Artificial Intelligence and the Search for a Better World

As technology continues to advance, a series of important philosophical considerations arise surrounding the moral use of the tools we construct. Of these constructs, none raises more interesting and pertinent questions than artificial intelligence (AI). As we increasingly make use of AI in all fields to reduce human error and promote efficiency, ethical concerns are raised: what to do with weapons that can literally fire themselves?

The 2015 open letter with over three thousand signatures from AI/robotics researchers titled Autonomous Weapons: An Open Letter From AI & Robotics Researchers implores scientists, governments, and the international community to work toward a ban on offensive autonomous weapons. The hope is that such a ban will be achieved before such weapons become the “Kalashnikovs of tomorrow” and cause untold harm to humanity. To me philosophy is the structured study of thought, the breaking down of how and why we think things for the purpose of directing our actions to the betterment of the world around us. To Mill that means finding “one fundamental principle or law, at the root of all morality, or if there be several, there should be a determinate order of precedence among them; and the one principle, or the rule for deciding between the various principles when they conflict, ought to be self-evident.” (Mill, 1) In other words, he seeks to break down thought to a single truth that justifies how and why in order to direct actions always toward the greatest possible happiness. In utilitarianism the question is, in principle, simple: what action will cause the greatest happiness? To the signatories of this letter, the answer is a ban on autonomous weapons. They argue that the benefit gained by reducing human casualties of war does not outweigh the cost of making war more palatable or the risks of an AI arms race. In making that consideration and in justifying it in this manner, the writers are breaking down our thought using utilitarian concepts to engage in philosophical activity. They measure the usual consequences of harm to human soldiers; individual suffering, familial harm, cost of treatment and so on against those that are likely to be the usual result of an AI arms race. These being the creation of tools useful for “assassinations, destabilizing nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group.” They then let their study inform their actions towards what they see as the betterment of our world. So this letter, to all those who read it, serves as an invitation into a conversation about the ethical use of AI and an exploration of our thought on what form weapons are allowed to take and how far progress is allowed to take us.

The most common way in which I engage in philosophical activity is through personal conversations with my peers. In such conversation we begin with our thoughts on a relevant issue; should AI have rights, what is the best method of gun control, is death really bad for a cow? From that point we break down our positions into their constituent arguments and progress through those arguments, in or out of order. As we discuss, or argue, a given argument, we enter tangential discussions and pull apart our opinions on a variety of topics. To give this mental wandering purpose, and proper philosophical status, we answer the questions and resolve the arguments until we arrive at a set of new realizations about the world we live in. With that new understanding, we become better able to shape our actions toward the betterment of the world in which we live.


Works Cited

         Note: As there exists no given primary author for this letter, all uncited           quotations are attributed to the single page of this letter.

Philosophy of the World – “Darkest Hour”

At the beginning of the course I defined philosophy as a subject that concerns it self with answering difficult questions that are not answerable. After taking the course I still have the same view but I now know why they are not answerable. My view still remains because Philosophy does attempt to answer questions that are difficult to answer and part of this reason they are not answerable is because it is hard for us to take one side. You either kill one person or kill three. Many of the topics we faced in class like wether it is alright to kill one person or 4 people, and wether it is morally okay to kill an animal; These are all heavy topics, and coming up with one standard answer is what makes philosophy… philosophy. To me Philosophy raises awareness about the questions we do not want to answer but it also allows us to be more aware of the implications of our decisions. 

For instance, I will use the example of a trolley problem and Kant’s theory of using people as mere means. You are in control of peoples lives. Either you kill one man or you kill 4. Either way you are killing someone. Now most of us will hopefully never have to be in this situation but if we were, we most likely will not choose to push the fat man over the bridge. However, this is the best thing to do. In the eyes of a utilitarian you try and bring the best to the most amount of people. Unfortunately, if we did choose to push the fat man, killing him we would look like terrible people. So philosophy allows us to realize that life is not straight forward and we ca not make decisions based solely off of one method, wether that be Kantianism or Utilitarianism, most of the time life includes various methods. 

