Children’s perceptions of the moral worth of live agents, robots, and inanimate objects, Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, November 2019

Kristyn Sommer, Mark Nielsen, Madeline Draheim, Jonathan Redshaw, Eric J. Vanman, Matti Wilks

Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, November 2019

This study examined children’s moral concern for robots relative to living and nonliving entities. Children (4–10 years of age, N = 126) watched videos of six different entities having a box placed over them that was subsequently struck by a human hand. Children were subsequently asked to rate the moral worth of each agent relating to physical harm. Children afforded robotic entities less moral concern than living entities but afforded them more moral concern than nonliving entities, and these effects became more pronounced with age. Children’s tendency to ascribe mental life to robotic and nonliving entities (but not living entities) predicted moral concern for these entities. However, when asked to make moral judgments relating to giving the agent away, children did not distinguish between nonliving and robotic agents and no age-related changes were identified. Moreover, the tendency to ascribe mental life was predictive of moral concern only for some agents but not others. Overall, the findings suggest that children consider robotic entities to occupy a middle moral ground between living and nonliving entities and that this effect is partly explained by the tendency to ascribe mental life to such agents. They also demonstrate that moral worth is a complex multifaceted concept that does not demonstrate a clear pattern across different ontological categories.


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