Robophobia

We live in a world where science is raising ethical questions faster than we are able to answer them.

The obvious moral questions arising from these observations, i.e., “Can sex be meaningful outside of a real relationship, and, if not, how do we need to revise our contemporary orthodoxies concerning sexual activity?” are, of course, ignored in favor of the typically pragmatic, “How do we develop a technology to fake authenticity?”  We live in an age where all questions, even those touching on the deepest aspects of human existence, are considered to be susceptible to merely technical solutions. 

 

Such is the technological and moral temper of our times that a serious report with the bizarre title Our Sexual Future with Robots might scarcely raise an eyebrow in a world where the scientifically possible is fast becoming the only judge of the ethical and where celibate friendship is now the only love that dare not speak its name.

The report is notable for a number of reasons.  It is predicated throughout on the modern Reichian-Marcusan nonsense that human fulfillment is really only possible through sexual activity.  As such it is a sad commentary on the state of society.  It also contains a number of indications that, for all that the modern world has tried to make sex just a recreation, it remains stubbornly attached at its deepest and most satisfying level to real human relationships.  Thus the report speaks of how those who use escorts and massage parlors frequently want to know something about the life and background of those they pay for sex.  They want to pretend to be in a relationship even though they know they are asking somebody to ‘fake it’  for money.  That is surely fascinating.  It is an acknowledgment that the act on its own, as mere function of human physiology and with no relationship between partners, is unsatisfying.  Thus, just as prostitutes have to fake sincerity so the makers of sex robots are attempting to make their creations do the same, giving them a personal history.  Bladerunner, anyone?

The obvious moral questions arising from these observations, i.e., “Can sex be meaningful outside of a real relationship, and, if not, how do we need to revise our contemporary orthodoxies concerning sexual activity?” are, of course, ignored in favor of the typically pragmatic, “How do we develop a technology to fake authenticity?”  We live in an age where all questions, even those touching on the deepest aspects of human existence, are considered to be susceptible to merely technical solutions.

But the real value of the report lies not so much in its tacit acknowledgment that real sex involves real persons.  Rather it is found in its unintentional expose of the incoherence which underlies modern sexual ethics and the law: Should sex with a robot child be illegal? And is it possible to rape a robot?

Given the West’s abandonment of traditional sexual mores, the criminal status of pedophilia is built on increasingly shaky ground.  That a child cannot give consent under the law is not the unassailable argument many think it to be, for adults routinely make children do things, from brushing their teeth to attending school, for which they do not give consent.   The report ignores this complexity but does speculate as to what ‘robot consent’ might look like.  Yet notions of consent as currently understood raise questions of personal moral and intellectual competence; and robotics is a long way from producing a machine with anything approximating to such a capacity.

That sexual activity is physically or emotionally damaging to children might provide stronger grounds for pedophilia’s status as a crime, but neither apply in the case of robots.  And the notion that allowing adults to have sex with child robots might encourage them to do the same with real children would seem to rest on a logic which would then require for example the banning of violent video games in case they encourage real shootings.

To be fair, the report tries to offer some rationale for outlawing robot pedophilia and robot rape.  It cites Kant’s argument that certain acts intrinsically dehumanize the agent, regardless of the status of the victim.  In having sex with a robot child, the perpetrator hurts no-one yet still degrades himself.  But (and here I need to insert a trigger warning: the following constitutes an act of deliberate, premeditated robophobia): Is sex with a robot, regardless of the ‘age’ of the machine, not dehumanizing in and of itself?  For pity’s sake, it’s a machine with which these people are doing the deed, not even a flesh-and-blood escort paid for sex, let alone a wife or husband to whom they are exclusively committed.   And if sexually using a robot programmed to refuse consent to sex somehow makes the agent guilty of the crime of rape, would the same principle not also make one guilty of murder for playing a violent video game or even using a target at a gun range made in the shape of a human being?

The problem here is twofold.  We live in a world where science is raising ethical questions faster than we are able to answer them.  And, as far as sexual ethics goes, once sex is removed from its role as the seal of a lifelong monogamous commitment between a man and a woman, sexual ethics is doomed to descend into total chaos, built on the ever-shifting sands of cultural taste and selective and vague notions like ‘consent.’   The trap in which we now find ourselves was sprung long, long ago.  And, as usual, the response is not to acknowledge that we have built our sexual ethic on nonsense but to try to make technology solve the problems which it has itself first created.

Still, when ‘robophobia’ joins the ever-increasing ranks of unforgivable hate crimes, do remember, folks, that you saw it committed here first.

Carl Trueman is professor of historical theology and Paul Woolley chair of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This article is used with permission.