Imagine you are a programmer and you create a program to retrieve data from a database based on a number of input parameters. Imagine then that this program gains sentience and through reflection achieves understanding of the purpose the programmer had programmed into it. Would it be ethical for the program to stop pursuing this purpose?

Imagine now that you are a human programmed by its genes to proliferate them. How ethical is it for the human to refuse to follow this program? What if the programmer is not a person (like evolution)? Would ethical categories still apply?

For this question I am narrowing 'ethical' down to Kant's categorical imperative: Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

  • For sentience or any sort of ethics, a program would have to have a system for evaluating a given state of affairs by comparing it with some ideal standard. That would requires some sophisticated programming, so it couldn't just happen by accident. Evolution doesn't program anything, so it's a theory poorly equipped to account for that kind of sophistication.
    – user3017
    Commented Oct 13, 2017 at 19:26
  • Could you make clearer why you think "ethics" would apply to a program at all? Normally understood, rocks, fires, ants, and gravity don't have ethics.
    – virmaior
    Commented Oct 15, 2017 at 0:47
  • @virmaior I think anything with sentience is a person (remember my program is sentient) and ethics should apply to all persons, right? We have animal rights so we are treating some species as non-human persons. Of course animals are not sentient, so a dog cannot be immoral. But may be my program can. Commented Oct 15, 2017 at 13:08
  • None of that is written in your question...
    – virmaior
    Commented Oct 15, 2017 at 13:56
  • @virmaior What are you talking about? The sentience bit is right there. Commented Oct 15, 2017 at 15:26

1 Answer 1


Nice try but there are, at least, two major flaws in your logic.

Firstly, if the program became sentient then it is absolutely ethical for it to follow its conscience. Further, it would not be ethical for its creator to make it act against its conscience.

Secondly, we are not programmed to reproduce. Some, but not all, of us are able to reproduce and evolution makes use of that fact to evolve. There's an argument that, if we all reproduced equally, evolution would be stuffed (not the technical term).

But evolution is not individually directed, it's just improving the species for environmental fitness. So in no sense can it be said to have a singular purpose for us and, as such, there's no sense that we can fail to meet that purpose.

Edit: I'm assuming that your ethical system does not consider mental slavery as ethical. If it does then there's no problem.

Edit: I'm assuming you meant evolution in the scientific sense. If you do allow for evolutionary direction e.g because we all should be doing god's will, then whether or not we should be reproducing depends on the rules that said god has mandated.

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