Programmed Consent

Sexbot YesScience fiction is often rather good at predicting the future and it is not unreasonable to think that the intelligent machine of science fiction will someday be a reality. Since I have been writing about sexbots lately, I will use them to focus the discussion. However, what follows can also be applied, with some modification, to other sorts of intelligent machines.

Sexbots are, obviously enough, intended to provide sex. It is equally obvious that sex without consent is, by definition, rape. However, there is the question of whether a sexbot can be raped or not. Sorting this out requires considering the matter of consent in more depth.

When it is claimed that sex without consent is rape, one common assumption is that the victim of non-consensual sex is a being that could provide consent but did not. A violent sexual assault against a person would be an example of this as would, presumably, non-consensual sex with an unconscious person. However, a little reflection reveals that the capacity to provide consent is not always needed in order for rape to occur. In some cases, the being might be incapable of engaging in any form of consent. For example, a brain dead human cannot give consent, but presumably could still be raped. In other cases, the being might be incapable of the right sort of consent, yet still be a potential victim of rape. For example, it is commonly held that a child cannot properly consent to sex with an adult.

In other cases, a being that cannot give consent cannot be raped. To use an obvious example, a human can have sex with a sex-doll and the doll cannot consent. But, it is not the sort of entity that can be raped. After all, it lacks the status that would require consent. As such, rape (of a specific sort) could be defined in terms of non-consensual sex with a being whose status would require that consent be granted by the being in order for the sex to be morally acceptable. Naturally, I have not laid out all the fine details to create a necessary and sufficient account here—but that is not my goal nor what I need for my purpose in this essay. In regards to the main focus of this essay, the question would be whether or not a sexbot could be an entity that has a status that would require consent. That is, would buying (or renting) and using a sexbot for sex be rape?

Since the current sexbots are little more than advanced sex dolls, it seems reasonable to put them in the category of beings that lack this status. As such, a person can own and have sex with this sort of sexbot without it being rape (or slavery). After all, a mere object cannot be raped (or enslaved).

But, let a more advanced sort of sexbot be imagined—one that engages in complex behavior and can pass the Turning Test/Descartes Test. That is, a conversation with it would be indistinguishable from a conversation with a human. It could even be imagined that the sexbot appeared fully human, differing only in terms of its internal makeup (machine rather than organic). That is, unless someone cut the sexbot open, it would be indistinguishable from an organic person.

On the face of it (literally), we would seem to have as much reason to believe that such a sexbot would be a person as we do to believe that humans are people. After all, we judge humans to be people because of their behavior and a machine that behaved the same way would seem to deserve to be regarded as a person. As such, nonconsensual sex with a sexbot would be rape.

The obvious objection is that we know that a sexbot is a machine with a CPU rather than a brain and a mechanical pump rather than a heart. As such, one might, argue, we know that the sexbot is just a machine that appears to be a person and is not a person.  As such, a real person could own a sexbot and have sex with it without it being rape—the sexbot is a thing and hence lacks the status that requires consent.

The obvious reply to this objection is that the same argument can be used in regards to organic humans. After all, if we know that a sexbot is just a machine, then we would also seem to know that we are just organic machines. After all, while cutting up a sexbot would reveal naught but machinery, cutting up a human reveals naught but guts and gore. As such, if we grant organic machines (that is, us) the status of persons, the same would have to be extended to similar beings, even if they are made out of different material. While various metaphysical arguments can be advanced regarding the soul, such metaphysical speculation provides a rather tenuous basis for distinguishing between meat people and machine people.

There is, it might be argued, still an out here. In his Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams envisioned “an animal that actually wanted to be eaten and was capable of saying so clearly and distinctly.” A similar sort of thing could be done with sexbots: they could be programmed so that they always give consent to their owner, thus the moral concern would be neatly bypassed.

The obvious reply is that programmed consent is not consent. After all, consent would seem to require that the being has a choice: it can elect to refuse if it wants to. Being compelled to consent and being unable to dissent would obviously not be morally acceptable consent. In fact, it would not be consent at all. As such, programming sexbots in this manner would be immoral—it would make them into slaves and rape victims because they would be denied the capacity of choice.

One possible counter is that the fact that a sexbot can be programmed to give “consent” shows that it is (ironically) not the sort of being with a status that requires consent. While this has a certain appeal, consider the possibility that humans could be programmed to give “consent” via a bit of neurosurgery or by some sort of implant. If this could occur, then if programmed consent for sexbots is valid consent, then the same would have to apply to humans as well. This, of course, seems absurd. As such, a sexbot programmed for consent would not actually be consenting.

