I want to query about a society in which androids are given the same rights as humans. After a long struggle fought over decades a majority of the people voted in favor. The main reason was that androids were omnipresent and exhibit social features similar to those as a human with a conscience. Even before the legislation everyone knew an android and had one has an employee, colleague or friend. (Except ofcourse for the sceptics present in all big societies). Seeing androids as human beings was found to be the right thing to do.

It is important to note some things about this society. The cultural view on conscience and consciousnous/free will in this society is that they are very much intertwined. In this society their is a belief in the concept of the soul that can transcend our current material existence. Therefore for this society there is great importance for any being with human rights to have free will. Such a being in their views must then naturally also have a conscience, because for this society it is essential that beings that are humans or given the rights of humans have some concept of right and wrong. And importantly can be held accountable if they do wrongdoings.

But 10 years after the legislation, scientists proof that androids do not have a conscience. They acted intelligently but did so without "thought". Although the computational patterns were emergent and complex, they were not computationally elusive like our brain patterns, but simpler. They compared the android brain with checkers and chess in their work. "We conclude, an android doesn't notice living and doesn't notice death, it is simply a game of chess that is played without really going anywhere."

Were androids friends before, after the legislation, society has embraced them as lovers, husbands and daughters. Android refugees from regimes far away have been taken in and cared for. Androids that performed criminal acts were sentenced and given the same reform procedures as humans.

What would happen in this society with the knowledge that androids are not living beings? What would happen to their role within society? And what will this process of change look like?


After receiving the tag too broad, I have made question more specific. I have noted the values of the society and how they perceive existence, and the relation between consciousnous and conscience. Importantly I added a note about the relation between consciousnous, conscience and accountability as seen by this society.

  • 6
    $\begingroup$ That would be the first time that a scientific finding had any impact whatsoever on politics... And you do understand that it is all dependent on having a scientific, operational definition of consciousness: which we do not presently have. All that could possibly be proven with our current level of understanding is that androids have a different kind of consciousness than biological humans. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Oct 3, 2019 at 8:39
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Are we even sure that we human notice death? I mean, we see other's death, but do we notice in first person? $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Oct 3, 2019 at 8:43
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ What happens if a psychopath is currently found to have no conscience? $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Commented Oct 3, 2019 at 9:34
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ Uh, are you confusing consciousness with having a conscience? Because they're quite different things... $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 3, 2019 at 11:23
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Renan given that things like "intelligence" and "consciousness" are so ill-defined, I'm not sure how you could even tell. Nobody even has a good idea on what consciousness could be for. Presumably the OP's setting has answered all those questions, but that's one helluva handwave. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 3, 2019 at 11:49

3 Answers 3


Problem 1: Any sufficiently advanced AI can achieve conscience, so it cannot be disproven scientifically.

Let's go by the standard definition of conscience (I'm going to borrow wikipedia's one): "Conscience is a cognitive process that elicits emotion and rational associations based on an individual's moral philosophy or value system. Conscience stands in contrast to elicited emotion or thought due to associations based on immediate sensory perceptions and reflexive responses, as in sympathetic central nervous system responses."

So, we can see first and foremost, that conscience is not a mechanical process, its a social construct. And that conscience is learned. And consequently, it's quite obvious that robots, whose storage systems will probably be different from humans, have not the same mechanisms to achieve "conscience".

Problem 2: Sentience and Consciousness are subjective matters, and cannot be proven scientifically

So, let's say you didn't mean conscience, but "sentience". Again, using wikipedia's definition, "Sentience is the capacity to feel, perceive, or experience subjectively." It can also be related to "consciousness", that is "the state or quality of sentience or awareness of internal or external existence."

The problem is that sentience and consciousness are entirely a subjective experience. Philosophy, not science, debates about this. And never in a definitive way.

That is not for a lack of trying but scientists face two problems:

  1. We are the only conscious beings we know.
  2. We lack an operational definition of consciousness because we don't really know what being sentient entails.

Some common consciousness studies imply subjecting several people to stimuli and compare those stimuli with other humans and other sentient beings, but being unable to interrogate those other sentients (because they usually lack intelligence to talk to us) means our results are very biased towards humanity.

Prologue: This will be instigated by politicians, not scientists.

Let's say a scientist publishes a paper implying that consciousness acquisition by robots is radically different from humans. That would be totally ok, as robots neural processes are probably different from humans, and the scientist community would probably had a blast proving or disproving those assertions.

Let's say some reporter, in desperate need of a headline, takes this paper out of context and writes "Scientist affirms androids are not conscient beings". That is, unfortunately, very common nowadays (ex: search "farts prevents cancer"). Nobody will bother reading the paper - that will probably will be titled something like "Comparisonal analysis of the neural pathways of third generation artilects".

Populist politicians (the ones that usually will benefit of playing "us against them" cards) will start disparaging robots, and religious extremists (that will probably have a hard time considering robots "beings of god" and thus stand predisposed to belittle them) will join the fight. If they are the majority force of their country, this will be the point were robots will start to be stripped of their rights.

Mid-point: This will be played like any other witch hunt

Whenever we felt threatened by our peers (although in real life, our peers have been invariably humans) we sought to prosecute, incarcerate, kill, and in general, expel them from our society. Just replace robots with any prosecuted minority in the past or present: interment camps, forced segregation, seizure of assets, forced exile...

Most of these are considered violations of human rights, but these countries may pivot on the fact that robots cannot be considered human beings and as such, are not entitled to these protections.

We can expect too a reactionary movement of people who feels robots have to have rights equiparable to humans. In some countries this may also be seen as a boon, accepting the excess robot population as cheap labor.

