Artificial Ethics - The Matrix Julia Driver

The significance of The Matrix as a movie with deep philosophical overtones is well recognized. Whenever the movie is discussed in philosophy classes, comparisons are made with Descartes’ Meditations, particularly the dream argument and the evil genius scenario, both of which are intended to generate skeptical doubt. How do we know, for example, that we are awake now, rather than merely dreaming? How do we know that our thoughts are not being manipulated, and that our perceptions of ‘reality’ are accurate? The Matrix makes these doubts stand out vividly.

However, The Matrix raises many other interesting philosophical issues, and ones that are worthy of further discussion. This essay explores some of the moral issues raised in The Matrix. The first is the issue of the moral status of the created beings, the ‘artificial’ intelligences, which figure into the universe of The Matrix. The second is the issue of whether or not one can do anything wrong in circumstances where one’s experiences are non-veridical; that is, where one’s experiences fail to reflect reality.

I. The Moral Status of Programs

There is a reality to the Matrix. The substance of that reality may differ dramatically from the substance we label ‘real’ — the ‘real’ world is the desert reality that Morpheus reveals to Neo. But it is clear that, out of the grip of the Matrix, though still having certain dream-like experiences, Neo and his enlightened friends are dealing with actual sentient programs, and making decisions that have actual effects for themselves as well as the machines and the programs. What is the moral status of the sentient programs that populate the Matrix, or, for that matter, the moral status of the machines themselves? The universe of The Matrix is populated with beings that have been created — created by programmers or created by the machine universe itself. The agents, such as Smith, Neo’s pursuer, are prime examples. These beings come into and go out of existence without comment on the part of whoever controls the switches — and without any moral debate on the part of the humans who also would like to see the agents destroyed. There seems to be an implicit view that their existence is less significant, their lives of less moral import, than the lives of ‘naturally’ existing creatures such as ourselves. An obvious explanation for this attitude is that humans are long accustomed to thinking of themselves as being at the center of the universe. The geographic point changed with Copernicus. However, our view of our dominant place in the moral universe has stayed fixed. But, once again, science — and particularly, now, cognitive science holds the potential for challenging this certainty. And science fiction such as The Matrix, which explores differing directions for these potentialities, also brings challenges to this worldview. What The Matrix offers is a vivid thought experiment. It is a thought experiment which makes us ask the sort of ‘what if?’ question that leads to a change in self conception. It forces us to see where our well accepted moral principles would take us within one possible world.

We know that killing human beings is wrong. It is wrong because human beings have moral standing. Human beings are widely believed to have this standing in virtue of consciousness and sentience. For example, a rock has no moral standing whatsoever. Kicking a rock does not harm it, and no moral rights are violated. It is an inanimate, non-conscious object incapable of either thought or sensation. Animals, however, are generally taken to have some moral standing in virtue of their sentience. Kicking an animal for no compelling reason is generally taken to be immoral. Human beings have greater standing in virtue of their higher rational capacities. They can experience more varied and complex harms, and a wider range of emotional responses – such as resentment – in virtue of their rationality. How one came into existence is not taken to be morally significant. Some people are the products of natural conception, and some are the result of conception in the laboratory. This makes no difference to the possession of those qualities we take to be morally significant – consciousness and rationality. And, surely, the substance from which someone is created is completely irrelevant to the issue of moral status. If a person’s consciousness could somehow be transferred to a metallic or plastic robotic body, the end result would still be a person.

It would seem, then, that the fact that one is created, or artificial, is in no way relevant to one’s moral standing. And, if this is the case, then the world of The Matrix presents underappreciated moral complexities. Agents such as Smith, while not very pleasant, would arguably have moral standing, moral rights. Of course, Neo has the right to defend himself — Smith is not, after all, an innocent. Indeed, if the religious theme is pursued, he is an agent of darkness. But any innocent creations of the machines — beings brought into existence to populate the Matrix — also would have moral rights. Just as it would be wrong to flip a switch and kill an innocent human being, no matter how that human being came into existence, it would be wrong to flip a switch and kill a sentient program. As long, of course, as that program possessed the qualities we regard as morally relevant. And this is where one of the primary issues raised by the possibility of artificial intelligence becomes important to the question at hand. Do these programs possess consciousness? Since we are considering the world of The Matrix, let’s look at what evidence seems to exist in the movie. While we don’t have much information about the machines themselves, their agents are on ample display.1

Smith, of course, and his colleagues seem remarkably without affect. Yet, at critical points they do display emotions: anger, fear, and surprise. They seem able to plan and to carry through on a plan. Smith also displays a capacity for sadistic pleasure — at one point he displays this, when he forces Neo’s mouth shut. Smith also displays extreme fear near the end of the movie, when Neo leaps through him. The agents display many, if not all, of the responses we associate with consciousness and sentience. But this brings us to another skeptical challenge posed in The Matrix. How can we be sure they do posses minds, and are not mere automata, albeit highly complex ones? Though the movie invites this reflection, it is important to see where this challenge can take us. The "how can I be sure?" question can extend beyond the agents to our fellow human beings. Since a person’s conscious experiences are essentially private, one cannot be directly aware of another’s experiences. We might try, as St. Augustine suggested, to solve this problem by appeal to analogy: I do directly experience my own mental states — I know that I am a conscious, aware, being. I also know on the basis of observation that I am structurally similar to other human beings. Thus, I reason by analogy, that they must experience mental states as well.2 And, indeed, The Matrix invites such a comparison when the agents display behavior consistent with the experience of certain psychological states.3

Given, then, that we believe what we are invited to believe it would follow that the sentient programs, the cyber persons, do possess those qualities we associate with moral standing. They have moral rights on the basis of consciousness and sentience and rationality. Thus, their moral standing is the same as that of human beings.

It is possible that human beings have some additional value — a kind of antiquarian value. We are, so to speak, "the originals." The original Mona Lisa, for example, has value in excess of its copies. But this kind of value is not moral value and does not reflect on the moral standing of the object, or the moral significance of the lives themselves. The Mona Lisa does have value, but no moral standing since it is a mere painting; it lacks consciousness. It may be damaged, but not harmed in the way that humans and sentient creatures can be harmed.

Perhaps the machines view humans this way. To the machines, the value of humans is mainly instrumental. They are valued as a source of energy, but they may also have some antiquarian value. Humans are merely relics of a past they themselves helped to destroy. If that’s the case, the machines have turned the tables. They are making the same moral mistake humans apparently made in the context of The Matrix, in viewing other rational life forms as simple instruments, to use and destroy as one wishes. Indeed, both sides of the conflict seem to have displayed some moral blindness. The humans, in using and destroying, and the machines, certainly, in their subjection of the humans. But both sides view themselves as fighting for survival, and I imagine that Smith and Smith’s creators, as well as Neo and his friends, would argue that moral qualms like these are a luxury.

II. Manipulation and Immorality

The world that the pre-enlightened Neo inhabits is one made up by machines. The machines have created a humdrum existence for humans, to keep them happy and pacified and free of the knowledge that they are being used as a source of energy for the machines. Most humans believe that this world is real, but they are mistaken. Within this world they build lives for themselves, have relationships, eat lovely dinners, and at least seem to both create and destroy. To some extent this existence is dream like. It isn’t real. When the unenlightened person thinks he’s eating a steak, he isn’t. Instead, the machines generate mental experiences which correspond to the experience of eating a steak, but which are non-veridical – that is, the person is not actually eating a steak. There is no real or actual steak. The human being’s actions, in that respect, have no real or actual consequences in a world that exists independently of his or her mind. However, even in this unenlightened state, the humans do have some control, since what they ‘do’ in the Matrix has consequences which are realized in the real world. Getting smashed by a truck in the Matrix kills the person in reality. The Matrix offers a ‘brain-in-a-vat’ experience, but one where the experiencer does have some control.4 The enlightened can, in principle, understand the rules of the Matrix and learn to exert that control with full understanding.5

But, as the steak example illustrates, there are many other ‘actions’ they perform that seem to have no effects in the real world. The pre-enlightened Neo and most of the humans living in the Matrix seem to be deluded. One issue raised by this is the extent to which they can be held responsible for their actions in the Matrix. Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that something like wearing fur is immoral. Is simply making a choice to wear fur, along with the belief that one is wearing fur, enough to make one guilty of wrongdoing? Is it really only the thought that counts, morally? A competing view is that the choices people make must result in actual bad consequences in order for them to be guilty of wrongdoing; or, actual good consequences in order for them to be considered to have acted rightly. So, the issue is that of whether or not the moral quality of a person’s actions — its rightness or wrongness — is determined solely by his or her subjective states, or whether, instead, actual consequences figure into this determination.

In the Matrix if fur is worn it is virtual fur, and not real — though the wearer does not realize this. Again, this is because he or she is being mentally manipulated. But is this a genuine delusion? Certainly, an insane person who fails to have a grip on reality, and is deluded in this sense, is thought to have diminished moral responsibility for what he or she does while deluded. Such a person is generally held to not be morally responsible in those circumstances. He is not punished, though he may be confined to a mental hospital and treated for his insanity. The explanation is that the actions performed while insane are not truly voluntary. If the persons who live in the Matrix are similarly deluded, then it would seem that they are not responsible for what they ‘do’ in the Matrix.

