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Empathic responses and moral status for social robots: an argument in favor of robot patienthood based on K. E. Logstrup

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Empirical research on human-robot interaction (HRI) has demonstrated how humans tend to react to social robots with empathic responses and moral behavior. How should we ethically evaluate such responses to robots? Are people wrong to treat non-sentient artefacts as moral patients since this rests on anthropomorphism and 'over-identification' (Bryson and Kime, Proc Twenty-Second Int Jt Conf Artif Intell Barc Catalonia Spain 16-22:1641-1646, 2011)-or correct since spontaneous moral intuition and behavior toward nonhumans is indicative for moral patienthood, such that social robots become our 'Others' (Gunkel, Robot rights, MIT Press, London, 2018; Coeckelbergh, Kairos J Philos Sci 20:141-158, 2018)?. In this research paper, I weave extant HRI studies that demonstrate empathic responses toward robots with the recent debate on moral status for robots, on which the ethical evaluation of moral behavior toward them is dependent. Patienthood for robots has standardly been thought to obtain on some intrinsic ground, such as being sentient, conscious, or having interest. But since these attempts neglect moral experience and are curbed by epistemic difficulties, I take inspiration from Coeckelbergh and Gunkel's 'relational approach' to explore an alternative way of accounting for robot patienthood based on extrinsic premises. Based on the ethics of Danish theologian K. E. Logstrup (1905-1981) I argue that empathic responses can be interpreted as sovereign expressions of life and that these expressions benefit human subjects-even if they emerge from social interaction afforded by robots we have anthropomorphized. I ultimately develop an argument in defense of treating robots as moral patients.

Original languageEnglish
JournalAI & Society: Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Communication
Pages (from-to)535-548
Number of pages14
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2022

    Research areas

  • Empathy, Ethics, K. E. Løgstrup, Moral status, Patienthood, Social robots, K. E. Logstrup, USERS, ETHICS

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