A Philosopher's Blog

HitchBOT & Kant

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 5, 2015

Dr. Frauke Zeller and Dr. David Smith created HitchBOT (essentially a solar powered iPhone in an anthropomorphic shell) and sent him on trip to explore the USA on July 17, 2015. HitchBOT had previously successfully journey across Canada and Germany. The experiment was aimed at seeing how humans would interact with the “robot.”  He lasted about two weeks in the United States, meeting his end in Philadelphia. The exact details of his destruction (and the theft of the iPhone) are not currently known, although the last people known to be with HitchBOT posted what seems to be faked “surveillance camera” video of HitchBOT’s demise. This serves to support the plausible claim that the internet eventually ruins everything it touches.

The experiment was certainly both innovative and interesting. It also generated questions about what the fate of HitchBOT says about us. We do, of course, already know a great deal about us: we do awful things to each other, so it is hardly surprising that someone would do something awful to the HitchBOT. People are killed every day in the United States, vandalism occurs regularly and the theft of technology is routine—thus it is no surprise that HitchBOT came to a bad end. In some ways, it was impressive that he made it as far as he did.

While HitchBOT seems to have met his untimely doom at the hands of someone awful, what is most interesting is how well HitchBOT was treated. After all, he was essentially an iPhone in a shell that was being transported about by random people.

One reason that HitchBOT was well treated and transported about by people is no doubt because it fits into the travelling gnome tradition. For those not familiar with the travelling gnome prank, it involves “stealing” a lawn gnome and then sending the owner photographs of the gnome from various places. The gnome is then returned (at least by nice pranksters). HitchBOT is a rather more elaborate version of the traveling gnome and, obviously, differs from the classic travelling gnome in that the owners sent HitchBOT on his fatal adventure. People, perhaps, responded negatively to the destruction of HitchBOT because it broke the rules of the travelling gnome game—the gnome is supposed to roam and make its way safely back home.

A second reason for HitchBOT’s positive adventures (and perhaps also his negative adventure) is that he became a minor internet celebrity. Since celebrity status, like moth dust, can rub off onto those who have close contact it is not surprising that people wanted to spend time with HitchBOT and post photos and videos of their adventures with the iPhone in a trash can. On the dark side, destroying something like HitchBOT is also a way to gain some fame.

A third reason, which is probably more debatable, is that HitchBOT was given a human shape, a cute name and a non-threatening appearance and these tend to incline people to react positively. Natural selection has probably favored humans that are generally friendly to other humans and this presumably extends to things that resemble humans. There is probably also some hardwiring for liking cute things, which causes humans to generally like things like young creatures and cute stuffed animals. HitchBOT was also given a social media personality by those conducting the experiment which probably influenced people into feeling that it had a personality of its own—even though they knew better.

Seeing a busted up HitchBOT, which has an anthropomorphic form, presumably triggers a response similar too (but rather weaker than) what a sane human would have to seeing the busted up remains of a fellow human.

While some people were rather upset by the destruction of HitchBOT, others have claimed that it was literally “a pile of trash that got what it deserved.” A more moderate position is that while it was unfortunate that HitchBOT was busted up, it is unreasonable to be overly concerned by this act of vandalism because HitchBOT was just an iPhone in a fairly cheap shell. As such, while it is fine to condemn the destruction as vandalism, theft and the wrecking of a fun experiment, it is unreasonable to see the matter as actually being important. After all, there are far more horrible things to be concerned about, such as the usual murdering of actual humans.

My view is that the moderate position is quite reasonable: it is too bad HitchBOT was vandalized, but it was just an iPhone in a shell. As such, its destruction is not a matter of great concern. That said, the way HitchBOT was treated is still morally significant. In support of this, I turn to what has become my stock argument in regards to the ethics of treating entities that lack moral status. This argument is stolen from Kant and is a modification of his argument regarding the treatment of animals.