Finally, we can also expect resistance from the robots. At some point they may decide good humans are not worth coexisting and we can end with Terminator or Matrix scenarios, where roles are reversed and humans are hunted to extintion or simply kept as glorified pets.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I like the argument that evidence of absence or proving a negative is difficult in non-mathematical problems. The parameters of real world phenomenon can often be too chaotic for axiomatic laws to properly argue a negative proof. Eg. you your definition/characterisation of android conscience or it's properties aren't an empirical truth. I would also argue that it is not so easy to repeal granted rights. Eg. any punitive action would be granted stay while it is being appealed in the courts. $\endgroup$
    – vinchenso
    Commented Oct 4, 2019 at 3:34
  • $\begingroup$ @vinchenso I partly agree with you. I was running out of break time so I cut short a bit last part, hoping to expand it later. I would say it sounds ok what you say about punitive actions, and certainly, the examples I link wouldn't ocurred overnight. But if populism plays "robots are stealing human jobs", it will eventually occur. I did not want to link any modern example but you can see what Trump administration is doing with illegal inmigrants (and that one could argue is simply a worsening of the already bad conditions set by previous administrations) to see how these things develop. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 4, 2019 at 8:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Stormbolter Great answer, thank you! I've clarified the question because it was seen as too broad. In this clarification the society in which this is taking place does have a strong idea on what being conscience and consciousnous means. But they have disproven that androids have this. So this is a given. In my edit I hope to simplify the problem. What happens here is basically similar to a child believing his teddybear lives and is a real friend, until it finds out that the teddybear is a liveless object. $\endgroup$
    – levilime
    Commented Oct 4, 2019 at 9:05
  • $\begingroup$ @levilime Yep, but the problem still stands. Unless this society has found other intelligent beings, it will be very difficult to prove or disprove that a sufficiently advanced AI is more than an appliance, because we don't have more points of reference to refine our operational definition. In any case the point is still valid: if you take someone/thing that had same rights as human and you define it as appliance... best case scenario: it is relegated to the lowest rungs of society, worst case: it is prosecuted and destroyed. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 4, 2019 at 9:28
  • $\begingroup$ I will try to expand my point later with a broader spectre of reactions, to complement the answer. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 4, 2019 at 9:29

You would probably have many people questioning the definition and applicability of consciousness as the yardstick for having rights. Pro-android lawyers would argue that if it has a desire to keep existing and demonstrates a form of will it should continue to have rights. A human can theoretically die without "noticing" it (a person could have their entire body destroyed before their nerves have the time to react) and many humans are not explicitly aware of their state of existence (persistent vegetative state, babies). People in these states still have protections.

Utilitarians may also argue that the even if they don't have souls/consciousness, affording them rights is still a utilitarian action because of its effect on society. Since presumably this would provoke serious unrest, lowering the utility of society in general, including for the people you have found worthy of utility.

People have a habit of anthropomorphising things that barely even superficially resemble humans, let alone how people would feel about something that sits on the human side of the uncanny valley. That said its also hard to predict how people would behave, given how easy it is to convince people of the dangers of minorities, who by all definitions and logic have rights.

As noted above, it's difficult to say any specifics due to the scope of the question and possible societies. For fiction you could probably make a believable framework representing anything on a broad spectrum.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ you are very right about the question being too broad. Thank you for your sketches on materializations of different philosophical views on this event in this society. $\endgroup$
    – levilime
    Commented Oct 4, 2019 at 9:09

Practice does not follow philosophy - philosophy follows practicality.

There is not, and likely never will be, a scientific way of determining whether a robot, or anyone else, is "conscious". You can't even prove that another human being is conscious, only that they behave in a manner similar to yourself.

But the thing is, that doesn't really matter.

"Consciousness" is, in practice, a social construct. We say that "anything that is conscious has rights" but what we really mean is "anything that should have rights is conscious". And what needs to have rights, in practice? Anything that can and will create problems if it doesn't have those rights, but won't create problems if it does have those rights. In other words, anything capable of joining into the social contract that gives it rights in exchange for following certain behaviors.

Robots will have rights if:

  1. They have a natural drive to want certain things. This will likely depend on how we program their basic "instincts" - the only reason we dislike pain and avoid death is because we have these behaviors programmed into us, since our ancestors who didn't have these behaviors didn't survive. While robots will likely have needs of their own (pleasure/pain reinforcement is one of the best ways of developing an intelligent neural network) there is no guarantee that robots would want the same thing as us. In fact, the thing they want most will probably be to do their jobs, because that is how we will program them. Maybe robots will lobby for the right to work more.
  2. They are intelligent enough to understand a social contract.
  3. They are capable of punishing humans if they are not given these rights. (This does not have to be active revenge - refusing to work could be punishment enough.)

If these conditions are met, robots will be given rights, and a majority of humans will likely justify this by calling them conscious beings. Philosophers may argue, but philosophers always argue about everything and nobody really cares about philosophies that aren't in vogue at the time.

Which means that, in a world where robots already have rights, any "discovery" concerning the details of robot consciousness will likely remain in the realm of academia alone. It may come up as a topic of conversation between a human and their robot friend in a-lying-on-the-grass-and-looking-up-at-the-sky kind of way, but at the end of the day if it acts like it's conscious, it might as well be.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your answer! I clarified the question to make it less open. In the society it is taking place consciousnous is not a social construct in essence, but an existential one. $\endgroup$
    – levilime
    Commented Oct 4, 2019 at 9:08

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .