Carebots and Caregivers: Sustaining the Ethical Ideal of Care in the 21st Century

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In the early twenty-first century, we stand on the threshold of welcoming robots into domains of human activity that will expand their presence in our lives dramatically. One provocative new frontier in robotics, motivated by a convergence of demographic, economic, cultural, and institutional pressures, is the development of “carebots”—robots intended to assist or replace human caregivers in the practice of caring for vulnerable persons such as the elderly, young, sick, or disabled. I argue here that existing philosophical reflections on the ethical implications of carebots neglect a critical dimension of the issue: namely, the potential moral value of caregiving practices for caregivers. This value, I argue, gives rise to considerations that must be weighed alongside consideration of the likely impact of carebots on care recipients. Focusing on the goods internal to caring practices, I then examine the potential impact of carebots on caregivers by means of three complementary ethical approaches: virtue ethics, care ethics, and the capabilities approach. Each of these, I argue, sheds new light on the contexts in which carebots might deprive potential caregivers of important moral goods central to caring practices, as well as those contexts in which carebots might help caregivers sustain or even enrich those practices, and their attendant goods.