Virtue and vice in our relationships with robots: is there an asymmetry and how might it be explained?

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In previous work, drawing on virtue ethics, I have argued that we may demonstrate morally significant vices in our treatment of robots. Even if an agent’s “cruel” treatment of a robot has no implications for their future behaviour towards people or animals, I believe that it may reveal something about their character, which in turn gives us reason to criticise their actions. Viciousness towards robots is real viciousness. However, I don’t have the same intuition about virtuous behaviour. That is to say, I see no reason to think that “kind” treatment of a robot reflects well on an agent’s character nor do I have any inclination to praise it. At first sight, at least, this is puzzling: if we should morally evaluate some of our relationships with robots why not all of them? In this paper, I argue that these conflicting intuitions may be reconciled by drawing on further claims about the nature of virtue and vice and the moral significance of self-deception. Neglecting the moral reality of the targets of our actions is little barrier to vice and may sometimes be characteristic of it. However, virtue requires an exercise of practical wisdom that may be vitiated by failure to attend to the distinction between representation and reality. Thus, while enjoying representations of unethical behaviour is unethical, acting out fantasies of good behaviour with robots is, at best morally neutral. Only in the rare circumstance where someone might be forgiven for mistaking a robot for a real animal or person may spontaneous responses to robots be virtuous.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)23-29
Number of pages7
JournalInternational Journal of Social Robotics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2021


  • Ethics
  • HRI
  • Robotics
  • Vice
  • Virtue

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