Kant argues that we should treat animals well despite his view that animals have the same moral status as objects. Here is how he does it (or tries to do it).

While Kant is not willing to accept that we have any direct duties to animals, he “smuggles” in duties to them indirectly. As he puts it, our duties towards animals are indirect duties towards humans. To make his case for this, he employs an argument from analogy: if a human doing X would obligate us to that human, then an animal doing X would also create an analogous moral obligation. For example, a human who has long and faithfully served another person should not simply be abandoned or put to death when he has grown old. Likewise, a dog who has served faithfully and well should not be cast aside in his old age.

While this would seem to create an obligation to the dog, Kant uses a little philosophical sleight of hand here. The dog cannot judge (that is, the dog is not rational) so, as Kant sees it, the dog cannot be wronged. So, then, why would it be wrong to shoot the dog?

Kant’s answer seems to be rather consequentialist in character: he argues that if a person acts in inhumane ways towards animals (shooting the dog, for example) then his humanity will likely be damaged. Since, as Kant sees it, humans do have a duty to show humanity to other humans, shooting the dog would be wrong. This would not be because the dog was wronged but because humanity would be wronged by the shooter damaging his humanity through such a cruel act.

Interestingly enough, Kant discusses how people develop cruelty—they often begin with animals and then work up to harming human beings. As I point out to my students, Kant seems to have anticipated the psychological devolution of serial killers.

Kant goes beyond merely enjoining us to not be cruel to animals and encourages us to be kind to them. He even praises Leibniz for being rather gentle with a worm he found. Of course, he encourages this because those who are kind to animals will develop more humane feelings towards humans. So, roughly put, animals are essentially practice for us: how we treat them is training for how we will treat human beings.

Being an iPhone in a cheap shell, HitchBOT obviously had the moral status of an object and not that of a person. He did not feel or think and the positive feelings people had towards it were due to its appearance (cute and vaguely human) and the way those running the experiment served as its personality via social media. It was, in many ways, a virtual person—or at least the manufactured illusion of a person.

Given the manufactured pseudo-personhood of HitchBOT, it could be taken as being comparable to an animal, at least in Kant’s view. After all, animals are mere objects and have no moral status of their own. Likewise for HitchBOT Of course, the same is also true of sticks and stones. Yet Kant would never argue that we should treat stones well. Thus, a key matter to settle is whether HitchBOT was more like an animal or more like a stone—at least in regards to the matter at hand.

If Kant’s argument has merit, then the key concern about how non-rational beings are treated is how such treatment affects the behavior of the person engaging in said behavior. So, for example, if being cruel to a real dog could damage a person’s humanity, then he should (as Kant sees it) not be cruel to the dog.  This should also extend to HitchBOT. For example, if engaging in certain activities with a HitchBOT would damage a person’s humanity, then he should not act in that way. If engaging in certain behavior with HitchBOT would make a person more inclined to be kind to other rational beings, then the person should engage in that behavior.

While the result of interactions with the HitchBOT would need to be properly studied, it makes intuitive sense that being “nice” to the HitchBOT would help incline people to be somewhat nicer to others (much along the lines of how children are encouraged to play nicely with their stuffed animals). It also makes intuitive sense that being “mean” to HitchBOT would incline people to be somewhat less nice to others. Naturally, people would also tend to respond to HitchBOT based on whether they already tend to be nice or not. As such, it is actually reasonable to praise nice behavior towards HitchBOT and condemn bad behavior—after all, it was a surrogate for a person. But, obviously, not a person.


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19 Responses

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  1. TJB said, on August 5, 2015 at 9:34 pm

    Mike, in your view does HitchBOT or an unborn baby have a higher moral status?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 7, 2015 at 1:05 pm

      HitchBOT has no moral status of its own, but it gains an ersatz status based on its potential impact on how actual people treat each other. To use an analogy, it is a practice dummy for practicing behavior towards people. Interestingly, a person can “neutralize” the ersatz person hood by making it clear that she regards HitchBOT as a mere collection of objects with no status. If a person does not “feel” that HitchBOT is a stand in for a person, then she would presumably not be impacted by her treatment of the object.