However I chose my philosophical example because it challenges my definition. The “Darkest Hour” is a film about Winston Churchill and his time as Prime Minister during the Second World War. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the various decisions Winston faced and made, which were questioned by many. One of the main focal points of the movie is how Winston planned the rescue of Britain’s troops from the shores of France, using thousands of civilian boats. Through out the movie the decisions churchill makes are rather utilitarian – focusing on the greater good. In one particular instance Churchill has to choose between sending 4000 troops (meaning they will all most likely die) distracting the Nazi troops away from Dunkirk giving the remaining British troops a chance to retreat saving over 300,000 members, or the troops from Dunkirk retreat while the Nazi troops get closer and closer threatening the island of Britain, but saving the lives of those 4000 men. In this case, Churchill chooses to use the 4000 men as mere means to save the other men. At first many of his colleagues can not believe the decision he is making yet at the same time he is doing the right thing. He does understand though the implication of what he has done and struggles personally with it. Through out the movie each decision that is made is done to consider the greater good, and is always a controversial decision. I used this example to demonstrate that in extreme cases using one philosophical method/theory can work, but what remains is that we still have a difficult time taking one side- Churchill shows this in the film when he is split between his personal struggles and what is best for the country. 

I am thankful in my life that I do not have to make decision about choosing between the lives of people. Instead I am faced with the decision on what to do in the future. This is something I find extremely difficult. There are various things one can do in life but they do not always bring happiness to you. Focusing on what brings you happiness and on what will bring you what you want in life do not always add up. The choices I have to make are hard and I’m never quite sure which one to make. It’s almost more difficult to make decisions about your self than it is about others. This comes back to choosing one philosophical theory, or choosing a balance between several, I don’t think you can be happy going only one direction.

Discussion Summary

I focused my group discussion on the different thoughts between Mill and Kant, mostly contrasting their different philosophies when it came to what makes an act moral. First, we discussed the general ideas of both philosophers to make sure we all had a general understanding of their ideas. We mainly focused on Mill and Kant’s opinion on intentions and motives. As a group, we established that Kantianism cares very much about an intention and motive of an action when deciding if it is a moral one or not, whereas Mill’s philosophies disagree; he believes only the consequences matter and it is a moral action as long as the greatest amount of good has occurred through some action, no matter how awful the intention/motive may be.


My first discussion topic was “Do you think a moral action should be based on its Maxim or its consequences?” This was to just get a general idea of where people stood. Do they lean towards Kant’s view or Mills? I found out that everyone in my group (except myself) seemed to side with Kant. They seemed to think that having the intention of doing good meant more than having the intention of doing something bad, and accidentally doing good from the immoral. Personally, I lean towards Mills style of thinking whereas I believe the outcome of the action is far more important than the action itself.


To further the question, I presented the group with two scenarios:

  1. A company is donating money to a charity so that it has a better rep and can sell more product. They do not care about the act of donating, rather only care about growing their business and making more money. Is this moral?
  2. John wanted to kill Bill because he bumped into him at the grocery store. John kills Bill and later finds out that Bill was a serial killer who murdered ten innocent people. Were Johns actions moral? Now, what if John knew he was a serial killer…

For scenario 1, the majority of the group said that the action was not morale due to the bad intentions, siding with Kantianism. Again with scenario 2, most people said it was wrong of John to kill Bill, either way, no matter the consequences, again siding with the thoughts of Kant.


The second question I brought up was “Do you agree with Kant that happiness is not the highest good? That “good will” is the best thing”? I brought this question up because Mill believed that pleasure or happiness was the greatest good in life (Mill, Utilitarianism, 2) whereas Kant disagreed. Kant believed simply that good will in itself is the highest good (Hendricks, Kantian Ethics, Slide 14). The replies from the group matched the results from the first question in that most people agreed with Kant. There was one point brought up (first mentioned in lecture by Prof Hendricks) that a good will can never be bad, even if the consequences are negative. Compare that to pleasure, something which can be bad. For example, no one can be bad for trying to do the best action possible, whereas one can receive pleasure from an awful action like murder or rape. Individually, I had been leaning towards utilitarianism the whole time but even I could not get by this comment. Maybe good will is the greatest good: who knows.

