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Ought to Robots Have Rights? Lt. Commander Knowledge v. The United Federation of Planets


Within the following clip from “The Measure of a Man,” episode 9 of the second season of Star Trek: The Subsequent Era (1989), we see a dramatic demonstration of a number of philosophical arguments for granting rights to clever robots – a problem we might quickly should grapple with as a society. On this episode, the android officer Lieutenant Commander Knowledge (Brent Spiner) faces a listening to to find out whether or not he’s legally thought-about an individual and entitled to the identical rights as different clever species within the United Federation of Planets, or if he’s merely the property of Starfleet and due to this fact can not refuse to be dismantled for analysis by cybernetics professional Commander Bruce Maddox (Brian Brophy). Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) defends Knowledge; Commander William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) is ordered to argue for Starfleet; the listening to is presided by Sector Decide Advocate Normal Officer Captain Phillipa Louvois (Amanda McBroom).

The closing unit within the pc ethics course I taught at Dalhousie College (not too long ago featured within the Weblog of the APA’s Syllabus Showcase collection) issues the ethics of machine studying and synthetic intelligence (AI). When most individuals take into consideration AI, they have an inclination to image characters from science fiction, akin to Sonny from the 2004 movie I, Robotic starring Will Smith. The opportunity of making a typically clever robotic or AI raises questions on whether or not such an entity counts as an individual, whether or not they have ethical rights just like these borne by human beings, and whether or not it might be attainable to have a real friendship or romantic relationship with them.

These points are fascinating and thrilling, however they will distract from the precise, urgent AI ethics points we face right now. So, partly to have interaction the scholars and partly to set these points apart, I exploit them to introduce the subject of AI ethics earlier than entering into the problems AI builders are grappling with now. These embrace sexist and racist machine studying techniques, unclear legal responsibility when robots trigger hurt, and autonomous weapons.

The above clip, and the remainder of the episode from which it’s taken, dramatizes a number of moral arguments we will make in favour of recognizing rights for AI. Within the clip, Picard begins by asking Maddox what could be required for Knowledge to be sentient and due to this fact an individual deserving to have his rights protected. Maddox provides three standards: (1) Intelligence, (2) Self-awareness, and (3) Consciousness. Picard proceeds to use these standards to Knowledge, compelling Maddox to confess that Knowledge meets not less than (1) and (2). He additionally emphasizes that if Knowledge meets all three, to rule that he’s property and never an individual would “condemn him and all who come after him to servitude and slavery.” Confronted with this chance, Maddox is left flustered and humbled, and Louvois points a ruling in Knowledge’s favour.

We would criticize Picard for not being as cautious as he might have been, at occasions giving in to the rhetorical prospers of the courtroom as an alternative of philosophical substance. However there’s a deeper, maybe extra necessary level to Picard’s general technique. He opens his line of questioning by demanding that Maddox show to the court docket that he, Picard, is sentient. Maddox dismisses the demand as absurd, since “everyone knows” that Picard is sentient. And I believe a part of Picard’s level – echoed by Louvois in her ruling – is that these are maybe not questions that may be resolved empirically. That’s to say, we can provide a philosophically convincing account of what sentience is and why that’s the place we should always draw the road between individuals and non-persons, however in the long run, it might nonetheless be troublesome or not possible to find out which creatures really meet these standards. And because the threat of hurt if we make a mistake in answering this query is so nice, whether or not an entity meets these standards is probably irrelevant.

In my pc ethics class, I used this clip in a lecture on AI and robotic rights, by which I additionally talk about a paper by Mark Coeckelbergh. He argues that the factors for personhood and for deserving ethical rights could also be philosophically fascinating and necessary, however after we determine find out how to deal with different creatures, together with robots, what might matter extra is whether or not we will type morally important relationships with them. That’s to say, the precise query just isn’t “Is that this robotic sentient?” however slightly “Is that this robotic my pal, my colleague, part of my household?” Coeckelbergh argues that relating to questions on relationships, it doesn’t matter whether or not the robotic (or no matter different entity) really meets the factors of personhood; slightly, it suffices that they seem to satisfy these standards pre-theoretically, to the human beings in these relationships. And, merely being in such a relationship is ample to grant an necessary sort of ethical standing.

As I recommend in lecture, that is exactly the conclusion that Picard urges Louvois to make. In his questioning of Maddox, he emphatically makes the purpose that Knowledge seems, albeit not past doubt, to satisfy the factors for sentience. And, in an earlier scene, Picard exhibits how Knowledge has shaped important relationships with others by asking Knowledge to elucidate a number of gadgets from his quarters: navy medals he has earned, a e-book gifted to him by Picard, and a holographic portrait of his first lover. That Knowledge not less than appears to be an individual and has proven that he can type deep and morally important bonds with folks is admittedly what issues when contemplating whether or not he deserves the ethical regard owed to rights-bearing individuals.

The lecture then closes with an open line of inquiry. We would wonder if the road of argument pursued by Coeckelbergh (and Picard) might be prolonged. Maybe pets, or spirits, or options of the pure panorama can enter related relationships with human beings, and so additionally should have their rights acknowledged.

  • Coeckelbergh, Mark. 2010. “Robotic Rights? In direction of a Social-Relational Justification of Ethical Consideration.” Ethics and Data Expertise 12: 209–21.
  • Coeckelbergh, Mark. (2021). “Does kindness in direction of robots result in advantage? A reply to Sparrow’s asymmetry argument.” Ethics and Data Expertise (forthcoming): 8 pages.
  • Clarke, Roger. (1993). “Asimov’s Legal guidelines of Robotics: Implications for Data Expertise, Half I,” Pc, 26.12: 53–61.
  • Clarke, Roger. (1994). “Asimov’s Legal guidelines of Robotics: Implications for Data Expertise, Half II,” Pc, 27.1: 57–66.
  • Müller, Vincent C., “Ethics of Synthetic Intelligence and Robotics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer season 2021 Version), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <

Further Star Trek clips on related themes could possibly be taken from the next episodes and collection:

  • The rest of “The Measure of a Man,” in addition to the next extra Star Trek episodes:
  • Star Trek: The Subsequent Era, Season 2, Episode 3, “Elementary, Pricey Knowledge” (1988)
  • Star Trek: The Subsequent Era, Season 3, Episode 16, “The Offspring” (1990)
  • Star Trek: Voyager, Season 5, Episode 11, “Latent Picture” (1999)
  • Star Trek: Voyager, Season 6, Episode 4, “Tinker, Tenor, Physician, Spy” (1999)
  • Star Trek: Voyager, Season 7, Episode 20, “Writer, Writer” (2001)

Star Trek: Picard (2020–), a lot of which takes direct inspiration from “The Measure of a Man”

The Educating and Studying Video Sequence is designed to share pedagogical approaches to utilizing video clips, and humorous ones specifically, for educating philosophy. Humor, when used appropriately, has empirically been proven to correlate with greater retention charges. In case you are interested by contributing to this collection, please electronic mail the Sequence Editor, William A. B. Parkhurst, at

Trystan S. Goetze

Postdoctoral Fellow of Embedded EthiCS


Harvard College

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Trystan S. Goetze (he/they/she) is a Postdoctoral Fellow of Embedded EthiCS at Harvard College. Their analysis concentrates on ethical and epistemic accountability, epistemic injustice, schooling, and pc ethics. Of their spare time, in addition they design tabletop roleplaying video games.


Victoria Joy
I am an independent lady, working hard to share my ideas from my experiences to the whole world. I want people to be happier and to understand that your life is very very important. Walk with me and experience the beauty this world can offer by following simple logical steps.


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