Moral zombies: why algorithms are not moral agents

AI and Society:1-11 (forthcoming)

Abstract

In philosophy of mind, zombies are imaginary creatures that are exact physical duplicates of conscious subjects but for whom there is no first-personal experience. Zombies are meant to show that physicalism—the theory that the universe is made up entirely out of physical components—is false. In this paper, I apply the zombie thought experiment to the realm of morality to assess whether moral agency is something independent from sentience. Algorithms, I argue, are a kind of functional moral zombie, such that thinking about the latter can help us better understand and regulate the former. I contend that the main reason why algorithms can be neither autonomous nor accountable is that they lack sentience. Moral zombies and algorithms are incoherent as moral agents because they lack the necessary moral understanding to be morally responsible. To understand what it means to inflict pain on someone, it is necessary to have experiential knowledge of pain. At most, for an algorithm that feels nothing, ‘values’ will be items on a list, possibly prioritised in a certain way according to a number that represents weightiness. But entities that do not feel cannot value, and beings that do not value cannot act for moral reasons.

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