Discussion summary on Mill

Question 1: In chapter 2, one of Mill questioned his claim on the two levels of pleasures, saying that “It may be questioned whether any one who has remained equally susceptible to both classes of pleasures, ever knowingly and calmly preferred the lower…”.  Can a person that experiences higher pleasures ever “devolve” and begin to prefer those that are lower, or vice versa? 

What my initial thoughts on this was that there’s a possibility that a person could prefer lower over higher, or the other way around. What I considered “lower pleasures” to be in people are those that harm or are a prolonged wrong For example, gambling and doing drugs. They can be considered pleasures as the user experiences happiness from the acts, yet are detrimental to oneself and potentially others around them (ie: family, etc.). People can fall into these types of lower pleasures and find comfort within them, an potentially abandoning the other higher pleasures. Same goes for people who experience lower pleasures transitioning to higher ones. Essentially, what I was getting at is that people can change their preferences towards pleasures, as it depends on the environmental factors they’re experiencing.

I was surprised to hear that my group did not agree with what I had come up with for the answer. In the discussion, we came up with answers such as that people usually wouldn’t change their pleasures, because in their train of thought, they’ve reached their highest, regardless of what others think. Moreover, we also agreed upon that since people are beings capable of higher intelligences, for them to experience “lower pleasures” would just be delusions that the person would be experiencing.  However, it depends on the pleasure, if it is possible to be experiences  by humans or not. These new insights that were brought up in my group helped change my view upon what Mill’s question had been, as I had understood it in a wrong sense.

Question 2: Mill claims that a life in which a pig may be satisfied, will leave a human dissatisfied because the pig’s pleasures are purely sensual, and a human experiences both intellectual and sensual pleasures. Could it be possible for a person to live like a pig, enjoyably, and would it be considered wrong (according to Mill’s Greatest Happiness principle, that acts that are morally right to the degree produce happiness) to live as a pig? 

My answer to this question is no, a person cannot live like a pig. No matter how hard a person tries, it’s impossible. In relation to the first question, people cannot void themselves of higher pleasures, as they are ingrained with intellect to rationalize and act upon choices. A pig doesn’t act upon choices, as it’s pleasures only consist sensually, and therefore it theoretically cannot think or plan out it’s life. If a person decides to live like a pig (basing everything upon sensualization) it wouldn’t count because the person made the initial conscious decision to choose that life and form of pleasure. Moreover, it’s wrong to live as a pig because you’re limiting yourself to the capabilities that a person can achieve/ find pleasure in. Unless it’s pleasurable to live as a pig, I guess that may be an exception.

In the discussion, my group agreed with most of the points I gave out in response to my question. The other points that we all came up with are that the “pleasure” of living like a pig cannot be felt as society partakes in mental pleasures, thus cementing the fact that mental pleasures are mandatory and a low pleasurable life akin to pigs is impossible according to society’s standards. We also had mutual agreement that people function intellectually upon instinct, so a life that is based on sensual pleasures isn’t possible as well. The only thing that surprised me was the last point my group came up with, which is that living a low pleasure life hurts society more so than the person. There would e a lot of resources wasted to supply a person with that type of life and would undoubtedly cause some familial issues as well. For the most part, however, we all agreed upon the same answers that it’s impossible and wrong for a person to live a low pleasurable life such as a pigs.



John Stuart Mill

Question 1

According to Mill, how can we theorize the difference between Just and Moral?

