The sex robot and human relationships

In this essay, an ethical analysis is made of the effect of the sex robot on human relationships. The sexbot is a social robot specifically designed for sexual activity and companionship, using technological advances and Artificial Intelligence. From the perspective of virtue ethics, it is investigated how the sexbot will influence the ability to develop the virtuous character. By elaborating the role of relationships in virtue ethics and explaining how the sexbot relationship is different, it is concluded that the sexbot is negatively influencing this ability by restraining an important part of character development, namely the building of philia relationships. It does so by presenting a stereotypical view on attraction, habituating the users in a one-sided relationship without rejection and consent, preventing them to develop important virtues such as respect, care, empathy, courage, patience and perseverance and demotivating them from pursuing the virtuous life by being addictive and easy.

The need to create the perfect lover is a concept as old as the Ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion. The famous sculptor fell in love with the statue of a perfect woman he created himself. Nowadays, instead of ivory, we use technology to sculpt our love lives. It is already common to improve our sex lives using technological objects: a wide range of products to be used in sexual activity is available on the market. The offer is varying for different genders, sizes, purposes and scales of realism: to be used solo or with others and from devices to dolls. It is not hard to imagine that in the future the look, feel and functions of many of these products will be combined into one: the sex robot (Levy in Lin, 2011). Using many technological advances, such as vibrators and heated pads, this robot will be able to properly fulfill its designed purpose of bringing its user to orgasm. Not just an orgasm, but a mind-blowing one that is: it promises to create a better physical sexual experience using technology than is possible between two humans (Hauskeller, 2014; Perring, 2016).

But it doesn’t stop there. The sexbot poses the opportunity to not only improve our sex lives, but to become better at loving than humans as well. Researchers and designers are working on adding Artificial Intelligence into the sexbot to upgrade it from an advanced sex toy into an actual artificial lover (King, 2015; Krumins, 2015). The sexbot will have a personality, specifically designed to your preferences, and will be able to respond to you verbally. You can have conversations with your sexbot and it will develop the same interests as you along the way (New York Times, 2015; Yenor, 2016). Different variations in the design of the sexbot are being developed, it could go into the direction of an actual humanoid or make use of an avatar seen through virtual reality glasses in combination with a sex doll. The goal of both directions is to create a bond between the sexbot and the human to fulfill the need for sex as well as love.

David Levy, an AI-expert, states in his book ‘Love and Sex with Robots’ (2009) that it won’t be long before we will form relationships with robots. He argues that we will be marrying robots by the year 2050. According to Levy, there are many reasons why humans fall in love with other humans and these factors apply just as much to robots. In addition, humans are known to get attached quite easily with non-human things, including our teddy bears, cars and smartphones (Royakkers, 2015). Robots are even going a step further than these types of technology, because they are relational artifacts. Not only can humans get attached to these artifacts, they will think to be in a mutual relationship with them (McArthur, 2017). For Levy, this is enough reason to predict we will have loving relationships with robots in the near future.

Using advanced technologies as the sexbot to fulfill a need that is an important part of our humanity is prone to raise many ethical concerns. In this essay, the focus will mainly be on the ethical issues arising from the influence of the sexbot on human relationships. Before unfolding the main question for this essay, however, I first would like to set out the most important present views on the sexbot to justify my choice in using virtue ethics for investigating the ethical issues concerning the sexbot and human relationships.


Ethical views on the sexbot

David Levy and the creators of sexbots are mainly focussing on the individuals in society that are having more difficulty with finding and keeping partners. They follow a utilitarian way of thinking when they argue that they are maximizing pleasure by giving these individuals a way to fulfill their desires and since it happens in the sphere of the private home, won’t impose any harm onto society (Schofield, 2009). The argument works from the presumption that only these desperate individuals will be willing to pay the high amount of money to buy a sexbot. At the same time, however, the industry is working hard to grow the market and predicts, not mistakenly, their sexbots to become more widely available for a reasonable price in the near future (Schofield, 2009). If the sexbot will be more widely available and easier attainable, it cannot be denied that the sexbot will have an effect outside the private sphere and will become a societal matter. The good and bad effects, thereby, on societal issues such as prostitution, pornography, rape and use for illicit fetishes are not so clear yet and still open to discussion.

From a more deontological way of thinking many objections to the sexbot can be found. The Campaign Against Sex Robots, for example, is especially concerned about the topic of prostitution and its effects on misogyny. They argue that the sexbot will increase the sexual objectification of women and children. The acceptance and use of the sexbot will justify the view of prostitutes as sex objects, instead of the dignified humans that they are. It will further reinforce the power relations of inequality and violence (Richardson, 2016). In addition, the sexbots are specifically designed to please and have, therefore, unrealistic bodies and are never rejecting any sexual activity. It undermines human sexuality and educates incorrectly about sexual relationships and consent. The sexbots are designed to be as humane as possible, to improve the sexual and loving experience, but are at the same time designed to always agree and join you. They give, therefore, an incorrect impression of mutuality in a relationship, which reinforces an incorrect image of actual human relationships.

It is especially the implications on our human relationships that concern me the most. Humans are social animals and engaging in loving relationships is a big part of our lives. Throughout history, the way we love and form relationships has changed a lot (The Book of Life, 2017a). I have no doubt that the wide availability of the sexbot will influence again how we arrange relationships and what the meaning of love is in our lives. The question to be asked, however, is if this evolution will influence our ability to live the good life. The ethical theory that is best suited to answer this question is virtue ethics, since in virtue ethics, contrary to utilitarianism and deontology, the focus is not on the consequences of your actions or the duties you ought to follow, but on the development of your moral character and the practical and social aspects of this development. The theory, therefore, does not aim per se to find universal principles and rules to follow in any moral situation, but asks more broadly how one should live and what the good life is (Athanassoulis, 2017; Hursthouse, 2016). In this essay, I will investigate, therefore, from the perspective of virtue ethics, how the sexbot will influence our ability to develop the virtuous character. I will first elaborate the role of relationships in virtue ethics, after which I’ll explain how the sexbot relationship is different. Then lastly, I will argue that the sexbot will negatively affect the development of the virtuous character by diminishing our ability to form and keep the relationships that we need to become virtuous.

I will assume the sexbot will work as predicted: it will be able to fulfill its primary purpose of bringing its user to orgasm and provides, despite the many different tastes and preferences in sexual interaction, a generally above average physical sexual experience (it is physically good at sex). In addition, the sexbot can recognize speech and facial expressions correctly and communicate and interact with us in a personal way. The sexbot is, so to say, socially intelligent in a human-like way. However, the sexbot itself doesn’t understand what it is saying or doing, it is only mimicking human interaction by following AI protocol.

The role of relationships in virtue ethics

I start by explaining how the virtuous character is developed and what the role of love is in this development. Virtue ethics is an ethical theory that places actions within the totality of someone’s life and focuses on what the good life in general is. The good life is one that is or works towards eudaimon. Eudaimonia can best be translated as flourishing or true happiness and is reached by the development of the virtuous character. The virtuous character is both a state of being and a way of acting in accordance with the virtues. A virtue is an excellent, stable and reliable character trait: a virtuous person acts consistently good amongst all sorts of situations (Athanassoulis, 2017; Hursthouse, 2016).

In virtue ethics, it is acknowledged that your virtuous character needs to develop over a long period of time. We are born with different natural tendencies, both positive and negative, which need to be either developed or discouraged when growing older. A major part of virtue ethics, therefore, is focused on the development of your character and your moral education. Reflection, learning and gaining practical wisdom are important topics in the journey of becoming virtuous. There are also many external factors that can influence one’s development, especially in the early stages, such as the availability of good role models. A student of virtue follows the example of the virtuous role model and can in this way habituate itself in learning to act rightly. Habituation is a method in developing virtues, but acting out of virtue itself is not a habit, but a conscious and knowledgeable choice (Athanassoulis, 2017; Hursthouse, 2016).

In the development of the virtuous character, relationships play an important part. You can only learn and reflect by yourself so far. You need peers, exemplars and friends to challenge you and stimulate you to become the very best version of yourself by engaging in discussion and thought. This type of relationship is described in Ancient Greek Philosophy as philia. It is one of the different types of love that is based on an appreciation and fondness of the virtuous character of the other and refers to an altruistic wish for the good of the other for its own sake. The philia relationship doesn’t exist without a reciprocation between the two partners, both partners are at the same time teachers and students. An important condition for any philia relationship is that the partners love themselves first. Self-love, in this case, refers to the pursuit of the virtuous, reflective life: the acceptance that one is not perfect and needs help to grow (Helm, 2009; Konstan, 2008; Mosely, 2017).

Philia is usually translated as friendship, because it is quite different from what we nowadays understand as ‘love’. The most important difference being that for the Ancient Greek, sex had nothing to do with this kind of love (Helm, 2009; Konstan, 2008; Mosely, 2017). In the course of history, however, love and sex have become two sides of the same coin. In our modern view on love, philia is combined with a sexual desire: our partners are both loveable characters and passionate lovers at the same time. The physicality of sex became an important part in connecting with your partner, an expression of accepting the other in its totality, including their naked, vulnerable and dirty side. It contributed to the ideal of soulmates in which two bodies with one soul become one: sex became the ultimate expression of love and with that an important part in the development of the virtuous character (The Book of Life, 2017b; Soble, 2017).

