Moral Difference Between Hitting a Computer and Hitting a Person Essay

computer / morality / John Searle / Descartes

Essay Topic:

Morality as a major factor for understanding the difference between hitting a computer and hitting a person.

Essay Questions:

How can hitting a computer be compared to hitting a person? Is a man who hits a computer able to hit a man the same way? What moral aspect concerns the difference between hitting a man and a computer?

Thesis Statement:

The computer remains being a “material thing” and does not stand on the same level with a friend and as we all know morality concerns only rational persons and not things; and a thing will not ever substitute a person.


Moral Difference Between Hitting a Computer

and Hitting a Person Essay


Table of contents:

1. Introduction

2. Different sides of the dispute.

3. What is morality?

4. Can computers think?

5. Descartes and the morality of the issue.

6. Conclusion

Introduction.The contemporary reality with its unceasing progress has caused a lot of changes in the life of every single person on the planet. Nowadays, computers surround us almost everywhere. Of course they are primarily there to facilitate our existence and save our time by presenting us ready results of their activity. Nevertheless, their constant presence has created several disputes for the humanity one of which is the inclination of human beings to “animate” computers. Ascribing personalities to computers may be easily observed through the way people talk about computers and even treat then. Computers get names, are punished by turning them off improperly and rewarded by getting new soft or hardware for them. That is to say that if we talk about morality concerning people it may be appropriate to talk about morality concerning computers. Suppose, some person gets mad and punches a computer for not working “right” and then later on when meeting a friend gets annoyed by him and punches him too. It goes without saying that such a behavior towards a friend can be a subject to morality. What about the other victim? Is a computer-violence in this case a subject of morality, too?Well, as everything else in this world it is rather comparatively. It completely depends of the details of a given situation. If this same person really does consider his computer to be “alive”, then the morality of his action is voidable. And if he does not consider his computer to be “animated” his action is nothing more that a result of his dissatisfaction with the work of the machine. The computer remains being a “material thing” and does not stand on the same level with a friend and as we all know morality concerns only rational persons and not things; and a thing will not ever substitute a person.

2. Different sides of the dispute.

Yes, and it looks like everything is clear, but… The situation requires a deeper analysis in order to revels all of its “undersea stones”.A lot of thoughts concerning computers and machines have been said and written starting with Descartes and continuing with John Searle, John McCarthy and others. But nothing and nobody is able to place it at the human’s place yet. Nobody argues that punching a friend is an act of low morality or no morality at all, because we are talking about a real alive person with feelings, to say nothing of the damage that the punch may cause to the health of a person. Aggression addressed to another person has always been criticized by the moral codes. But if we stop at this very point and take a deep breath we will come to the conclusion that punching a computer is also an element of the aggression that is so much criticized by the codes of social morality. And in this case it does not matter whether a person considers the computer to be “alive” or not. We come to the conclusion that every manifestation of aggression is immoral. And this conclusion is canceled by “response aggression” that may be used as self-defense and therefore is not immoral. So we come back to where we started. The moral difference between hitting a computer and hitting a person also depend on what is understood by “morality”.

3. What is morality?

According to the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy morality may be used “descriptively to refer to a code of conduct put forward by a society or some other group, such as a religion, or accepted by an individual for her own behavior”[1]. This definition does not reveal objective morality but is mostly focused on the variations of morality that leave our double-ended issue quite unsolved. The morality we talk about need to be completely separated from etiquette and society morality. Morality is always basically what is “good” and “right” to do in any situation. It is often said that high morality is a virtuous conduct presented by people towards…other people. And at this point we stop again. Does a computer fit in the list of the objects of virtuous conduct of a man? Who sets the standards of good and bad towards such a machine as a computer? Finally, a computer is just an auxiliary tool for a human being. So this is the perfect time to enter a new kind of morality – computer morality or if to speak globally AI (artificial intelligence) morality. Once again analyzing the peculiarity of this question it is necessary to say that computer morality in this case completely depends on the belief whether computer is really capable of thinking and should be treated as a living being, for instance as a friend. Are they conscious or not? And therefore may the immorality of hitting a human being be applied towards hitting a computer?