Relating to the readings

Mill’s distinction between just and moral relate to the readings because he refers to Justice on page 16 and morality on page 14. The interpretations of these texts imply that justice is a part of Morality but being moral will not necessarily entail being just. (14-15)

In class discussion

Just and Moral- Just is a part of Morality and Morality doesn’t necessarily require justice. Not everything that is moral is just. E.g.. Death Row is immoral because it causes death but just because the person is proven guilty. The interpretation of laws may not reflect morality necessarily. Being moral is not necessarily just in all aspects. E.g. stealing medicine (unjust) for preventing death (moral)


Question 2

How does mill distinguish between sensual and intellectual pleasures?

Relating to the readings

Mill distinguishes between the different kinds of pleasures on page 3 and 4. Mill states the intellectual pleasures only come to those who have the capability to process- higher beings. He states that he’d rather be unsatisfied by intellectual pleasures than be satisfied by lower intellect and lower pleasures. He’d rather be an unhappy Socrates than a happy pig. He derives pleasure in thought processes, music etc.

In class discussion

He thinks that better intellect has given more meaning and a whole picture toward life. Having even a little bit of intellectual pleasures is better than having a lot of sensual pleasure. For e.g. listening to music and understanding it would be better than sex. Thinking about the greater meaning of life and soul searching would have more intellectual pleasure that would lead to more and deeper meaning of life. Intellectual pleasures are what follow the physical aspect that is a sensual pleasure. Physical actions could be selfish because it’s a personal pleasure. Mental activity that follows could help you look at the world as a whole or at the bigger picture. Mental activity gives more meaning to life. Maybe it’s not about the act itself but the person that experiences it.


Question 3

Utilitarianism and how it could be justified with context to his personal actions?

This question cannot be related to the readings but I brought it up to my discussion group because Mill was against the independence of Britain’s colonies, especially India. It just startled me that somebody who wrote about utilitarianism and equity for all would not want his nations colony free. My discussion group was also very curious about the same. We talked about Mill’s actions and how they could have been justified through his perspective.

Despite being Pro-democracy, Mill believed that the society has to get to a level before they get to a level of independence. Defense on why India was needed ruling because he thought he was giving knowledge and making them “more human” for the Highest Good because then they would experience intellectual pleasures.

He didn’t tie his philosophy to his actions. He wanted to do a better thing and impart knowledge to the Indians and make them more capable of intellect. ‘Its easier said than done’. At the time he thought he was right. He considered all the people that were colonized less than human.

Mill Discussion Summary

In my discussion group we discussed the overlapping circles that Mill proposed, in which there were “just actions” overlapped by “moral actions” further encompassed by “actions that bring happiness”. We agreed that not all just or moral actions would necessarily bring happiness; i.e. in the case of telling someone a harsh truth while they believe a lie, you are acting justly and it is moral to tell others the truth; however, that did not bring any happiness to the person. We were informed (by Jeremy) that utilitarians would likely consider the long run, and suggest that knowing the truth would give the person happiness in their later life, but the fact that it might not bring happiness later was a point of contention around this theory.

We also discussed the importance of the subordinate rules in determining the nature of an action. An action can be good, yet bring no happiness (i.e. donating to a false charity) but because of the subordinate rules, can still be considered a good action because it is usually a good action. It seems almost out of character for Mill to suggest this in our eyes because this comes about as close as you can as a utilitarian to considering intent of an action. We discussed whether or not this fit into a utilitarian model, because it seemingly disregarded the outcome of actions. Thus, we said that it seemed more like an easy way for Mill to address intents and bring the nature of actions as close as possible to that end without stepping over the line, keeping the “fail safe” of “usually good”.

Finally, we discussed the merit of distinguishing sensual and intellectual pleasures. As intellectual creatures, are we capable of saying which is truly better? We experience both, and even among humans, some people prefer sensual pleasures more than intellectual pleasures. Who is to say that a person who lives their whole life craving gourmet foods or thrilling experiences is more dissatisfied or discontent with their lives than someone who chooses to pursue academics/intellectual pleasure? How does one quantify the satisfaction of eating good food and compare it to the satisfaction of reading a good book? We agreed that it would largely depend on personal preference as opposed to a strict rule of what humans prefer. Granted, though intellectual pleasures might be more useful in life, it is impossible to measure and therefore have a solid case that sensual pleasures are beneath them.

