Home / Comment / In brief

Can Robots Be People? – It’s more complicated than that

Can Robots Be People? – It’s more complicated than that

Interested by this? Share it on social media. Join our monthly e–newsletter to keep up to date with our latest research and events. And check out our Friends Programme to find out how you can help our work.

Can a robot ever become a person? So asked Nick Spencer in his short essay/long blog post last week. His answer, was ‘perhaps’, and he went on to ask how we would know, beginning to tease out some of the profoundly complex factors and issues that have troubled philosophers for centuries.

I was troubled by Nick’s definition during the event which sparked his ruminations (I suspect for similar reasons to those he alludes to in his post), and no less troubled by it at a few days’ remove. So, with Nick’s kind permission, allow me to poke it and prod it a bit and see if we can unravel some of the knots.

Can a robot be a person? What does the classification ‘person’ confer on a being? How is a being’s moral status changed when we flip it over from robot (or chimp, dog or river) to person?

The drives to attribute personhood to chimps and dogs have a couple of distinct motivations behind them. First is the belief that we ought to have a higher regard and respect for them than we do currently, and second is the (slightly different) belief that it is ‘speciesist’ – equivalent to sexist or racist – to automatically preference humans over animals.

The personhood of rivers seems to fall into the first category, with the idea that a given river can itself be harmed by polluting or otherwise damaging it. It seems to me that granting personhood, either to rivers or to animals is neither necessary nor sufficient as a means of preventing harm to them: it is unnecessary as one can have a duty of care towards an entity without having to claim it is a person; and it is insufficient as human persons are frequently harmed by each other, so possession of personhood doesn’t itself offer much protection. The Ganges is one of the rivers to which personhood has been granted, and one would have thought that the designation ‘sacred’, which it has held in the perceptions of generations of those living along its banks, conferred far greater respect on it than that of mere personhood.

The second motivation, however, is the more significant and, in my opinion, sinister. In seeking to extend personhood to other entities, philosophers, animal rights campaigners and now engineers are drawing up sets of criteria on which personhood rests – “1) Consciousness and the capacity to feel pain…; 2) Reasoning…; 3) Self–motivated activity…; 4) The capacity to communicate, by whatever means, messages of an indefinite variety of types…; 5) The presence of self–concepts, and self–awareness…” for example (Mary Ann Warren), or “an intelligent being possessed of reason and an understanding of itself as existing over time” (John Locke – providing the foundation upon which philosophers still build today). It seems clear that a robot could pass the Locke test (or at least, could convince a human that it had passed), but the question raised at last week’s event was around consciousness, and that seems to me somewhat harder to define and harder still to detect in a highly intelligent machine.

What concerns me, however, is that certain of the philosophers working on this problem are seeking expressly to define a list of criteria for personhood that certain humans cannot meet. Mary Ann Warren is explicit in her essay ‘On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion’ that her purpose in writing is “to show that, on the basis of intuitions which we may expect even the opponents of abortion to share, a fetus is not a person, and hence not the sort of entity to which it is proper to ascribe full moral rights”. To use Nick’s Wittgenstinian analogy of games, it’s the equivalent of seeking a definition of ‘Card Games’ that includes Trivial Pursuit but excludes poker. It’s counter–intuitive and increasingly tortuous: how, for example, would you exclude poker without also excluding whist and rummy? Similarly, the definitions given above exclude unborn humans, and also exclude humans in comas and, depending on which conditions you consider as necessary (ie “Warren believes numbers 1 and 2 are probably necessary conditions for personhood and probably 1-3 are sufficient.”, humans with dementia or certain types of physical or learning disabilities. If you suffer a debilitating accident, or simply fall asleep for too long, you may find you’ve lost several significant moral rights. As soon as personhood becomes a status to be attained or lost, rather than a feature endowed on humans by our creator at the point of conception, we find ourselves competing for status with next door’s Alsatian.

Which brings us back to the question of what personhood is for. If it is for preventing harm to beings who might suffer from it, then I think we’re using a rather clumsy instrument. People have long campaigned against fox hunting and battery farming on the grounds not that foxes and chickens are persons, but that they are animals which experience suffering, and the strong have a duty to protect the weak. As Beth Singler commented at the Theos event, the adage ‘manners maketh the man’ is a helpful one: the way we treat those we have power or authority over reflects on our own humanity. You are in many ways the sum of how you treat others, be they animal, vegetable or mineral.

If, however, personhood is for excluding some humans from the inherent right to life, then Christians must think long and hard about how we use the term, or allow it to be used. If a sex doll ends up with more rights than an unborn baby, have we applied our God–given wisdom correctly?

Nick framed his article around the idea that ‘persons’ in this context were ‘beings that we would be obliged to treat as if they were other humans.’ What are the limits of that treatment? Should robots be allowed to marry? To own property? To run for political office? Would we be obliged to give them decent working conditions, and to pay them a wage? One of the key advantages of robots over humans is that they can perform mind–numbingly dull tasks for years on end without ever getting tired, bored or slip–shod. If they become persons, would we have to ensure they were working in a pleasant environment, with regular breaks and a decent wage?

Beyond the semantic difficulties, however, I think there is a deeper point to consider. To use Nick’s terminology of ‘gift’, I would suggest that the gift of personhood is not ours to give.

Nick pointed out that the Bible insists that ‘in the beginning God created…’. He created all things that have been made, and created humans – and humans alone – in his own likeness, giving us dominion over the earth and charging us to go forth and multiply. All our begetting since then has perpetuated our family line. All our creating has created entities of different classifications – projections of ourselves, yes, but categorically Other. Nothing else that has been created, whether by God or by us, can enter the human family. Putting a ‘Go Fish!’ card into a deck of playing cards won’t make it a playing card, no matter how many characteristics it shares with the playing cards, and it will introduce a flaw into the game of poker.

Will robots attain consciousness, or as close a simulation of it as to be indistinguishable from the real thing? Perhaps. If they do, will we have a duty of care towards them? Yes – if for no other reason than the preservation of our own humanity. Will they therefore be persons? I see no reason why that should logically follow. 


Jennie Pollock is a freelance writer and editor. She blogs at, tweets as @missjenniep, and is working on her first book, on personhood.

This is a guest post and does not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Theos, its friends or its associates.

Image by Noni195 on Flickr available under this Creative Commons Licence

Interested by this? Share it on social media. Join our monthly e–newsletter to keep up to date with our latest research and events. And check out our Friends Programme to find out how you can help our work.

Jennie Pollock

Jennie Pollock

Jennie Pollock is a freelance writer and editor. She blogs at, tweets as @missjenniep, and is working on her first book, on personhood.

Watch, listen to or read more from Jennie Pollock

Posted 23 May 2017


See all


See all

In the news

See all


See all

Get regular email updates on our latest research and events.

Please confirm your subscription in the email we have sent you.

Want to keep up to date with the latest news, reports, blogs and events from Theos? Get updates direct to your inbox once or twice a month.

Thank you for signing up.