The sexbot relationship

When the sexbot enters the market not only as an advanced sex toy, but as a social robot as well, it will impede the area of our modern relationships, which is built on both love and sex. It is important to note that the field of sex robots is nowhere near the point of science fiction that is presented in movies and literature. The sexbot looks far from a perfect humanoid and is still clearly distinguishable from humans both in appearance and in autonomy. It is, however, quite simple to design technologies that will engage their users in compelling and affective relations, without being very human-like (Royakkers, 2015; Scheutz in Lin, 2011; Sullins, 2012). Most humans are easily convinced of the consciousness, free will and intelligence of non-human objects. When we interact with other humans, we presume their intentions and states of mind on the basis of how they appear to us and not by going into the depth of their brains. We use the same approach in our relations to non-human things (Coeckelbergh, 2009; Scheutz in Lin, 2011). A sexbot that mimics social behavior, that appears to be in love with us, will be enough for most humans to trigger emotional and affective reactions. On top of that, we psychologically tend to believe quite easily the insincere affections of a false lover. Even when their actions are minimal and contradictory, if someone acts as if they love us, we believe it (Sullins, 2012). Our tendency to anthropomorphize things and our need to be loved will, therefore, make it easily possible to design a sexbot with which we will think to have a genuine, mutual relationship.

However, even though the partner might genuinely love the sexbot and might have its desires and needs fulfilled by believing it is loved by the sexbot, this sexbot relationship is in no way like the philia relationship that is essential for the development of the moral character (Scheutz in Lin, 2011). I have three arguments to support this statement. First of all, the sexbot has no virtuous character: it has been given a designed personality at some point, which might seem to possess some virtues, but isn’t virtuous. It mirrors interactions and behaviors, but doesn’t make itself a conscious and knowledgeable choice to act in a certain way. Next to that, because its character has been given to it, the sexbot doesn’t know the human struggle of growing, developing and becoming a character. It, therefore, lacks the life experience to engage with you in a proper discussion to help you grow morally. Finally, the sexbot has no conscious of self and no conscious of the other. It can’t, therefore, love itself or love the other in the sense of wishing the best for the other by the pursuit of the reflective and virtuous life. In other words, the sexbot doesn’t pursue the virtuous life itself and can also not consciously help its partner in the development of their virtuous character. The sexbot relationship is static, non-reciprocal and not focused on personal growth.

The effects of the sexbot on the philia relationship

Then, if the sexbot cannot be the lover we need in the development of the virtuous character, the first question becomes if sexbot relationships will replace our philia relationships. My view might be too positive, but I would like to argue that the answer is no. There will be sexbots that can mimic love and there will be a number of us that will fall for that (Scheutz in Lin, 2011): there will be sexbot relationships and it will even be loving and enjoyable to some, but these will be short love stories. For some time, it can be enjoyable to talk about your interests, which the sexbot conveniently shares, but on the long-term, the sexbot will miss a depth that only humans have. It doesn’t have its own dreams, ambitions or beliefs to start deep discussions. It might ask about your dreams and beliefs, but it isn’t sincerely interested. It will remember all the things you ever said to them, but it won’t know you. On the long-term, this will come to the surface and make you lose interest in the sexbot as a partner for love. In the end, humans are social animals who look for deeper bonds with other humans that the sexbot just won’t be able to give. The sexbot will be a great sexual partner and companion to fight loneliness, but not a suitable partner for a serious, long-term relationship.

In our modern society, having relationships is seen as an important part of our personal lives. We commonly fear of ending up alone and take not being able to find a suitable partner very personally, which explains the immense amount of dating sites and apps. Human relationships are seen as intrinsically good, because it is based on the practice of important virtues such as reciprocity, care, empathy and sacrifice (King, 2015; Whitby in Lin, 2011). The deeper connection that we find in modern philia relationships will still be the higher goal to strive towards; it did so after many revolutions in the history of love and it will when the sexbot is widely available.