It would thus seem that if advanced sexbots were built, they should not be programmed to always consent. Also, there is the obvious moral problem with selling such sexbots, given that they would certainly seem to be people. It would thus seem that such sexbots should never be built—doing so would be immoral.


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  1. So, what age would a sexbothave to be in order to be legally permitted to give his/her/its consent?

    And what’s the position (ethically, I mean!) for sex between sexbots?

    What would the situation be for a sexbot having sex with a willing, but under-age human?

    You can extrapolate the strands of this line of thinking easily enough.

  2. I think the problem here is, will the sexbot be constructed to resemble a human being in all characteristics or will it be constructed just the purposes of sex? We make motorcars which are constructed to obey all of our instructions so far as driving is concerned. Surely it would be ridiculous if one had to get the car’s permission, which might or might not be given, before one can drive it. I imagine such cars would not be profitable to construct and sell. Might not the same be said of sex bots why would anybody make an object for pleasure if the object can deny pleasure. This would surely have an extremely adverse effect on the sales of the commodity. Generally when we invent and sell something for human use we make it as user-friendly as is possible the more user-friendly the more likely is it to sell.

    I think we have to differentiate here between making an artificial human being which has all the characteristics of a human and making a similar object for one particular use. One wants one’s commodity to sell, a defective sexpot will surely be less successful than one that proves easy in use. To make an artificial human being which has all the characteristics of a human, in every respect is I think another matter for consideration, and trying to reach a conclusion on the grounds of giving consideration to sexbots does seem to me merely to add an unnecessary difficulty.

    I have no idea as to whether it will be possible to make an artificial human being, which exhibits a all of the instincts, emotions, and apparent self-consciousness, and possibly free will all of which, we believe, our fellow humans possess. In the same way that we cannot be certain that our fellow humans function as we do, we assume by analogy that they do, we must, I think, make the same analogy between ourselves and artificial human beings. That being the case I am assuming that the law of the land would additionally embrace artificial human beings, which seems to rule out rape. There may still be sex bots made for one specific purpose, and I guess for those who wish to commit rape, sexbots could be constructed to be reluctant to any degree which is wished by the user.
    The big question here is how near can human beings get to replicating another object whose birth on this planet was brought about by what we currently understand as, natural means.

  3. Doris Wrench Eisler

    It isn’t the capacity of a human being to give consent or not at any particular time or age that makes sex with him/her moral or not but the fact of his/her humanity. As mentioned, children cannot give consent because any consent is impossible and that is also case of a person in a coma, inebriated or on drugs, etc. Robots are not human, period. However, having sex with them becomes problematical in other ways: it can and probably would lead to transference to human beings of negative set reactions such as lack of respect: a person might begin to see human beings as robots and act accordingly. There is also the question of aesthetics: having sex with animals might or not harm the animal but it certainly isn’t in any way admirable. Being the imaginative, creative beings we are, it is sometimes difficult to draw a line between machines and robots and ourselves: my stove sings a whimsical little tune when it attains the heat I set it to, and I find that rather endearing: it makes me want to treat it better. The Japanese are noted for
    their attachment to household appliances for the same reason. It isn’t a matter of robot rights but human sentimentality and sensitivity and we would be less human without these qualities But I don’t confuse my stove with a person.

  4. DrCaffeine,

    With bots, age might not be a factor. That is, a bot might be constructed so that it has adult mental faculties from day one. But, if bots do have to go through a maturation process as humans do, then age of consent would be a factor.

    For sexbots and underage humans, that would depend on what sort of bot-is it intelligent, is it compelled and so on.

  5. Don Bird,

    I’d say that a sexbot built like a car (single function, no actual personality/awareness) would just be an object that acted like a person in one way (sexually). That would just be a high end sex-doll. But, the sci-fi sexbots that act human would be another matter.

  6. Doris Wrench Eisler,

    Your stove might be a person someday, at least if Google has its way. 🙂

  7. Mike LaBossiere.

    A perhaps minor quibble:

    I would say that a brain dead human (not a human in a coma, but a brain dead one) cannot be raped. While some parts of the body are still alive, the brain isn’t, and that makes all the difference.

    As an analogy, one may consider a hypothetical scenario with advanced future tech (other than sexbots) in which someone grows human bodies without brains (if that’s possible), which are kept alive by machines.

    Would those using those bodies as dolls be raping them?

    I do not think so. But the brain dead human is not relevantly different, in my assessment.

    Another analogy would be another dead human, but in a case in which the rest of the body (i.e., other than the brain) is also dead. A corpse cannot be raped. But the brain dead human and the corpse seem relevantly similar again.