Discussion Summary for Mill

The first question brought up in the discussion is in reference to Mill’s support to the Greatest Happiness Principle (GHP), in which he states that “Utilitarians look not just to one’s own happiness, but to that of all concerned with action; impartiality between one’s own happiness and that of all others” (Mill, 5). The question is concerned with how Mill might view impartiality in terms of consequentialism and the GHP.

Q1: With this quote from Mill in mind, how do you think an Utilitarian would respond to a situation in which he/she were only given 2 choices: one choice would yield more happiness for you but less for someone else, and the other choice yielding more happiness for the other person and less for you. Assuming that the amounts of happiness were the same for each option, what choice would Mill make?

While it took a bit for the group to respond, they came up with an interesting look to the question. At first glance, it may seem like there is no one correct choice for this situation. Both options produce equal amounts of happiness, yet the difference is in terms of whether you or the other person experiences this pleasure. However, the group came to an interesting conclusion which stated that Mill would most likely choose to generate more happiness for the other person. This is due to his views on impartiality. Mill states that it is important to be impartial between your own happiness and the happiness of others, meaning that one must make a decision in which he/she must be satisfied with the outcomes of other people involved in the situation as if it was their own outcome. Therefore, in order to practice this in the selected situation at hand, the Utilitarian would pick to yield more happiness for the other, as it is the option that practices impartiality towards the happiness and outcomes of others and not one’s self.

The second question stems from Mills words: “[I]t is universally considered just that each person should obtain that (whether good or evil) which he deserves, and unjust that he should obtain a good, or be made to undergo an evil, which he does not deserve” (Mill, 14).

Q2: If Mill thinks that it is universally just that people should obtain what they deserve, good or evil, then what if one is confronted with a situation in which one was to either get what they deserve, even if it produces the most pain. Would Mill chose to the path of “justice” even though it produces more pain than happiness? An example of this is death sentence.

The group was a bit more hesitant to answer this question.  They believed that Mill would most likely choose the path of justice. This is partly due to that fact that, to Mill, the heart at what produces happiness is the security and justice: what people have a right to do, and what protects their security. If an individual has acted against the security of another, and thus has acted unjustly, it would be prudent that the individual obtains what he/she deserves in order to protect the security of others. Within the context of death sentence, it is important to enforce the consequences of those who act unjustly, and to not let an unjust action go under the radar and perceived as acceptable.

JS Mill discussion summary

The questions I chose for discussion were about how to interpret contrasting passages from Mill’s Utilitarianism. The central issue is that Mill indicates different things about his metaethical views in different places, in some instances seeming to support what we now call act utilitarianism, and in others seeming to support what we now call rule utilitarianism.

In chapter II, p. 2, Mill states the Greatest Happiness Principle (the proportionality doctrine), which is that ‘actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to promote the reverse of happiness’. As David Brink explains in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry ‘Mill’s Moral and Political Philosophy’, this passage seems to express a Bentham-like hedonistic view which would suggest act utilitarianism.

Conversely, when Mill expands his conception of utility in chapter V, he details the moral relevance of rights, duties, sanctions, and justice which seem hard to square up with act utilitarianism and which strongly suggest rule utilitarianism. For example, a right is ‘something which society ought to defend me in the possession of’ (p. 16) — even if that is not what would bring the most pleasure. The conflicting suggestions leave no clear answer as to how to interpret Mill’s point of view in the text.

I also touched briefly on the links between Mill and Epicurus, not only in terms of the foregrounding of happiness or pleasure as the highest good (or telos), but also regarding evidence towards either side of the act/rule distinction: on the act-utilitarian side, the analysis of different pleasures as sensual or intellectual vs kinetic or static; and on the rule-utilitarian side, the connection between Mill’s potential rules (rights, duties, etc.) and Epicurus’s virtues (courage, prudence, etc.)

