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Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Artificial Intelligence, Humanistic Ethics

John Tasioulas
AI & Society
Spring 2022


Ethics is concerned with what it is to live a flourishing life and what it is we morally owe to others. The optimizing mindset prevalent among computer scientists and economists, among other powerful actors, has led to an approach focused on maximizing the fulfillment of human preferences, an approach that has acquired considerable influence in the ethics of AI. But this preference-based utilitarianism is open to serious objections. This essay sketches an alternative, “humanistic” ethics for AI that is sensitive to aspects of human engagement with the ethical often missed by the dominant approach. Three elements of this humanistic approach are outlined: its commitment to a plurality of values, its stress on the importance of the procedures we adopt, not just the outcomes they yield, and the centrality it accords to individual and collective participation in our understanding of human well-being and morality. The essay concludes with thoughts on how the prospect of artificial general intelligence bears on this humanistic outlook.


I have mainly focused on narrow AI, conceived as AI-powered technology that can perform limited tasks (such as facial recognition or medical diagnosis) that typically require intelligence when performed by humans. This is partly because serious doubt surrounds the likelihood of artificial general intelligence emerging within any realistically foreseeable time frame, partly because the operative notion of “intelligence” in discussions of AGI (artificial general intelligence) is problematic, and partly because a focus on AGI often distracts us from the more immediate questions of narrow AI.

With these caveats in place, however, one can admit that thought experiments about AGI can help bring into focus two questions fundamental to any humanistic ethic: What is the ultimate source of human dignity, understood as the inherent value attaching to each and every human being? And how can we relate human dignity to the value inhering in nonhuman beings? Toward the end of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Klara and the Sun, the eponymous narrator, an “Artificial Friend,” speculates that human dignity–the “human heart” that “makes each of us special and individual”–has its source not in something within us, but in the love of others for us. But a threat of circularity looms for this boot-strapping humanism, for how can the love of others endow us with value unless those others already have value? Moreover, if the source of human dignity is contingent on the varying attitudes of others, how can it apply equally to every human being? Are the unloved bereft of the “human heart”?