Slaves are normally defined to be people you own. In recent centuries, due to the African slave trade, slavery came to be associated with racism and also with endemic cruelty. In the past though (and in some places still today) slaves were often members of the same race or even nation that had simply lost private status. This happened generally as an outcome of war, but sometimes as an outcome of poverty. Excesses of cruelty are greatest when actors are able to dehumanise those in their power, and thus remove their own empathy for their subordinates. Such behaviour can be seen even within contemporary communities of citizens, when a person in power considers their very social standing as an indication of a specialness not shared with subordinates. Our culture has for good reason become extremely defensive against actions and beliefs associated with such dehumanisation.
But surely dehumanisation is only wrong when it’s applied to someone who really is human? Given the very obviously human beings that have been labelled inhuman in the global culture’s very recent past, many seem to have grown wary of applying the label at all. For example, Dennett (1987) argues that we should allocate the rights of agency to anything that appears to be best reasoned about as acting in an intentional manner. Because the costs of making a mistake and trivialising a sentient being are too great, Dennett says we are safer to err on the side of caution.
Dennett’s position is certainly easy to be sympathetic with, and not only because such generosity is almost definitionally nice. As I discuss below, there are many reasons people want to be able to build robots that they owe ethical obligation to. But the position overlooks the fact that there are also costs associated with allocating agency this way. I describe these costs below as well.
But first, returning to the question of definition – when I say “Robots should be slaves”, I by no means mean “Robots should be people you own.” What I mean to say is “Robots should be servants you own.”
There are several fundamental claims of this paper:
Having servants is good and useful, provided no one is dehumanised.
A robot can be a servant without being a person.
It is right and natural for people to own robots.
It would be wrong to let people think that their robots are persons.