a dead end. David Gunkel, whose terrific book Robot Rights inspired my own, discusses the objections to such a properties-based approach to moral status in a forthcoming chapter in an edited volume. Basically, there are a lot of problems, but perhaps the most important is the "problem of other minds" in philosophy, which says we can never really know what is going on in another entity's mind (see Nagel's iconic article, "What is it like to be a bat?").

Thanks again for your comments and I am grateful for your willingness to engage.

Reading the ethicists: A review of articles on AI in the journal Science and Engineering Ethics

I'm curious what you would think about my actual book, not just the review of it! As a political scientist who has spent a decade working on environmental rights, I come at the issue of robot rights from arguably a more interdisciplinary perspective.  You can download the book for free here:

Key questions about artificial sentience: an opinionated guide

Thanks for this thorough post. What you have described is known as the “properties-based” approach to moral status. In addition to sentience, others have argued that it’s intelligence, rationality, consciousness, and other traits that need to be present in order for an entity to be worthy of moral concern. But as I have argued in my 2020 book, Rights for Robots: Artificial Intelligence, Animal and Environmental Law (Routledge), this is a Sisyphean task. Philosophers don’t (and may never) agree about which of these properties is necessary. We need a different approach altogether in order to figure out what obligations we might have towards non-humans like AI. Scholars like David Gunkel, Mark Coeckelbergh, and myself have advocated for a relations-based approach, which we argue is more informed by how humans and others interact with and relate to each other. We maintain that this is a more realistic, accurate, and less controversial way of assessing moral status.