      A zygote would have a higher moral status than HitchBOT, since a zygote is alive and can (under normal circumstances) develop into an actual person. Unlike with HitchBOT, a zygote has a non-zero moral status, so even if a person “feels” that it has no status and is but an object, they would seem to be in error. Obviously, there are arguments that merely being alive grants no moral status (people make this argument when they want to kill or eat animals) and that potentiality grants little or no moral status in the case of zygotes.

      How we treat zygotes, lions and terrorists does matter morally: as Kant argued, it impacts our humanity.

      • TJB said, on August 7, 2015 at 4:38 pm

        Do zygotes gradually achieve human status or is it a sudden transition? What about 22 week old zygotes that are viable outside the womb with modern technology?

  2. magus71 said, on August 6, 2015 at 11:43 am

    “it makes intuitive sense that being “nice” to the HitchBOT would help incline people to be somewhat nicer to others ”

    Certainly not so. Some of the rudest, most hateful people I’ve ever met are animal rights people and vegans.

    • WTP said, on August 6, 2015 at 12:34 pm

      Speaking of the PETA crowd and regarding the Lion Thing, did you see this article?


      Also, I’m still waiting for someone to point out the racist name of “Cecil”. As in “Cecil Rhodes”, racist founder of what eventually became Rhodesia, etc. Rhodesia which is now called Zimbabwe because, you know, Rhodes was racist. We still loves us his scholarships, though. No disputing that.

      • magus71 said, on August 6, 2015 at 1:57 pm

        Yes, I did. Posted it on Facebook. Been arguing with tons of people online about. They’re confirming my suspicion about cultural insanity. Cecil probably had more sense than many Americans. As I wrote under my post: We’re making fools of ourselves before the world.

  3. magus71 said, on August 6, 2015 at 11:46 am

    And it’s always easy to be nice to something that can’t say “no” to us, and doesn’t argue. Which is why many really like animals. The same people who say their dog is part of the family chain their dog and don’t let it run free. They don’t really believe dogs are equal to humans. And if robots are equal to humans, so are rocks. Which of course is the logical conclusion atheists must come to.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 7, 2015 at 1:07 pm

      Robots are currently not equal to humans-they are, as you say, on par with rocks. That is, they get moral status by being property of people. But, if a robot can be a person, then that would change things. If a bag of meat can be a person, then surely a shell of metal can also be one.

      • magus71 said, on August 7, 2015 at 1:10 pm

        Yes. Are we merely bags of meat?

      • ronster12012 said, on August 11, 2015 at 5:48 am


        Can a robot ever possibly be a person? OK, I know I am being a speciesist bigot for even asking the question, but I cannot conceive of a robot as ever a person, any more than I can see my washing machine being one.

        Is it possible to create consciousness?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 11, 2015 at 5:29 pm

          Google is working to answer that question now.

          My dualist inclinations incline me against mechanical intelligence. But, if a meat wrapper around bones can be a conscious person, then I have to accept that a metal shell around chips could be a conscious person. So, I would say “yes” and “yes.”

          After all, we are conscious and we were either created or just happened. So, it seems doable.

          • ronster12012 said, on August 12, 2015 at 4:18 am


            What if vitalism is correct and we have just been on a century long wild goose chase? Sure, many important discoveries have been made but it is possible to make discoveries using incorrect assumptions, no?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 12, 2015 at 3:37 pm

              It could certainly turn out that mechanical intelligence is impossible. The heart of the debate is the usual materialism versus dualism battle. Folks like Descartes argued that it was an essential quality of the immaterial that it could think and an essential quality of the material that it could not. Hume, as I recall, contended that there was no contradiction in the notion of matter thinking. And, obviously enough, all the philosophical materialists (other than behaviorists) believe that matter can think.