My questions were:

  1. In light of the textual ambiguity, do you think Mill’s views are better characterized as act utilitarian or rule utilitarian?
  2. Which of the two doctrines do you personally find more convincing?
  3. Is Epicurus any more or less clear on the act/rule distinction? What are the similarities and differences?

The group didn’t come up with a clear answer to any of these questions (which makes sense as they’re pretty contentious even today). We evaluated textual evidence that could indicate either side of the question and arrived at no certain conclusion as to whether he was an act or rule utilitarian. Likewise, people’s personal leanings on the subject were mixed. People generally agreed that Epicurus was more definitely an act utilitarian (more hedonistic or ‘self-centred’) due to his central focus on pleasure.

Discussion Summary Mill

Question 1: Mill states that there are two different types of pleasures: intellectual pleasures and sensual pleasures. But in the writing, he distinguishes the binary the opposition between the two of one being of lower worth than the other. Is it fair to value one pleasure over the other? And how do you think Mill evaluated the level of joy and pain to decide which pleasure is of higher worth?

The discussion started off with the implication from Mill that one who has experienced intellectual pleasures would be in favour of those pleasures over sensual ones. But a question arose; what about the ones who have not felt any sort of intellectual pleasures? A point was risen that human are all capable of feeling these sort of intellectual pleasures, but not all human can have the ability to feel them. We discussed that Mill grew up with more privilege of others and more-so the opportunity to feel these intellectual pleasures. Since he has felt these pleasures, it is just his opinion which part of the group decided could be valid enough to follow. We discussed further on Mill’s past and how he grew up. We think that he was constantly surrounded with intellectual pleasure, and sensual pleasures seemed to be easily accessible. We summarized that it ultimately depended on Mill’s past experiences that caused him to apply a certain value to these certain kinds of pleasures, which made him value one pleasure over another.

Question 2: Mill states that the Greatest Happiness a man could receive is the exemption of pain. But going through life, everyone will have to feel pain in one way or another, and in some cases you can learn many things from feeling that pain. So do you think we should follow Mill’s view on avoiding pain at all costs? Or do you think that it is a factor for personal development and knowledge?

The group decided that in given cases, one would not specifically choose pain over pleasure in a first instinct situation. But what was also brought up was the idea that we as humans, must feel some sort of resentment or pain to receive a long-term kind of pleasure, given that from the situation, you will receive intellectual pleasure. But in result, you automatically will have negative sensual pleasure because of the presence of pain, but in result also the achievement of intellectual pleasure. An example brought up was touching the tip of a needle. In that case, one will have have presence of pain, that reduces sensual pleasure, but also you gain intellectual pleasure knowing that it is sharp. The group decided that there is ultimately a correlation between sensual and intellectual pleasure. Either you lose some sensual pleasure to gain intellectual pleasure, or receiving sensual pleasure would cause intellectual pleasure in knowing of the source of that sensual pleasure.

Question 3: Under Mill’s greatest happiness principle, he suggests that no certain human should value their desires over one another, but instead think of them as on par with other sentient beings. Do you think it is kind of hypocritical that Mill suggests this but most likely exploits animals for use and food? 

My group pondered around this idea whether or not Mill would even be able to be vegetarian/vegan but came to a consensus that since Mill was a privileged white male, that he could possible be able to. Still, we wondered about the time setting and how humans thought of animals then. The main source of food and commodities from animals were the norm back then and it almost seemed that humans had no other choice but to eat them. But shouldn’t philosophers have a post-modern view on current ways of life?

The discussion around this question was cut short due to limited time, but our group concluded that yes, Mill was hypocritical about his GHP views on other sentient beings. We cannot know specifically on how he lived back then or his living situation, but we ultimately decided that in current views today, if Mill wanted to stick to his GHP views, he would then need to view other animals as not just commodities or meals, but treat their pleasures on the same worthiness as his own.