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ROBOTS AND ALIENS - When the time comes, should human rights apply?


As robotic and Artificial Intelligence technologies that aim to imitate human beings continue to improve, we face the possibility that our creations may someday claim for themselves some of the rights and protections we take to be universal to man. Less likely, but also possible, is that if contact with aliens is made, they could also make this demand of us.

What, if anything, would justify giving moral rights and protections to robots and extraterrestrials?



  • Reading of suggested materials below
  • General understanding of the major issues in question:
    • Philosophical views on moral participation and protection
    • The debate on whether a fetus is a person
    • The animal rights debate



Most of these are short and intended to give the reader an introduction to the problem.





Do: Ask students to think about and discuss the following questions:

    • What makes us beings deserving of moral rights and protections? (Some possible answers: Our capacity to suffer, to think, to have empathy for others or for them to have empathy for us, our membership in the human community?)


    • Human history shows a long and painful process of acceptance of the moral value of those who are alien to us. What guidance does this history give us when considering rights for robots and extraterrestrial aliens?


    • Does how much we like a type of being (e.g. how cute we find them) effect whether they deserve protection from us? Is this reflect on the moral regard we have for animals?


    • Is it possible that robots will someday suffer in a morally-relevant sense? How?


    • The question of who or what deserves moral rights and protections is especailly challenging when applied to "non-paradigmatic" human beings, such as fetuses, patients in a persistent vegetative state, or the severely mentally challenged. Does considering what it would take for robots and aliens to deserve moral rights and protections help us understand how we should regard non-paradigmatic human beings?


    • Assume robots can't suffer. Could they have interests that we should ever be concerned about frustrating? Could they ever have self-awareness in a morally meaningful way?


  • In asking "Are We Future Evil Aliens?", Julian Savulescu suggests that given our aggressive nature, we wouldn't want to meet us if we were aliens. Is he right? If so, does this give us insight into how we think about our relations with other beings?

* For additional ideas on assignments and lesson plan you might develop with this material, visit our Suggestions for incorporating lessons ethics into your course page.