Some writers have argued that one cannot be held responsible for what happens in a dream, since dreams themselves are not voluntary, nor are the ‘actions’ one seems to perform in a dream.6 Other writers, such as Henry David Thoreau, had the view that what we seemed to do in a dream reflected on our character; and the contents of dreams could reveal true virtue or vice.7 Even if the actions one performs in a dream have no actual good or bad consequences, they reveal truths about one’s emotional make-up, and one’s inner desires, and these, in turn are revealing of character. But, as we’ve discussed, the Matrix isn’t a dream. The unenlightened exist, rather, in a state of psychological manipulation. The actions they seem to perform don’t always have the effects (in reality) that they have reason to expect, based on their manipulated experiences. But even in the Matrix we can argue that they make voluntary choices. They are not irrational. They are not like the insane. Neo believes what any rational, reasonable person would believe under the circumstances. The pre-enlightened are analogous to persons who make decisions based on lies that others have told them. They act, but without relevant information. It’s that condition that Neo would like to rectify at the end of The Matrix.

The view I favor is that without actual bad effects the actions of those in the Matrix are not immoral. But, again, this claim is controversial. Some would argue that it’s simply "the thought that counts"; that it is the person’s intentions which determine the moral quality of what he or she does. Immanuel Kant, for example, is famous for having claimed that all that matters, intrinsically, is a good will – actual consequences are irrelevant to moral worth.8 However, it would then be the case that forming bad intentions in one’s dreams is also sufficient for immorality, and this seems highly counterintuitive. If that’s true, then the intention to do something immoral along with the belief that one has so acted, is enough to make one guilty of moral wrongdoing. Instead, it seems more plausible that it must also be the case that there is some actual bad brought about, or at least the realistic prospect of some actual bad consequences, and thus non-veridical ‘wrongdoing’ in the Matrix is not actual wrongdoing.

This seems to be clearly the case in a dream. In a dream, when the dreamer decides to do something bad that decision doesn’t impact on the real world. But the Matrix is not really a dream. If we assume that the virtual world of the Matrix is complete — that is, completely like the real world before the machines took over — then the virtual ‘harms’ are still real in that they are realizized in terms of actual unpleasant mental states. The virtual fur coat is the result then of a virtual animal getting killed, but a virtual animal with all the right sorts of mental states — in this case, pain and suffering. If this is the case, then the killer, though mistaken in thinking the dead animal ‘real’ has still produced bad effects in the form of genuine pain and suffering. And thus, the action is immoral even though non-veridical. However, if the world of the Matrix is incomplete, the issue becomes more complicated. If Cypher’s virtual steak comes from a virtual meat locker, and the meat locker is the end of the line — and the acquisition of the steak does not involve the killing of a virtual animal with all the same psychology of pain and suffering a ‘real’ animal feels, then no moral harm has been done.

But note that Thoreau’s point still holds even though the Matrix is not exactly like a dream. That is — even if a person hasn’t actually done anything bad, or caused any real harm to another sentient life form, we may still make a negative evaluation of the person’s character.

But my guess is that the Matrix is a complete alternate reality created in the image of the pre-machine reality. And the Matrix, if it does offer such a complete replication of the pre-machine reality, is truly a self-contained world. It has its own objects, its own people, animals and … ethics. The systematic deception of the humans doesn’t change this.

Julia Driver


1. The issue of the moral status of the machines themselves should be kept distinct from the issue of the moral status of the sentient programs. I will focus on the latter issue here in discussion, simply because the movie provides more information about the behavior of these constructs. But the same points would hold for the machines themselves – if they have those qualities that are morally significant, consciousness and rationality, then they also possess moral standing.

2. St. Augustine, The Trinity (8.6.9). Again, this line of reasoning is controversial since it relies on a single case analogy.

3. A lot hinges on what we take to be ‘structurally similar’. Some would argue that while the sentient programs are not themselves structures, the machines are, and thus the machines may possess consciousness, though the programs cannot. However, I believe the sentient programs can be structurally similar if that’s understood functionally – their code has structure which provides functional equivalence to the physical states that underlie our mental states. But, this issue would be extremely controversial, and there isn’t enough time to delve into it more fully here.

4. See Christopher Grau’s introductory essays on this site for more on dream skepticism and brain-in-a-vat skepticism.

5.The unenlightened, on the other hand, are constantly being "Gettiered". A woman may have justified true belief that her husband is dead, because she has just ‘seen’ him smashed by a truck. But being in the Matrix she lacks true knowledge because she is deceived in the true manner of his death.

6. See, for example, William Mann’s "Dreams of Immorality," Philosophy (1983), pp. 378-85.

7. Thoreau writes about this in A Week on the Concord and the Merrimack (1849).

8. This also is controversial, but see Kant’s Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Lewis White Beck, and critical essays ed. by Robert Paul Wolf (NY: MacMillan, 1969):

Nothing in the world — indeed, nothing even beyond the…world — can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will…The good will is not good because of what it effects or accomplishes or because of its adequacy to achieve some proposed end; it is good only because of its willing, i.e., it is good of itself. (pp. 11-12)