Should Robots have rights

As rightly stated by Heidegger, technology is nothing but a means to an end. It is simply a tool which is employed by human users to serve their purpose and make life easier for them. The same has been clarified by Andrew Feenberg’s summarisation of this theory. The instrumentalist theory, as he defines it, primarily states that technology as a tool “is deemed ‘neutral,’ without valuative content of its own” simply because it is evaluated based on its functionality and usage to the human. Such AI systems aren’t agents but mere patients, who are given agency by the human users, as and when required.[1] Therefore, they cannot and should not have right. 

However, even if we were to go by the instrumentalist approach, it is necessary to realise that as the world is growing, such automated systems need increasing autonomy to fulfil certain complex tasks and goals, in order to serve the human user. Such “tools” exist and are called machines owing to their “self-sufficiency, independence, or self-reliance”. Owing to their growing intelligence, the draft proposal of May 2016 to the European Parliament called such machines “sophisticated autonomous robots”,[2] and it was argued that they must be provided with electronic personhood and, certain rights and obligations. In such a scenario calling such systems a mere tool seems inappropriate.

Further, recently social robotics have been developing exponentially. Therefore as Kate Darling states, it seems hard to justify differentiating between a social robot, such as a Pleo dinosaur toy, and a household appliance, such as a toaster. While toasters are designed to make toast, social robots are designed to act as our companions.”[3] Thereby, owing to the ethical, moral concerns and emotional capability of humans, we start wanting to treat these robots in an equal manner, like an actual person. Sometimes, not only as companions but also as romantic partners. The possibility of the same has been beautifully depicted in the movie ‘Her’. Humans do get emotionally attached to robots, wanting them to be their companion with equal rights, posing a threat to the premise of not granting any rights to the robot.

However, it then becomes relevant to understand that as Johnson says “No matter how independently, automatic, and interactive computer systems of the future behave, they will be the products (direct or indirect) of human behaviour, human social institutions, and human decision.” Moreover, as Joanna Bryson asserts, it is important to be mindful of the fact that technology and robots are created by humans and essentially exist to serve humans. She claims that denying this argument would be “unhealthy and inefficient.”[4] 

Therefore, if rights and complete autonomy is given to an AI powered robot, it would cause complete chaos as it may set its own goals, which may or may not be in conjunction with what the human being wants. Moreover, robots were created for growth, innovation and expansion of power for the country who owns that technology. Once rights are given to robots and they decide not to function in furtherance of such growth, it would hinder the anthropocentric goal of countries to attain more power. This would entirely negate the purpose of having robots in the first place, thereby being detrimental to humankind as a whole.[5]

However, as Darling argues “Given that many people already feel strongly about state-of-the-art social robot ‘abuse,’ it may soon become more widely perceived as out of line with our social values to treat robotic companions in a way that we would not treat our pets”.[6] Further, as machines and robots are becoming increasingly intelligent and complex with time, it is very likely for them to eventually create a version of themselves which has a conscience, sentiments, values and morals. In such a scenario, it is claimed that although they cannot have rights since robots are merely tools, automated or not, however, if at some point the technology is capable of developing a conscience, sentience and morals on its own, to the point where it can be intelligent enough to be a companion for humans, it is believed that they should be given certain rights.

This premise is based on the argument that ultimately the purpose of having robots and technology is for the satisfaction of the human and to fulfil their needs. This would certainly encompass the emotional and moral satisfaction of humans who interact with the robot. Therefore, they would not be treated as “slaves” but tools who are given limited rights in the future, depending on whether their level of intelligence, conscience and morals are at par or more than that of a human.[7]

However, this then poses questions regarding their ontological and epistemological capabilities. The robot must have some sense of self, characteristic and conscience for us to grant them rights. However, there seems to exist no single definition of what “conscience” is. Further, the “other minds” problem arises, wherein the determination of their sense of self and conscience comes into the frame.

Humans are unable to decide if other humans feel the same sentiment as them in certain scenarios, therefore, determining the same for a robot would be close to impossible. Furthermore, the moral problem arises which entails that “If robots might one day be capable of experiencing pain and other affective states, a question that arises is whether it will be moral to build such systems — In other words, can the building of a robot with a somatic architecture capable of feeling intense pain be morally justified?”.[8]

Therefore, unless there is a clear definition of conscience and the existence of the same can be determined, it is difficult to decide if robots should have rights in the future or not. 


[1] Gunkel, David J. “The Other Question: Can and Should Robots Have Rights?” Ethics and Information Technology, vol. 20, no. 2, 2017, pp. 87–99., https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-017-9442-4. 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

Aishwarya Says:

I have always been against Glorifying Over Work and therefore, in the year 2021, I have decided to launch this campaign “Balancing Life”and talk about this wrong practice, that we have been following since last few years. I will be talking to and interviewing around 1 lakh people in the coming 2021 and publish their interview regarding their opinion on glamourising Over Work.

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