Robots and human dignity: a consideration of the effects of robot care on the dignity of older people

Ethics and Information Technology 16 (1):63-75 (2014)
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This paper explores the relationship between dignity and robot care for older people. It highlights the disquiet that is often expressed about failures to maintain the dignity of vulnerable older people, but points out some of the contradictory uses of the word ‘dignity’. Certain authors have resolved these contradictions by identifying different senses of dignity; contrasting the inviolable dignity inherent in human life to other forms of dignity which can be present to varying degrees. The Capability Approach (CA) is introduced as a different but tangible account of what it means to live a life worthy of human dignity. It is used here as a framework for the assessment of the possible effects of eldercare robots on human dignity. The CA enables the identification of circumstances in which robots could enhance dignity by expanding the set of capabilities that are accessible to frail older people. At the same time, it is also possible within its framework to identify ways in which robots could have a negative impact, by impeding the access of older people to essential capabilities. It is concluded that the CA has some advantages over other accounts of dignity, but that further work and empirical study is needed in order to adapt it to the particular circumstances and concerns of those in the latter part of their lives.

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Amanda Jane Caroline Sharkey
University of Sheffield