Peter M. Asaro

Determinism, machine agency, and responsibility

Are you already subscribed?
Login to check whether this content is already included on your personal or institutional subscription.


There has been some recent interest in robot ethics and machine responsibility, as well as the legal frameworks for judging the agency of robots and machines in questions of legal responsibility and liability. In no small measure this interest has revived some of the central questions of philosophy of the past few centuries. Among them: the nature of determinism and the deterministic nature of algorithms, the question of free will and its relation to morality, and the relation of punishment to free will and algorithmic decision-making. While these questions have not garnered much attention in recent decades, the increasing interest in machine ethics, and moral machines has raised the questions anew. Among the central questions here are: If machines are algorithmic, and thus deterministic, how can they be responsible, moral agents? What does it mean to punish an algorithmically, and presumably deterministic, machine? And is simple non-determinism, of the probabilistic sort, a sufficient basis for asserting agency or ascribing moral responsibility? These questions excite interest in this new field, much as they do among students in their first philosophy class. It is important, however, to realize that philosophers did not simply throw-up their hands and give up on these questions. While such questions are rarely completely resolved or definitively answered, great intellectual progress was made through their consideration. And while these insights were made in somewhat remote areas of philosophy, it warrants a fresh look to see how those insights might be brought to bear on a contemporary quandary, such as the moral status of machines and robots, in light of our best scientific and philosophical understanding of determinism and morality. That is the aim of this paper - to shed light on a contemporary problem by drawing upon some insights from the philosophy of science and moral philosophy of the past century. The first section of the paper will review some of the leading approaches to thinking about physical determinism, especially those that grew out of thinking about physics in the early 20th century. This is particularly interesting in regard to its relation to our understanding of information theory, and bears quite directly upon our understanding of computation and algorithms. In the second part of the paper, I will move from this understanding of determinism in computation to how it relates to our notions of free will in moral responsibility, and its relation to ascriptions of moral praise and blame. In light of these discussions, I will conclude with a consideration of how we might understand punishment in algorithmic systems, such as machine learning systems and the moral agency of robots, and how this might bear on legal liability and responsibility.


  • Determinism
  • Machine Agency
  • Robots
  • Responsibility
  • Punishment


Article first page

What do you think about the recent suggestion?

Trova nel catalogo di Worldcat