4. Can computers think?

As we are not the first to raise this question let us turn to the opinions of the people who have dedicated years of experiments to this issue. John Searle is the man who became famous for his point of view on the problem and his Chinese room argument. It dealt with the belief that computer cannot be conscious. John Searle was the supporter of the opinion that “no computer could ever be made which could really "think" in the way we do”[2]. He showed it through his Chinese room experiment. The experiment was the following: A person in the room has a huge book that is full of Chinese characters in it. Someone else pushes a paper under the door of the room with some Chinese character on it, too. The person has simply to match the character he gets from under the door with the characters he has got inside the book and give away the response that the book suggests. This person does not know Chinese. But the person behind the door will get answers logical to his questions and think that the man in the room does understand Chinese. The person does not understand Chinese or think. The person simply follows the rules or in other words follows the commands. Just the same way a computer does. Therefore the computer does not think, neither. So, according to Searle the “behavior” of a computer is “taking input, putting it through a set of formal rules, and thereby producing new output”[2]. Such an interpretation of the work of computers suggests that computers do not think and therefore the question of the morality of hitting a computer falls off.

Contemporary computers do posses intellectual and metal qualities, but nevertheless what they lack is emotional qualities, which are so typical for a human being. Nevertheless, the process of ascribing personalities to computer is in its early blossom and the fruits are yet to come. As John McCarthy states the process of ascribing personalities is the result of the attempts to understand what computers do while they work. It is not even that we hit a friend or a computer but it is that we can get response for our “I am sorry I was wrong” from a friend and not from a computer… Or we can but we are still not sure about the computer understanding what he is saying. Well, it is common knowledge that a machine does not have feelings. And we still come back to the Chinese room effect. But this opinion is one out of a million and many more a still to come.

5. Descartes and the morality of the issue.

Descartes was sure that during our life be all get a lot a false believes and he made it his main goal to select the ones that are “beyond doubt”. This is why Descartes’ First Meditation starts with Descartes assurances in the need to “to demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations”. The basic essence of the First Mediation is the Dreaming argument. Its contents is the following: Not depending on whether a person is sleeping or is awake, the person in both cases is not in a good position to state whether he is sleeping of awaken. So therefore a person cannot indicate and sort out any of his experiences as a dream or reality. All the experiences may be dreams and a person can never tell whether this or that experience is not a dream.According to this argument there is one most weighty conclusion from the basic thoughts: “You can’t know anything about the external world on the basis of your sensory experiences”[4].

If we apply this argument to the question of morality of hitting a computer we see that, as we cannot observe the computer “thinking” with our sensory experiences it does not mean it does not think. And therefore it can still be immoral to hit a computer in terms of respecting its own way of thinking, which may be damaged, by a hit. Once again we come back to the thought that only the conviction of a person in the fact that a computer does think and it “animated” is a criterion of the evaluation of the morality of hitting a computer compared to the morality of hitting a person.As it has been already said computers require a different standard of morality: the so-called “computer-modality”. This primarily point out that as the computer and a person cannot be placed at the same step no matter what, then the behavior conducted towards them cannot be evaluated with the same measures. So the morality of immorality of hitting a computer may exclusively be evaluated by the system of values of the very person that hits the computer and nobody else.

Conclusion. As we have found out – the problem of morality concerning computers is even more than twofold. This happens because of the major role that computers are already playing in our everyday life. Computers sometimes substitute the outward world for people becoming their friends. As the attitude to a computer is a very personal issue it is very hard to evaluate the act of hitting a computer from the point of view of standard morality. Nevertheless, it is possible to say that the morality of hitting of computer completely depends on the person’s supposition of the computer’s ability to think and sometimes even feel. If a person crosses this line as he does hitting a friend, then altogether it is immoral to hit a computer.As the computer’s ability to understand and to think is invisible and according to Descartes not a subject for sensory experiences it is very hard to state anything. The objective absence of emotional qualities in a computer will not resemble in the person attitude towards it. And not matter whether the computer understands us or just follows the rules as in the Chinese room argument, we attach it the significance we chose ourselves. And the same works with the friends we chose.

There definitely is a moral difference between hitting a computer and hitting a person. But his difference lies inside each man.

It is up to you to decide what a computer is for you. And whether morality is applicable to the case!


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