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Tuesday, June 29, 2021

What Matters for Moral Status: Behavioural or Cognitive Equivalence?

John Danaher
Cambridge Quarterly Review of Healthcare Ethics
2021 Jul;30(3):472-478.


Henry Shevlin’s paper—“How could we know when a robot was a moral patient?” – argues that we should recognize robots and artificial intelligence (AI) as psychological moral patients if they are cognitively equivalent to other beings that we already recognize as psychological moral patients (i.e., humans and, at least some, animals). In defending this cognitive equivalence strategy, Shevlin draws inspiration from the “behavioral equivalence” strategy that I have defended in previous work but argues that it is flawed in crucial respects. Unfortunately—and I guess this is hardly surprising—I cannot bring myself to agree that the cognitive equivalence strategy is the superior one. In this article, I try to explain why in three steps. First, I clarify the nature of the question that I take both myself and Shevlin to be answering. Second, I clear up some potential confusions about the behavioral equivalence strategy, addressing some other recent criticisms of it. Third, I will explain why I still favor the behavioral equivalence strategy over the cognitive equivalence one.


The second problem is more fundamental and may get to the heart of the disagreement between myself and Shevlin. The problem is that Shevlin seems to think that behavioural evidence and cognitive evidence are separable. I do not think that they are. After all, cognitive architectures do not speak for themselves. They speak through behaviour. The human cognitive architecture, for example, is not that differentiated at a biological level, particularly at the cortical level. You would be hard pressed to work out the cognitive function of different brain regions just by staring at MRI scans and microscopic slices of neural tissue. You need behavioural evidence to tell you what the cognitive architecture does.  This is what has happened repeatedly in the history of neuro- and cognitive science. So, for example, we find that people with damage to particular regions of the brain exhibit some odd behaviours (lack of long term memory formation; irritability and impulsiveness; language deficits; and so on). We then use this behavioural evidence to build up a functional map of the cognitive architecture. If the map is detailed enough, someone might be able to infer certain psychological or mental states from patterns of activity in the cognitive architecture, but this is only because we first used behaviour to build up the functional map.