  4. nailheadtom said, on August 6, 2015 at 9:30 pm

    “Interestingly enough, Kant discusses how people develop cruelty—they often begin with animals and then work up to harming human beings. As I point out to my students, Kant seems to have anticipated the psychological devolution of serial killers.”

    I point this out to my sportsman friends that advocate “catch and release” fishing. Catching fish and then eating them has been normal behavior for all of history. Catching them, “playing” them and then releasing them so that others can catch them later on is simply fish torture but seems to be recognized as a good thing, at least for sport fishermen, if not the fish. If fishermen could hear the screams of the terrified bass then perhaps fishing wouldn’t be as popular and activity as it now is. http://nailheadtom.blogspot.com/2012/05/torturing-animals.html

    • WTP said, on August 6, 2015 at 10:09 pm

      Curious…aside from moral preening, do you actually DO anything? A job perhaps? Anything productive?

      • nailheadtom said, on August 7, 2015 at 7:25 am

        I was unaware that pointing out inconsistencies in societal norms is “moral preening” but a guy learns something every day. Of course, a person’s opinions only have validity if they are employed and productive. Then again, that sort of twisted ad hominen criticism is commonly used by intellectual dwarfs.

        • WTP said, on August 7, 2015 at 8:20 am

          I was unaware that pointing out inconsistencies in societal norms is “moral preening”…that sort of twisted ad hominen criticism is commonly used by intellectual dwarfs.


          “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”
          – Ralph Waldo Emerson

          Emphasis added. While not a huge fan of RWE, this is probably his best stuff…warts and all.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 7, 2015 at 1:14 pm

      I’m a “catch and eat” person, but have released fish that were too small. I have no idea what fish think or feel, but presumably they would prefer some trauma over death. They would probably also prefer no trauma over trauma.

      But, as you say, catching them solely for sport and then releasing them can be seen as needless trauma on the fish. Utilitarians would, of course, argue that we would need to weigh the suffering of the fish against the fun of the fishermen. If someone said they were sport rock throwers-throwing small rocks for fun at cats and dogs that did little damage, they’d probably be regarded as deranged and wicked.

      • WTP said, on August 7, 2015 at 2:01 pm

        If someone said they were sport rock throwers-throwing small rocks for fun at cats and dogs that did little damage, they’d probably be regarded as deranged and wicked.

        Does this reasoning extend to squirrels? I have at times thrown small rocks at squirrels that did little damage. Should I be regarded as deranged and wicked? But then, let’s consider people who spend considerable time obsessing over the perceived sins of others. We used to call such people Puritans. Some Puritans will go so far as to read wickedness and evil into the innocuous acts of others as a manifestation of their own internalized issues. See 17th century Salem, 15th century Spain, 20-21 century ALF, elsewhere. But hey, they’re just trying to purify the world. ‘Cause it’s like, their job or something.

        If the squirrel is not permanently harmed and merely discouraged from raiding my bird feeder, why is it anyone’s business but my own? Same for the fish. Isn’t this the sort of moral issue that belongs between the individual and their God?

        Not disputing that there is a point of raising such subjects. They are worthy of consideration. But for Godssakes, this idiocy is getting way out of hand. See Cecil above. People have been catching fish for centuries, not just for food but for sport as well. Same for lions, tigers, and even bears. Though there is an argument for tasty bear. And yet Teddy Roosevelt never devolved into becoming a serial killer and I have serious doubts that that Minnesota dentist will either. Perhaps there are quite a few, or possibly many, other factors that obsessive moralist fail to consider. Perhaps God’s universe is far more complex than little statesmen and philosophers and divines can…divine.

        OTOH, there is the argument for sadistic dentists. OTOOH, perhaps we’re seeing the continuing, disturbing rise of the anti-dentites.

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