Debunking robot rights metaphysically, ethically, and legally


  • Abeba Birhane
  • Jelle van Dijk
  • Frank Pasquale



In this work we challenge the argument for robot rights on metaphysical, ethical and legal grounds. Metaphysically, we argue that machines are not the kinds of things that may be denied or granted rights. Building on theories of phenomenology and post-Cartesian approaches to cognitive science, we ground our position in the lived reality of actual humans in an increasingly ubiquitously connected, controlled, digitized, and surveilled society. Ethically, we argue that, given machines’ current and potential harms to the most marginalized in society, limits on (rather than rights for) machines should be at the centre of current AI ethics debate. From a legal perspective, the best analogy to robot rights is not human rights but corporate rights, a highly controversial concept whose most important effect has been the undermining of worker, consumer, and voter rights by advancing the power of capital to exercise outsized influence on politics and law. The idea of robot rights, we conclude, acts as a smoke screen, allowing theorists and futurists to fantasize about benevolently sentient machines with unalterable needs and desires protected by law. While such fantasies have motivated fascinating fiction and art, once they influence legal theory and practice articulating the scope of rights claims, they threaten to immunize from legal accountability the current AI and robotics that is fuelling surveillance capitalism, accelerating environmental destruction, and entrenching injustice and human suffering.




How to Cite

Birhane, A., van Dijk, J., & Pasquale, F. (2024). Debunking robot rights metaphysically, ethically, and legally. First Monday, 29(4).