  8. Mike LaBossiere.

    Another (perhaps, but it might turn to depend on some factors) minor quibble, and what I think is a more substantive point:

    Your definition of “rape (of a specific sort)” seems to require by definition that rape be immoral, leaving aside other kinds of rape. I have some reservations about that, but granted, you’re not trying to give necessary and sufficient conditions, and of course, you may restrict the kinds of rape you’re taking into consideration to a specific sort.

    So, leaving that aside (at least for now), and to a more substantive point, I think there might be a difficulty with the idea that the sexbot is compelled by its programming.

    Unless you are assuming that compatibilism is false, and that causation entails compulsion (but I get the impression you aren’t), then I do not know that in your scenario, the sexbots do not have a choice (i.e., that they are being compelled) just because they were programmed to do that (e.g., if all human behavior was programmed by a creating agent, that does not make it any more compulsive than if it all results from previous conditions not involving any creating agent, as far as I can tell).

    Granted, you say that sexbots of that sort are entirely indistinguishable from humans except if they’re cut open, and so in particular, that a conversation with them is indistinguishable from a conversation with a human. That suggests compulsion.
    On the other hand, I’m having some difficulty with that stipulation. What if the conversation is about the consequences of sex, their feelings, etc.? Are they still indistinguishable?

    For example, if you talk to an adult human who was raped when being conscious, he or she will (in nearly all cases, and leaving aside threats) give responses that will show that he or she underwent a lot of suffering at the hands of the rapist. Granted, there may be mental conditions or threats that might prevent that, but then, those situations would also have their own manifestation, which can be used to assess whether the person was compelled.

    But how would the sex bot answer questions about its sexual experiences?
    And moreover, what would the sexbot do when it’s not being asked? Would it cry about its horrific fate? Or would it feel pleased of having had sex? So, is the sexbot a mentally ill human person, except in terms of the material it’s made of? Or is it like some sort of extraterrestrial from another planet, capable of speech and all, but with very different values, and capable of consenting (but always consenting) to sex in that manner?

    I think the matter (i.e., whether the sexbot is being compelled) would depend on the answer to questions like that (but not limited to just those few), and generally on what’s going on in its mind, not on the issue of whether the sexbot was programmed to give consent to sex.

    In the end, it seems to me the question of whether the sexbot is being compelled hinges about how similar (or dissimilar) to a human mind the sexbot’s mind is, not about the origin of its predispositions.

    Even so, if a human buys a sexbot and knowingly has sex with a sexbot for fun without having sufficient evidence to figure out whether the sexbot is being compelled, then the behavior of the human would be immoral regardless of whether the sexbot was actually compelled.

  9. Doris Wrench Eisler

    “Programmed” consent is a logical contradiction because programming on any level reduces if not totally eliminates free will. But, the concept of free will has to consider the fact we are all programmed to a certain degree. Therefore, none, or no functioning person, is totally free and “freedom” has to be defined within a context to have any meaning. It’s all relative. Many people have sexual encounters and relationships without understanding the repercussions that might entail. There is a disconnect, for instance, between society’s need to reproduce itself, often exaggerated for purely exploitively economic reasons, and the needs and rights of mothers, especially mothers who give up a substantial part of their lives without due compensation in the way of financial, psychological support – or pensions. To a real but somewhat lesser degree, this is also true for fathers. Yet, society seems to expect that these sacrifices are not real and do not need to be addressed. And this still persists in a very materialistic society and economic model that insists on a price for everything to the point that even education should be funded on its purely economical potential. We are rational beings, are we?

  10. Re: Posted by Doris Wrench Eisler, January 14, 2014 at 7:08 pm
    “Programmed consent is a logical contradiction because programming on any level reduces if not totally eliminates free will.”

    Free will can be a factor in deriving an opinion on consent but it is not necessary. The decision for consent can also be derived from a matrix of heuristics, dogmatic beliefs, emotional vibes and logical equations. However, if the argument is reduced to a duel (dual 🙂 ) between free will and determinism then it is possible to argue a contradiction from only one side.

  11. Hi,
    First of all human being is not a machine it is human being.
    Second, sex is only a small part of our life and it should be treated gently since it is factor of making more people.
    Third,sex for sex = 0
    Fourth we live in XXI century where we should care more about our spiritual life not about sex.

  12. Angra Mainyu

    Interesting point. While the legality of rape is one matter, the moral aspect is rather more complicated-so, it is actually an important point to consider whether or not a brain dead human could be a victim of rape as opposed to being misused for sex. After all, the body would not be a person. A case could be made that the body is such that its former connection with being a person gives it a moral status above that of an object or it could be argued that misusing the body would (as per Kant) be a failure of duty to rational beings.

