Death By Robot

“Death by robot is an undignified death, Peter Asaro, an affiliate scholar at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, said in a speech in May at a United Nations conference on conventional weapons in Geneva. A machine ‘is not capable of considering the value of those human lives’ that it is about to end, he told the group. ‘And if they’re not capable of that and we allow them to kill people under the law, then we all lose dignity, in the way that if we permit slavery, it’s not just the suffering of those who are slaves but all of humanity that suffers the indignity that there are any slaves at all.'” – Robin Marantz Henig, “Death By Robot“, in tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine.

This gets close to what I was trying to say in my recent post on self-driving cars, at least in that it offers an alternative to the usual default discourse of utilitarian calculation. Continue reading

Self-Driving Cars: A View from the Sidewalk

I have not been following the hype over self-driving cars closely enough to tell whether it’s a passing fad or something more enduring.

As is often the case with emerging technologies that excite people’s imaginations, many claims for the benefits of self-driving cars come across as exaggerated, almost utopian.

In any case, benefits are cast as benefits, along a single dimension of value: self-driving cars will be convenient and profitable, and we’ll all be better off if they become more prevalent.

I’m far from convinced. Continue reading

The Torture Report: Further Clarification

Since it is such a sensitive issue, I want to be especially careful in the language I use to discuss torture. Reading over yesterday’s note, it seems I could have drawn the point more precisely.

Here’s some of what I wrote:

That said, a number of commentators have hastened to say that even if the program had yielded useful intelligence, even if it had saved lives, it would remain a gross ethical offense, something in which Americans – or indeed human beings generally – ought not to engage.

It is here that I pick up the tacit premise that efficacy has nothing whatever to do with ethics.

In fact, those who appeal to the claim that torture worked and that the CIA used it to save American lives can be seen as those with the most to lose and the most to hide, which may give many the impression that an appeal to efficacy is a trick played by scoundrels and double-dealers rather than a genuine ethical argument.

Continue reading

The Torture Report: Efficacy v. Ethics?

There’s not a lot I can add to the conversation of this past week about the CIA torture report that came out of Sen. Feinstein’s committee.

I did note, however, that many politicians and commentators fell into a narrative about the report according to which the question of whether torture worked has no bearing at all on the question of whether torture is ethically justifiable.

On this account, torture is wrong because it is a gross violation of the dignity of a human being, treating a person as a mere thing. This was brought to a point by the psychologists involved in developing the CIA interrogation program, with their talk of “learned helplessness”: they set out explicitly to break the will of the one being interrogated, destroying the very basis of moral personhood. Continue reading