When Should We Defer to Our Robot Superiors?


If the “moral enhancement” crowd are right, we could someday, perhaps soon, produce morally superior human beings. But then we could also, perhaps more easily, produce morally superior robots. All we’d need is a robot with phenomenal consciousness, on the presumption that only an entity that has experiences can have moral status. But if robots could have moral status, they could conceivably have a higher moral status than mere humans (see Douglas: Human Enhancement and Suprapersonal Moral Status on the claim that enhanced humans could have a higher moral status than the unenhanced.)

Would it ever be proper for a class or group of people to defer morally to another group? This has happened, though that’s hardly a full argument that it’s right. But, for example, in the “women and children first” paradigm, it’s thought that women and children might have some greater right to be saved than men (to be fair, this is one of those principles that was referenced far more than it was practiced.) Police officers, soldiers and fire fighters have, on occasion, knowingly sacrificed their lives for others, as though civilians had some greater right to protection, rescue or even life than those in these professions. Conversely, we give special privileges to soldiers, fire fighters and police officers: early seating on airplanes for soldiers, deference to firefighters and police officers on many matters of public safety and the right to enter buildings, speak to strangers, etc; thanking soldiers for their service; special deals on insurance and other discounts for all of these people; special life insurance benefits; line-jumping rights in certain circumstances, etc.

Historically, many have sacrificed themselves for their kings or leaders, assuming that the king, for example, had a higher moral status or greater right to protection or life than, say, a knight or warrior in his employ.

So there is at least some precedent for holding some group or set of people as having higher moral status. Is there any reason this could not apply to robots?

Imagine that we create robots that are sentient and sapient, and who have tremendous value; they’re smarter and more peaceful and more capable of resolving disputes without violence and to the mutual benefit of all involved. They are more empathetic, more capable of caring for others. They have no weakness of will. They are physical stronger, but use this strength with a Confucian wisdom, eschewing self-centeredness so as to have a clearer and more accurate understanding of any situation that calls for strength.

With a few other traits, it would be easy to argue that we should make these robots our leaders. Would we then, in the manner of the medieval knight giving his life for the king, be right in sacrificing ourselves for them, if the situation called for it? Would we be right in deferring to them on moral matters, taking them as moral authorities because of their tremendous processing capabilities combined with their ability to objectively assess situations, put their own interests second, and make fairer, more just and more equitable decisions? What about extending to the robots the kinds of deference we extend to first responders and soldiers? Or the deference we extend to experts, but in this case, taking them as moral decision-making experts? If the robots are so moral as to be self-sacrificing, then perhaps they deserve special treatment in the manner of soldiers and first responders, to compensate them for the pleasures they lose in exposing themselves to danger and death on our behalf?

Or what if they have a moral status that is as much greater than ours than ours is to, say, non-human animals (for those who hold that humans do have such a moral status.) If it is possible for a human to have higher moral status than an ape, then it seems possible that another being could be so much smarter, wiser, more capable of kindness, or even more inherently valuable than a human. Just as it might be right to assign higher moral status to a god or God, maybe one day we could do that to a robot. How then should we treat our robot superiors?

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