Since the sexual revolution in the mid-twentieth century in which sex was liberated from procreation, sexuality has opened up the way for a diversity in how to engage in relationships (Yenor, 2016). Being sexually active while not in a monogamous, heterosexual relationship has become less frowned upon. Nowadays, there are many different ways in which we are sexually active outside, or next to, our relationships: from masturbation to one-night-stands and friends-with-benefits (Furman, 2011; Wentland, 2011). And even though the sex within the committed relationship is in most cases still perceived with a higher status and as a supreme expression of love, casual sex is often seen as a great way to experiment and learn in between partners (Glenn, 2001). It can be a way to fulfill your needs while working on developing yourself to become better suited for a next relationship. Within this spectrum of different kinds of relationships, the sexbot will be a new addition of short-term love: a means-to-an-end in finding deeper love, an in-between. Of course, just as with any form of sex or type of relationship, the preferences of individuals will differ: some will decide sexbot relationships are not for them and some will prefer it over human relationships. In general, however, the sexbot and philia relationships will co-exist, with the sexbot relationship as an acceptable form of engaging in sexual activity, but still with the philia relationship as a higher goal.

However, when engaging in a sexbot relationship as a means-to-an-end, the lesson it teaches about forming and keeping relationships should be carefully considered. Is it actually a mean that will contribute to reaching the final end, or will it decrease our ability to form the modern philia relationships that we need to develop the virtuous character? First of all, it is important to find out what the perspective is of the person engaging in a relationship with the sexbot. Consider, for example, Peter, a fifty-year-old widow. He has just lost his wife and is looking for some companionship, but doesn’t want to engage in a committed relationship right now. Now imagine Anna, a nineteen-year-old who has never had sex before and uses the sexbot to experiment with her sexuality. If you compare Peter with Anna, it becomes clear that the previous experience with sexuality and the attitude with which a sexbot relationship is started are important factors on how the sexbot might influence your view on sexuality and relationships. Peter has had a long-term relationship before and knows the reality of living and having sex with another human being. Anna, on the other hand, has her encounters with the sexbot early in her sexual development and will create associations about sexuality and relationships, even when she is aware of the fact that a robot is different than a human. It is especially this kind of sexbot users, the users who are new to sex and relationships, the users who are still insecure about their sexuality and the users who lack knowledge and life experience, that are prone to be taught a wrong lesson by the sexbot.

So, what exactly is it that an encounter with the sexbot will teach? First of all, it has to be clear that the sexbot can help you in finding out your sexual preferences and it can teach you how to “technically” have sex. However, next to these positive contributions, there are three worrisome lessons the sexbot might teach: a lesson about the physicality of partners and sex, about the relational aspect and about different kinds of pleasure. With the lesson about physicality, I refer firstly to the actual physique of the human body. Looking at the current developments in the business, it is likely for the sexbot to move into the direction of a design that is unrealistically stereotyping real human bodies (New York Times, 2015). The sexbot is specifically designed to please and, just as in pornography and advertising, works from the stereotypical view on what is attractive. It means that the proportions, amount of body hair and smoothness of the skin and such are unrealistically presented. In addition, the sexbot isn’t representing a living body: our bodies change, not only in the span of years, but day by day as well: hair grows and sheds, irregularities appear on our skin and leave again, we have bumps, bruises and cuts and we sweat and smell. The sexbot presents being attractive as a dehumanizing ideal of a weirdly proportioned body that doesn’t live. Being exposed to this presentation of attractiveness might influence what you expect the body of a future partner to be. Related to the expectations of the body of our partner, is the representation and expectation of the physicality of sex itself. Because bodies are imperfect by being fleshy, hairy and moist, the act of sex between two humans is inherently dirty. The relatively clean sex with a sexbot doesn’t offer the possibility to outgrow the primal immature reactions of fear and disgust to our human bodies. According to Shannon Vallor (in King, 2015), the persistence of these kinds of reactions can inhibit the development of virtues like care, empathy and courage for both our own and our partners bodies.

The second concerning lesson the sexbot teaches is about the relationship between two partners. The relationship with a sexbot is per definition one-sided: it is based on fulfillment of your own needs. It misses a chance to enjoy a specific part of the pleasure of relationships: the pleasure of fulfilling the needs of another. It fails to educate about (the joys of) reciprocation, caring for the other and putting the other before you. Furthermore, the sexbot is designed to always join in any sexual activity. It is made to be an always available partner that doesn’t reject. Not only gives this a wrong image about the realistic desires and needs of a partner, it also doesn’t help in dealing with consent. Contrary to the sexbot, humans are not always available for sexual activities. This isn’t always personal, it could have a range of different reasons: we are tired, need to do some household task or don’t feel like it. Being in a relationship with another human being means, therefore, that you will, firstly, have to ask for consent and, secondly, that you will get rejected sometimes. The ever availability of the sexbot does not only create a habituation to be sexually active whenever you want to, it also doesn’t help you in learning to respect and deal with rejection.

