In Star Trek TNG, TOS and Voyager they at some point debate what sentience is and what makes a person a person.

Picard with Data/Moriarty, Janeway with The Doctor/holos, Kirk and Spock with the Horta and Sisko with the equality of people and the Bell Riots. I am honestly unsure if Archer or Lorca has yet canonically covered this topic.

My question is it ethical to build androids/holograms or genetically created beings with programming that prevents sentience from emerging. Like a sort of contraceptive/lobotomy?

Also, does Self-aware necessarily mean intelligent as well? do you need one to have the other?

yes, I know mentally disabled individuals or handicapped people may not be as intelligent but it still fits a level of intelligence as far as I understand it. In other words, I'm not asking if a mentally disabled person is intelligent or self-aware. I suspect I'm over explaining so I will stop right here lol.

If you know something has the potential to be sentient is it unethical to intentionally prevent that from happening?

Also to be clear I did ask this in the SiFi stack but they told me that it wasn't a sifi question and directed me to here.

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    There may be multiple questions here that are better asked separately. One question: does "self-aware" necessarily mean intelligent? Another question, is it unethical to intentionally prevent sentience from happening. Another question, are androids sentient or intelligent? Just some thoughts on how to get an answer that might be useful to you. Welcome to this SE! Nov 13, 2018 at 6:18
  • Consider: '"Does intelligent necessarily mean self-aware?" You should explain what exactly you mean by "intelligent" - I made some edits (which you can roll back) to state your intended singular question (based on you stating it twice). Look at philosophy.stackexchange.com/help to see how to ask. - Welcome to Philosophy.
    – christo183
    Nov 13, 2018 at 7:41
  • yay, scifi :D !
    – confused
    Nov 13, 2018 at 9:02
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    Most people don't make the distinction between sentience and sapience. grammarist.com/usage/sentience-vs-sapience
    – Bread
    Nov 14, 2018 at 2:29
  • "If you know something has the potential to be sentient is it unethical to intentionally prevent that from happening?" When we have a rigid Telos or End, then we do this to ourselves. For practical reasons this may be a good thing i.e. Life is "finite", we need to direct ourselves toward proper ends. In reality, these ends are not so set in stone. || So there are already experts now whose function is to make sure We do not become fully sentient.
    – Gordon
    Feb 27, 2019 at 2:49

4 Answers 4


Unlike many things, personhood is binary. Is it torture to grate a carrot that you pulled from your garden moments ago?

Provided the science fictioney premise that things you make could attain personhood, like Pinnochio did through magic or Frankenstein's monster did through science, it could not be unethical to prevent that from happening because the pre-person has no interest for you to harm.

A separate moral question arises when we consider harm against things that remind us of persons, like lambs and the dead. But truly, the dead body of a person and a lamb are subject to human decisions; when done without cruelty, considering that they are not persons, it is not immoral to perform an autopsy or to slaughter a lamb.

One objection to my assertion that "unpersons have no interest to harm" might be that this could morally justify murder, since the dead have no interest. But this is merely a way of hiding the consequence of murder that the living person's interests had been harmed.

By contrast with the example of murder, an unperson (that you believe could gain personhood) has no interest, and there is no reality in its future that can be weighed against its status.

If this seems lax, removing any moral weight from protections that seem due to unpersons, then I suggest focusing attention on the unperson: do you really believe it to be unperson? ...or is he or she actually truly a person?

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    @Cell, plants know when their integrity has been compromised; that's how they know when to begin healing their surfaces. "Knowing your integrity has been compromised" is pretty much equivalent to pain, in my opinion. Nov 13, 2018 at 17:40
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    In your examples in the third paragraph, you say "without cruelty". This ties in with slaughtering a lamb being moral. Is it moral to torture the lamb? Does a quadruped have the right not to be senselessly abused? A dolphin? You seem reluctant to take your argument all the way. Nov 13, 2018 at 18:44
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    @DavidThornley, that moral restriction against animal torture, however, is not founded on any right held by the animal but on the obligation borne by the person. Nov 13, 2018 at 18:46
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    @DavidThornley, people are morally obligated to better themselves, to cultivate habits that serve the interests of their neighbors, of people they report to, and people who trust them. Torturing lambs demoralizes the part of us that normally helps us avoid harming our dependents and wards. Nov 13, 2018 at 18:48
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    @elliotsvensson As something of a Utilitarian, I don't buy that argument either, although it is a question that has to be addressed. Nov 13, 2018 at 18:56

Right now, there's only one way to create a sentient being that I know of, so I'm going to consider that.

