drupal statistics module

Machines Like Us

Moral machines – thinking otherwise

Sunday, 02 September 2012
by Peter Hankins

David Gunkel of NIU has produced a formidable new book on the question of whether machines should now be admitted to the community of moral beings.

He lets us know what his underlying attitudes are when he mentions by way of introduction that he thought of calling the book A Vindication of the Rights of Machines, in imitation of Mary Wollstonecraft. Historically Gunkel sees the context as one in which a prolonged struggle has gradually extended the recognised moral domain from being the exclusive territory of rich white men to the poor, people of colour, women and now tentatively perhaps even certain charismatic animals (I think it overstates the case a bit to claim that ancient societies excluded women, for example, from the moral realm altogether: weren’t women like Eve and Pandora blamed for moral failings, while Lucretia and Griselda were held up as fine examples of moral behaviour—admittedly of a rather grimly self-subordinating kind? But perhaps I quibble.) Given this background the eventual admission of machines to the moral community seems all but inevitable; but in fact Gunkel steps back and lowers his trumpet. His more modest aim, he says, is like Socrates simply to help people ask better questions. No-one who has read any Plato believes that Socrates didn’t have his answers ready before the inquiry started, so perhaps this is a sly acknowledgement that Gunkel too, thinks he really knows where this is all going.

For once we’re not dealing here with the Anglo-Saxon tradition of philosophy. Gunkel may be physically in Illinois, but intellectually he is in the European Continental tradition, and what he proposes is a Derrida-influenced deconstruction. Deconstruction, as he concisely explains, is not destruction or analysis or debunking, but the removal from an issue of the construction applied heretofore. We can start by inverting the normal understanding, but then we look for the emergence of a new way of ‘thinking otherwise’ on the topic which escapes the traditional framing. Even the crustiest of Anglo-Saxons ought to be able to live with that as a modus operandi for an enquiry.

The book falls into three sections: in the first two Gunkel addresses moral agency, questions about the morality of what we do, and then moral patiency, about the morality of what is done to us. This is a sensible and useful division. Each section proceeds largely by reportage rather than argument, with Gunkel mainly telling us what others have said, followed by summaries which are not really summaries (it would actually be very difficult to summarise the multiple, complex points of view explored) but short discussions moving the argument on. The third and final section discusses a number of proposals for "thinking otherwise."

On agency, Gunkel sets out a more or less traditional view as a starting point and notes that identifying agents is tricky because of the problem of "other minds": we can never be sure whether some entity is acting with deliberate intention because we can never know the contents of another mind. He seems to me to miss a point here; the advent of the machines has actually transformed the position. It used to be possible to take it for granted that the problem of other minds was outside the scope of science, but the insights generated by AI research and our ever-increasing ability to look inside working brains with scanners mean that this is no longer the case. Science has not yet solved the problem, but the idea that we might soon be able to identify agents by objective empirical measurement no longer requires reckless optimism.