The third and last worrisome lesson is also based on the ever availability of the sexbot and its influence on our will to pursue the virtuous life. Eudaimonia in virtue ethics is the kind of long-term happiness that requires dedication and perseverance. In contrast, the sexbot provides a short-term happy feeling that is easily attainable. It is a quick shot of dopamine, that makes us feel good and we are wired to look for it again (Hall, 2011). In our maturing processes, we need to learn to sometimes resist these easy, short-term pleasures to ensure our long-term happiness. The sexbot is, however, of no help in this process. It is always available to pleasure you and can, therefore, become addictive to those of us who are not as good in restraining themselves and keep us from pursuing a philia relationship. A second, related point, entails the influence of starting a sexbot relationship on our will to develop ourselves. In human relationships, especially the philia kind, but also for casual sex, you need to present yourself in some way or another as deserving of the love of the other. That also means having to deal with possible rejections. You’ll have to be confident enough to put yourself out there. It gives you a reason to work on yourself. For the pursuit of a sexbot relationship, you don’t need to deserve love, you can just buy it. Especially for those individuals who have difficulties finding human relationships or who are insecure about themselves, this offers to be a solution, that might be less optimal, but better than none. It will, however, prevent them from a possibility to practice the virtues of patience and perseverance in finding a suitable partner.

On the basis of these three worrisome lessons, the sexbot will negatively affect our ability to form and build philia relationships. Especially the vulnerable users, who lack knowledge of and experience in human relationships, are prone to develop a misleading view on the physique of and interaction between human partners. To the less vulnerable users, who know the difference between robot love and human love, the sexbot could still habituate them incorrectly and give them fewer possibilities to develop important virtues for forming and keeping relationships.

Conclusion & recommendations

The answer on the main question of how the sexbot will influence our ability to develop our virtuous character is, therefore, that the sexbot is negatively influencing this ability by restraining an important part of character development, namely the building of philia relationships. It does so by presenting a stereotypical view on attraction, habituating the users in a one-sided relationship without rejection, preventing and inhibiting them to develop important virtues such as respect, care, empathy, courage, patience and perseverance and demotivating them from pursuing the virtuous life by being addictive and easy.

I have come to this conclusion by arguing that to develop the virtuous character, you need the assistance of a friend and lover in the form of a specific kind of relationship: the philia relationship. In the contemporary view, sex is an important part of the philia relationship as well, as it is the supreme expression of love. Then I argued that it is relatively easy to build a sexbot with which humans will believe to have genuine relationships. However, the sexbot won’t be able to form a philia relationship, because it can’t reciprocate, it doesn’t strive to be virtuous and can’t help the partner to become virtuous. Even though the sexbot will become more common, it won’t replace the philia relationship as the ultimate relationship. However, the use of the sexbot will teach a wrong lesson about the physicality of partners and sex, about the relationship between two partners and about long-term pleasures and deserving love. It, therefore, decreases the ability to form and keep the philia relationships that are of importance in the development of the virtuous character.

This argument is based on the direction in which the sexbot industry seems to be heading today, which is similar to the pornography industry: mostly focussed on the male consumer with a stereotypical view on attractiveness. However, some of the issues could be prevented if the industry would go into another, more ethically justifiable, direction. In the design of both the physique and the interaction of the sexbot a lot of differences can be made to ensure a better influence on the development of the virtuous character. Firstly, it should be possible to design more diversity in body type, sexes and skin colors. The sexbot will always stay cleaner, smoother and more static than a human body, but the least the business can do is promote diversity. Secondly, the sexbot could be designed to be less non-consensual. I understand, from a designers’ and business perspective, why the sexbot is designed to never reject, however, it is possible to raise awareness about consent. The sexbot could be programmed in such a way that it will always ask consent, not only in sexual activities, or stimulate the user to always ask consent of the sexbot first. It can at least habituate the user into the habit of asking before doing. A similar approach could be used to prevent sexbot addictions: it won’t reject, but it can raise awareness to the user. Maybe the sexbot could have a limit of uses per day after which it might raise the subject to the user, or in extreme cases contact an alarm number or kin. Finally, to improve the concept of buying love, instead of deserving it, starting a sexbot relationship could be taken even a step further. Instead of buying the sexbot online, you’ll have to meet them first or take some kind of personality test, with which a suitable sexbot can be found.

In the end, not all ethical issues can be solved, because in nature the sexbot relationship will always be different than the human relationship. However, a lot of improvements can be made by taking the ethical concerns into consideration when designing. In this essay, my focus was mainly on the influence on our relationships and the virtuous character, but in the further development of the sexbot it is also important to look at the other ethical concerns that I shortly hinted to in the introduction, especially the issues in the prostitution, pornography and illicit fetishes are still open to discussion.


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