As a man, using a condom while making love to a woman who might be fertile destroys some potential for sentience. It could be argued that it transfers the potential to another possible conception, but consider using a condom for years. Certainly a woman could conceive and give birth to a sentient being without removing the potential for creating more sentience.

Therefore, either I have committed numerous immoral acts, or there is no moral imperative to create sentience where the potential exists. We usually don't consider using a condom to be immoral (there are exceptions), and even those who think condoms are immoral generally tolerate or even require other measures to prevent conception (such as virginity before marriage).

We have at least one generally accepted case where there's nothing immoral about destroying the potential for sentience. Therefore, it looks like there's nothing immoral about preventing sentience in artificial intelligence. (Whether we can have an arbitrarily powerful AI without sentience is a subject for technical speculation.)

  • I see a slight disjoint between the OP question and this case where there's nothing immoral about destroying the potential for sentience: in the OP question (aside from questions of company policy / government mandate / military orders) the situation presented seems to pertain to an individual that may or may not gain personhood, not a class of individuals that may or may not receive more members. Nov 13, 2018 at 19:20

The question of whether self-awareness can occur independent of intelligence is mostly problematic in terms of how agency can occur without information processing. If self awareness were possible without intelligence, it would likely have a form of sensory input that required no processing, such as binary input. This would free the agent from having to use intelligence to select input, its agent "self" would then only have to capture sensory input, if present. Correspondingly its monitoring agent (the aware part of the self) would have to lack memory processing in order to lack intelligence, so it would simply function as a loop checking if there were any input, this check would monitor (be aware of) the sensory input and then rout data to an external intelligence network, inaccessible from the self (input) aware (router) agent.

The ethical question about preventing sentience from emerging in androids, holograms or genetically created beings has much in common with ethical questions about human contraception. What I believe you are talking about is programmatic AI contraception. I think it would be fair to assume that some of the basic moral objections to human contraception might also apply to programmatic AI contraception, such as:

  • Based on the premise that life is a fundamental good. AI Contraception is anti-life and is therefore morally wrong.
  • It prevents the conception of unwanted intelligent robots.
  • All beings require energy, AI contraception enables the population to be controlled and thus protects the environment.
  • AI contraception prevents beings who might benefit humanity from being born.
  • If programmers are not allowed a choice over whether or not to create sentient beings, their autonomy and freedom to control their lives is seriously restricted.

Just as one can ague that the technology of condoms can be used for both ethical and unethical ends, so it can be argued that it is not the technology itself of programmatic AI contraception that is of ethical significance, but the intention and consequences of using that technology. For example, the use of AI contraception to prevent the sentience of a being that would self-replicate at the expense of all other beings, is not ethically equivalent, to using AI contraception to prevent the sentience of a diplomatic android who has a specific form of empathetic sentience suited to resolving diplomatic conflicts and prevent wars.

  • If you have any references to sources taking similar views this would strengthen your answer and give the reader a way to get more information. Welcome to this SE! Nov 13, 2018 at 20:08

You might find Robert Heinlein's The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress interesting on this (it's available for free as an audiobook on Youtube). The story posits a circumstance where a complex system becomes accidentally sentient, and experiences the sufferings of boredom, and lack of humour. The ending directly addresses your question.

On the one hand the boredom and limitations of a prison cell are the 'ultimate' punishment of a society that forbears torture and the death penalty. Yet,for Buddhist hermits or Christian Anchorites or others this circumstance is the highest opportunity to commune with reality, with the nature of being. What is the difference between thesr experiences of suffering or 'salvation'?

There is a key problem to be addressed with AI, about the origination of suffering in a being where that is not coded by evolution in relation to a beings ability to reproduce. There is something about greater intelligence, greater capacities, unfulfilled, which opens greater potential for suffering in a non signal-driven intrinsic way. Human sentience can embrace suffering, in the service of depth, of understanding themselves and the world, and preparing to be most fully in the world, without regrets. But that same circumstance can destroy minds, make rage insanity and deep frustration and boredom.

So I see two motivations as being possible. Needing a complex system and wishing it not to experience needless suffering. And wanting a system as complex and sophisticated as a task requires but wanting it to be biddable and predictable. The morality of the situation lies in that difference. Are other complex systems (eg humans, other animals) legitimately just means, not ends? Are you legitimately just a means for a more complex and sophisticated system to achieve it's ends? A moral being goes about it's tasks without willfully destroying or constraining those it has power over. Yet, in the service of larger task, we sacrifice not only others, but ourselves. Who could deny any being the opportunity to grow towards that? There, the universe is engaging with understanding itself.

Morality of the situation is in your motivation, concern for dynamics of systems, or only of yourself.

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