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Sunday, October 9, 2022

A Normative Approach to Artificial Moral Agency

Behdadi, D., Munthe, C.
Minds & Machines 30, 195–218 (2020).


This paper proposes a methodological redirection of the philosophical debate on artificial moral agency (AMA) in view of increasingly pressing practical needs due to technological development. This “normative approach” suggests abandoning theoretical discussions about what conditions may hold for moral agency and to what extent these may be met by artificial entities such as AI systems and robots. Instead, the debate should focus on how and to what extent such entities should be included in human practices normally assuming moral agency and responsibility of participants. The proposal is backed up by an analysis of the AMA debate, which is found to be overly caught in the opposition between so-called standard and functionalist conceptions of moral agency, conceptually confused and practically inert. Additionally, we outline some main themes of research in need of attention in light of the suggested normative approach to AMA.

Free will and Autonomy

Several AMA debaters have claimed that free will is necessary for being a moral agent (Himma 2009; Hellström 2012; Friedman and Kahn 1992). Others make a similar (and perhaps related) claim that autonomy is necessary (Lin et al. 2008; Schulzke 2013). In the AMA debate, some argue that artificial entities can never have free will (Bringsjord 1992; Shen 2011; Bringsjord 2007) while others, like James Moor (2006, 2009), are open to the possibility that future machines might acquire free will.Footnote15 Others (Powers 2006; Tonkens 2009) have proposed that the plausibility of a free will condition on moral agency may vary depending on what type of normative ethical theory is assumed, but they have not developed this idea further.

Despite appealing to the concept of free will, this portion of the AMA debate does not engage with key problems in the free will literature, such as the debate about compatibilism and incompatibilism (O’Connor 2016). Those in the AMA debate assume the existence of free will among humans, and ask whether artificial entities can satisfy a source control condition (McKenna et al. 2015). That is, the question is whether or not such entities can be the origins of their actions in a way that allows them to control what they do in the sense assumed of human moral agents.

An exception to this framing of the free will topic in the AMA debate occurs when Johnson writes that ‘… the non-deterministic character of human behavior makes it somewhat mysterious, but it is only because of this mysterious, non-deterministic aspect of moral agency that morality and accountability are coherent’ (Johnson 2006 p. 200). This is a line of reasoning that seems to assume an incompatibilist and libertarian sense of free will, assuming both that it is needed for moral agency and that humans do possess it. This, of course, makes the notion of human moral agents vulnerable to standard objections in the general free will debate (Shaw et al. 2019). Additionally, we note that Johnson’s idea about the presence of a ‘mysterious aspect’ of human moral agents might allow for AMA in the same way as Dreyfus and Hubert’s reference to the subconscious: artificial entities may be built to incorporate this aspect.

The question of sourcehood in the AMA debate connects to the independence argument: For instance, when it is claimed that machines are created for a purpose and therefore are nothing more than advanced tools (Powers 2006; Bryson 2010; Gladden 2016) or prosthetics (Johnson and Miller 2008), this is thought to imply that machines can never be the true or genuine source of their own actions. This argument questions whether the independence required for moral agency (by both functionalists and standardists) can be found in a machine. If a machine’s repertoire of behaviors and responses is the result of elaborate design then it is not independent, the argument goes. Floridi and Sanders question this proposal by referring to the complexity of ‘human programming’, such as genes and arranged environmental factors (e.g. education).