As a general rule, any technology that can be used for sex will be used for sex. Even if it shouldn’t. In accord with this rule, researchers and engineers are hard at work developing ever more realistic sexbots. By science-fiction standards, these sexbots are fairly crude—the most human-like seem to be just a bit more advanced than high-end sex dolls.
In my previous essay on this subject, I considered a Kantian approach to such non-rational sexbots. In this essay I will look at the matter from a consequentialist/utilitarian moral viewpoint.
On the face of it, sexbots could be seen as nothing new—currently they are merely an upgrade of the classic sex dolls that have been around for quite some time. Sexbots are, of course, more sophisticated than the famous blow-up sex dolls, but the basic idea is the same: the sexbot is an object that a person has sex with.
That said, one thing that makes sexbots morally interesting is the fact that they are typically designed to mimic human beings not merely in physical form (which is what sex dolls do) but in regards to the mind. For example, the Roxxxy sexbot’s main feature is its personality (or, more accurately, personalities). As a fictional example, the sexbots in Almost Human do not merely provide sex—they also provide human-like companionship. However, such person-like sexbots are a still a thing of science-fiction. As such, human-mimicking sexbots of this sort can be seen as something new.
An obvious moral concern is that the human-mimicking sexbots will have negative consequences for actual human beings, be they men or women. Not surprisingly, many of these concerns are analogous to existing moral concerns regarding pornography.
Pornography, so the stock arguments go, can have considerable negative consequences. One of these is that it teaches men to regard women as being mere sexual objects. This can, in some cases, influence men to treat women poorly and can also impact how women see themselves. Another point of concern is the addictive nature of pornography—people can become obsessed with it to their detriment.
Human-mimicking sexbots would certainly seem to have the potential to do more harm than pornography. After all, while watching pornography allows a person to see other people treated as mere sexual objects, a sexbot would allow a person to use a human-mimicking object sexually. This could presumably have an even stronger conditioning effect on the person using the object, leading some to regard other people as mere sexual objects and thus increasing the chances they will treat other people poorly. If so, it would seem that selling or using a sexbot would be morally wrong.
People might become obsessed with their sexbots, as people do with pornography. Then again, people might simply “conduct their business” with their sexbots and get on with things. If so, sexbots might be an improvement over pornography in this regard. After all, while a guy could spend hours each day watching pornography, he certainly would not last very long with his sexbot.
Another concern raised in regards to certain types of pornography is that they encourage harmful sexual views and behavior. For example, violent pornography is supposed to influence people to engage in violence. As another example, child pornography is supposed to have an especially pernicious influence on people. Naturally, there is the concern about causation here: do people seek such porn because they are already that sort of person or does the porn influence them to become that sort of person? I will not endeavor to answer this here.
Since sexbots are objects, a person can do whatever he wishes to his sexbot—hit it, burn it, and “torture” it and so on. Presumably there will also be specialty markets catering to particular interests, such as those of pedophiles and necrophiliacs. If pornography that caters to these “tastes” can be harmful, then presumably a person being actively involved in such activities with a human-mimicking sexbot would be even more harmful. Essentially, the person would be practicing or warming up for the real thing. As such, it would seem that selling or using sexbots, especially those designed for harmful “interests” would be immoral.
Not surprisingly, these arguments are also similar to those used in regards to violent video games. The general idea is that violent video games are supposed to influence people so that they are more likely to engage in violence. So, just as some have proposed restrictions on virtual violence, perhaps there should be strict restrictions on sexbots.
When it comes to video games, one plausible counter is that while violent video games might have negative impact on the behavior of some people, they allow most people to harmlessly “burn off” their desire for violence and to let off steam. This seems analogous to sports and non-video games: they allow people to engage in conflict and competition in safer and far less destructive ways. For example, a person can indulge her love of conflict and conquest by playing Risk or Starcraft II after she works out her desire for violence by sparring a few rounds in the ring.
Turning back to sexbots, while they might influence some people badly, they might also provide a means by which people could indulge in desires that would be wrong, harmful and destructive to indulge with another person. So, for example, a person who likes to engage in sexual torture could satisfy her desires on a human-mimicking sexbot rather than an actual human. The rather critical issue here is whether or not indulging in such virtual vice with a sexbot would be a harmless dissipation of these desires or merely fuel them and drive a person to indulging them on actual people. If sexbots did allow people who would otherwise harm other people to vent their “needs” harmlessly on machines, then that would certainly be good for society as a whole. However, if this sort of activity would simply push them into doing such things for real and with unwilling victims, then that would certainly be bad for the person and society as a whole. This, then, is a key part of addressing the ethical concerns regarding sexbots.
(As a side note, I’ve been teaching myself how to draw-clever mockery of my talent is always appreciated…)