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Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Tragic Choices and the Virtue of Techno-Responsibility Gaps

John Danaher
Philosophy and Technology 
35 (2):1-26 (2022)


There is a concern that the widespread deployment of autonomous machines will open up a number of ‘responsibility gaps’ throughout society. Various articulations of such techno-responsibility gaps have been proposed over the years, along with several potential solutions. Most of these solutions focus on ‘plugging’ or ‘dissolving’ the gaps. This paper offers an alternative perspective. It argues that techno-responsibility gaps are, sometimes, to be welcomed and that one of the advantages of autonomous machines is that they enable us to embrace certain kinds of responsibility gap. The argument is based on the idea that human morality is often tragic. We frequently confront situations in which competing moral considerations pull in different directions and it is impossible to perfectly balance these considerations. This heightens the burden of responsibility associated with our choices. We cope with the tragedy of moral choice in different ways. Sometimes we delude ourselves into thinking the choices we make were not tragic ; sometimes we delegate the tragic choice to others ; sometimes we make the choice ourselves and bear the psychological consequences. Each of these strategies has its benefits and costs. One potential advantage of autonomous machines is that they enable a reduced cost form of delegation. However, we only gain the advantage of this reduced cost if we accept that some techno-responsibility gaps are virtuous.


In summary, in this article I have defended an alternative perspective on techno-responsibility gaps. Although the prevailing wisdom seems to be against such gaps, and the policy proposals tend to try to find ways to plug or dissolve such gaps, I have argued that there may be reasons to welcome them. Tragic choices — moral conflicts that leave ineliminable moral remainders — are endemic in human life and there is no easy way to deal with them. We tend to cycle between different responses: illusionism, delegation and responsibilisation. Each of these responses has its own mix of benefits and costs. None of them is perfect. That said, one potential advantage of advanced autonomous machines is that they enable a form of delegation with reduced moral and psychological costs. Thus they can shift the balance of strategies in favour of delegation and away from responsibilisation. This is only true, however, if we embrace the resultant techno-responsibility gaps. I am fully aware that this position goes against the grain and is contrary to emerging law and policy on autonomous systems. I offer it as a moderate corrective to the current consensus.  Responsibility gaps are not always a bad thing. Delegation to machines, particularly in the case of difficult tragic choices, might sometimes be a good thing.