Rethinking Robot Rights: A Confucian Approach


As we venture deeper into the world of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), the debate around the moral and legal status of robots has been gaining momentum. Recent philosophical and legal investigations have broached the possibility of granting robots rights. However, a fresh analysis presented by a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) calls for an alternate perspective, borrowing concepts from the ancient Chinese philosophy of Confucianism.

Robots as Rites Bearers: A New Perspective

Tae Wan Kim, an Associate Professor of Business Ethics at CMU, recently conducted a study that was published in Communications of the ACM by the Association for Computing Machinery. “People are worried about the risks of granting rights to robots,” Kim observes, capturing a prevalent sentiment in the scientific community. However, he proposes a unique alternative – viewing robots as rites bearers instead of rights bearers. This shift could fundamentally change the way we approach the ethical dimensions of our interactions with robots, fostering a sense of mutual respect and cooperation.

Applying Confucian Values to Robotics

Confucianism, as a philosophical system, prioritizes harmony in societal relationships, favoring communal interests over individual self-interest. Kim suggests that we might borrow these principles in our approach to robotics, assigning rites or ‘role obligations’ to robots rather than rights. This perspective can mitigate the inherent adversarial nature of rights, thus reducing potential conflicts between humans and robots.

Kim elaborates on this concept: “Assigning role obligations to robots encourages teamwork, which triggers an understanding that fulfilling those obligations should be done harmoniously.” This approach seeks to engender a culture of collaboration and respect between humans and robots, a fitting aspiration considering AI’s foundational goal to emulate human intelligence, including our ability to recognize and participate in team activities.

The essence of AI, as Kim puts it, is to “imitate human intelligence, so for robots to develop as rites bearers, they must be powered by a type of AI that can imitate humans’ capacity to recognize and execute team activities.” This proposition reframes the narrative around AI, calling for a type of machine learning that’s not only technologically sophisticated but also ethically considerate.

The Reflection of Humanity in Robots

The proposal to treat robots with respect raises an important question – why should inanimate machines warrant respectful treatment? Kim posits that our interaction with robots is a mirror reflecting our own humanity. “To the extent that we make robots in our image, if we don’t treat them well, as entities capable of participating in rites, we degrade ourselves,” Kim warns, reminding us that the dignity we extend to robots essentially reflects our self-worth.

Kim’s intriguing analysis provides a fresh perspective on the ongoing discourse concerning robot rights. His suggestion to borrow from Confucian values when considering the ethical treatment of robots broadens the moral horizon and presents a nuanced understanding of our relationship with artificial entities. This approach nudges us to rethink our relationship with robots, inspiring us to ensure that our advancements in technology are complemented by corresponding progress in our ethical frameworks. Just as we extend moral and legal considerations to non-human entities like corporations and animals, we may need to develop a sophisticated ethical system to govern our relationship with robots, one that ensures harmonious co-existence and mutual respect.

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