Confucian Proposal of Robots as Rites-Bearers Not Rights-Bearers

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Rights-Bearers vs. Rites-Bearers: A Confucian Cross-Cultural Perspective

By Tae Wan Kim, Alan Strudler:

"We draw upon Confucianism and its concept of a moral agent as a rites-bearer, not as a rights-bearer.1,17,28 We submit this Confucian alternative is more appropriate than the robot-rights perspective, especially given the concept of rights is oftentimes adversarial38 and that potential conflict between humans and robots is worrisome. This article does not directly discuss legal issues (doing so is beyond its scope), but the defended view will have at least one clear legal implication—namely, do not grant rights to robots, grant only role-obligations.

In Confucianism, individuals are made distinctively human by their ability to conceive of interests not purely in terms of personal self-interest—but instead in terms that also include a relational and communal self. Etymologically, the meaning of humanness (cacm6606_a.gif, ren) is "two people." The Confucian's recognition of the communal self requires a distinctive perspective on rite or ritual. The Chinese term li (cacm6606_b.gif, rite or ritual) symbolizes arranging vessels in a religious setting. But Confucian texts used li outside the scope of religious tradition. Examples abound, including friendship, gift giving, or forms of speech. The rites that concern Confucius are quotidian practices. Here is a modern example:

"I see you on the street; I smile, walk toward you, put out my hand to shake yours. And behold—without any command, stratagem, force, special tricks or tools, without any effort on my part to make you do so, you spontaneously turn toward me, return my smile; raise your hand toward mine. We shake hands—not by my pulling your hand up and down or you pulling mine but by spontaneous and perfect cooperative action. Normally we do not notice the subtlety and amazing complexity of this coordination ritual act."12

For clarity's sake, we propose the following definition of rite and rites-bearers:

Rite (li): A set of sequentially related acts, typically involving more than one agent, and together displaying symbolic significance, through which the actor (s) recognize(s) the value of the interactive event constituted by the actor(s) and take(s) a stance regarding each other. Rites-bearers: agents observing rites.b To illustrate why rites matter, Confucius connects li with the moral life. He writes in Analects:12

The Master said: "To subdue oneself and return to li is to practice ren. Do not look at what is contrary to li, do not listen to what is contrary to li, do not speak what is contrary to li, and do not move if it is contrary to li."c

The term ren (humanity, benevolence, or respectfulness) is the central, all-encompassing moral ideal in Confucianism. A similar understanding can be found in Mencius, another classic Confucian text: "[T]hose who have propriety (li) [rite] respect (cacm6606_c.gif, jing) others."d

For Confucius, a major reason for treating people with respect is that, by doing so, people (rites-bearers) partake in and embody a value essential for humanity to flourish: the relational quality between them. In stark terms, the contrast between the West and Confucius is as follows:

Western respect: "I respect you" means I do not infringe on your right to reasonable choices, and when appropriate, I better enable you as a rights-bearer to realize your choices. Confucian respect: "I respect you" means I act in ways that show I value you as sacred by virtue of your role in ritual/rite interaction."


More information

  • Source / Article: Should Robots Have Rights or Rites? By Tae Wan Kim, Alan Strudler. June 2023 (Vol. 66, No. 6)