Kantian Ethics (Thursday Night at the Cinema)

Happy Thursday!

Kant is one of those names that never quite leaves you.  I remember my first encounter with the phonetically funny name was when I took an ethics class at mizzou, then again when I discovered existential comics and their “kant pun free since” counter (link), and most recently being here in the UK where a common phrase is “I just can’t be asked” or “cba” for short.

So this week’s at the cinema I want to present the 8-bit philosophy video essay:

Do Humans Operate like Computers?


This video essay lightly outlines Kant’s ethics which can be defined by what he called the Categorical Imperative (or The Good Will) which had three formulations:

  1. The Formula of Universality – “act only according to that maxim (rule or principle of action ie intention/justification) by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law (something done in similar situations) without contradiction.”
  2. The Formula of Humanity – “Act so as to treat people always as ends in themselves, never as mere means.”
  3. The Formula of Autonomy – “Thus the third practical principle follows [from the first two] as the ultimate condition of their harmony with practical reason: the idea of the will of every rational being as a universally legislating will.”


Kantian ethics is dependent on free will or the freedom to act in accordance to The Good Will (“just following orders” is not ethical, nor is being deceived into doing the wrong thing with the intention to do the right thing) and human reason.  Kant was not trying to prove the existence of ethics as a thing in-itself but rather sought to build a system in which ethics were separate from religion and based on reason rather than divine because he thought that the cohesion of society depended on the presence of an system of ethics.

The “ought implies can” phrase being the difference between humans and machines that operate on closed link algorithms such as mechanical machines because they can be designed to operate in specific was where as it doesn’t seem to take into account a system that updates it’s input values for behavior algorithms based on reinforcing of desirable behavior…though the efforts so far have not been entirely successful.

However I believe what we can learn from the failure of Microsoft’s try at artificial intelligence is that rather than exposing the AI to the internet from day one, maybe we should treat it like a human and “raise it” before exposing it to the internet.  I believe, as wonky as it sounds, if we raised the AI in an environment where it learns by talking with a small family of people learning what’s funny, what’s taboo, and even if it doesn’t understand why it will pick up on a trend of similar reactions and explanations (depending on how talkative the humans who interact with them are).

I don’t think the advent of an independently intelligent will manifest in a way we fear, fantasize, or usually imagine but rather I believe they will adapt to be like human 2.0 in the way of hardware, to continue a biological-technological metaphor, but as far as “software” updates,  the only way we can really imagine a second sentient race is not in the way of “us and them” but “we are them” such that architecture of organic learning is that the foundations will be built from the environment it develops which accounts for the humans it will interact with.  The Ethics they have and raise the robot with, the way the robot may learn to think.  This is intriguing and scary and in it self opens up ethical questions such as:

Should there be kill switches for these things? Should they be programmed with a “life span”?

How should they be programmed to develop in the most ethical manour? Such that human development goes in waves with a strong start in the first 20 some odd years and slow down with age(1) or to be able to develop in intentional waves or constant?

Speaking of development and behavior acquisition, what would be the ethics on “rebooting” or “wiping the drive”?  To what extent will the bots be held to ethics as we understand it?

Again, like last Thursday I have no answers.  Tune in tomorrow to see a Kantian inspired comic.


For more information about Kant, despite some overlap in information, I recommend the following videos in the playlist Kantian Ethics:

Three Minute Philosophy

Philosophy Tube

The School of Life

Crash Course



  1. Though with effort I believe it can be continued life long and believe we have an obligation to do so.



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