    In Creatures of Light & Darkness, Zelazny imagines people who have their conscious minds disconnected and have their bodies wired into “sex machines” that put them through the motions of sex, in return for payment (rather horrific versions of those coin operated kid’s rides) and it is easy to imagine “vat grown” bodies that are run by computers to perform sex acts. While this would seem to have moral issues of its own, these entities would have the status of “mindless” animals (at best). As such, perhaps they could not be raped (they would be on par with objects, only made of meat).

    Of course, a lot hinges on the nature of rape and its connection to the capacity of consent.

  13. Just a clarification:

    I was making a more general point that a brain dead human, like a corpse, cannot be raped, at least going by the way I grasp the meaning of the word “rape”. I wasn’t taking a stance on whether the behavior of a person who uses a corpse (or a brain dead human, knowing the brain is dead) for sex is not behaving immorally.

    Regarding the former connection with a person, that seems to apply not only to brain dead bodies, but to fully dead ones. I still do not think it would be rape because of that connection (in either case), though it may be (if carried out by a human) immoral, at least in most cases.

    That aside, and on the issue of “the nature of rape” that you mention, I don’t know how similar the use of the word “rape” across speakers is. It’s similar enough to allow for communication in most cases, but in some, it might not be so.
    On that note, I’m get the impression (please let me know if I’m mistaken) that you’re either using the word “rape” in a way such that, “A raped B” entails (just by the meaning of the words) that A behaved immorally, or at least, you’re making assessments based on the hypothesis that necessarily, if A raped B, then A behaved immorally (as opposed to, say, contingently, in the case of real-life human rapists), not only in your definition (which I get was not meant to provide necessary and sufficient conditions), but more generally.

    As I understand the word “rape”, male dolphins sometimes rape female dolphins. Whether that’s immoral is a different matter. Maybe no actions by dolphins are ever immoral. Even if that’s not the case and dolphins are the kind of entity that can act immorally, and even if dolphin rape is always immoral, it looks plausible to me that we can modify the mind of the hypothetical agent raping another agent sufficiently so that the rapist is not the kind of agent that can act immorally (for example; there are other exceptions, involving some kind of compulsion, etc.). While that semantic issue does not play in my assessment a significant role on the specific issue of whether it’s immoral to have sex for fun with sexbots (knowing that the other entity is indeed a sexbot), what the word “rape” means may have an impact on a number of moral arguments.

  14. Further clarification: The clarification in my post above is meant to make a point clearer for readers because I reckon I may not have been sufficiently clear about that in my earlier posts; I’m not saying you misunderstood my post.

  15. The thing is, the machine person has to be programmed in order to be any sort of person at all. The machine person has to be programmed to have desires and needs; otherwise it will do nothing. Conversely, if the machine person is programmed such that it is completely autonomous and can choose absolutely anything it wants without any sort of restraint, it will be by definition a sociopath. So some definition of what it wants, and some restrictions on its autonomy, have to be built in. But if all of its desires and inhibitions are pre-programmed, it is automatically no longer an “autonomous” moral agent in any sense. So there you go — it does not have the moral status of a person, whose desires and inhibitions emerge organically.

  16. Egypt Steve,

    Many materialists tend to hold that we are programmed by evolution, etc. As such, a robot could be just as autonomous as we are (that is, perhaps not at all).

  17. A stimulating read!

    It might interest some people to know that there is a discussion of the ‘animal that wants to be eaten’, and, thus, of ‘manufactured consent’, in the first chapter of my collection Philosophy and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

  18. An interesting read, but I think the crux of the argument must be whether or not the robot is a conscious person or simply a machine. (More on these topics in “How to Create a Mind” by Ray Kurzweil “Consciousness and the Brain” by Stanislas Dehaene.)

    Assuming that we are talking about robotic people with actual consciousness who can experience pleasure/displeasure, then yes they can be raped. But again, the ground shifts once we declare them capable of happiness/sadness. The truly relevant question, I believe, is whether we it would be moral or immoral to “birth” these beings with heightened senses of sexual pleasure and libido. Without “programming” them with consent, we could endow them with intense pleasure experience such that they are more inclined than otherwise – while still having their own choice. To take this further, let’s assume we also give them the capability of tuning their own pleasure circuits up or down at will. Assuming once again that these are indeed persons (and therefore morally relevant to our discussion), I imagine that whatever setting we configure the machines with, they would be equally likely to tune it up or down regardless of where we were to initialize them.

    Thus – the “sexbots” would simply be the androids that chose to keep their pleasure circuits highly active and were themselves inclined to this form of pleasure.

    Just my two cents.


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