Monthly Archives: June 2016

Who Is Responsible?

June 2016 Pulse

Without doubt one of the most fascinating and rapidly developing fields in modern technology is robotics. From surgical robots to DNA nano-robots capable of bipedal motion, the advances in this field in the past decade have been so staggering and surreal that they seem more like the stuff of science fiction.

But accompanying the robot revolution are numerous complex philosophical, ethical and legal issues that have profound social implications.

As Paolo Dario has observed, the changing nature of robotic engineering from a discipline where robots perform tasks assigned by humans to one where robots work alongside humans, presents new and profound ethical challenges.

One of the more perplexing issues that the newly minted ‘roboethics’ (first coined at a conference in Italy in 2004) has to deal with has to do with the question of responsibility. Simply put, who should be held responsible when a robot does harm?

For example, who should bear the blame when a military robot malfunctions and kills civilians instead of enemy combatants – the designer, the manufacturer, the programmer, the operator or the robot itself?

When the robots in question are merely machines controlled directly by users, the questions of liability and responsibility are quite similar to those of other machines like cars, and therefore pose no new ethical problems. The responsibility for robot failure may rest on the designer, manufacturer or user, depending on the causes of the malfunction and the circumstances.

Here, we must distinguish between two types of responsibilities.

When a user deliberately directs the robot to cause harm, both the user and the robot may be said to be causally responsible for the harm, but only the user (not the robot) is morally responsible. This is because the robot, controlled by the user, has no choice of its own.

But what about semi-autonomous or autonomous robots that are capable of performing tasks by themselves, without direct or explicit human control? Who should be held responsible for the failures of such robots? Can autonomous robots be said to be morally responsible for the harm it caused?

Put differently, can autonomous robots be considered as moral agents?

Some ethicists argue that in order to achieve clarity on this question, we must go to the source of any robotic moral agency.

The actions of the robot are based on software that begins as a code programmed by human beings. The robot is therefore an amoral agent and cannot be said to be morally responsible for its actions because it is unable to behave independently from the way it is programmed.

However, with increasing sophistication in programming and artificial intelligence (AI), the picture becomes much more complex.

The philosopher of science Peter Asaro has suggested a continuum of moral agency with reference to robots, beginning with robots that are wholly amoral to those that may be considered as fully autonomous moral agents, depending on the sophistication of their programming.

He suggests that we should think of different tiers of robots that are above the amoral status in this continuum of moral agency. The first tier comprise what he calls ‘robots with moral significance’, by which he means robots that are able to make decisions with ethical consequences.

Asaro describes the second tier of ‘moral’ robots are machines ‘with moral intelligence’. This category of robots differs from ‘robots with moral significance’ in the sense that these robots are able to assess the ethics of a particular cause of action because moral precepts are imbued in their programming.

Even more superior to these robots are the machines that belong to the third tier that possess what Asaro calls ‘dynamic moral intelligence’. These machines not only have the ability to reason morally but they are also able to learn new ethical lessons from their experiences and even develop their own moral codes.

Finally, we have agentic machines that are fully moral. For Asaro, this would mean that such machines would have acquired self-awareness, possess some form of consciousness, have a sense of self-preservation and could even feel the threat of pain or destruction (death).

If this final stage were possible – and many scientists and philosophers remain sceptical – it would raise serious philosophical and theological issues of the possible ‘personhood’ of such machines.

Be that as it may, each advance in robotics would present different moral and legal challenges.

For many years, Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics have provided the framework for thinking about issues of liability and responsibility.

The Laws are as follows: (1) the robot may not injure a human being or through inaction allow a human being to be injured; (2) the robot should obey orders given by the human being except when the orders are in conflict with the first law; and (3) the robot must protect its own existence, but in doing so it must not transgress the first or second law.

But with highly autonomous and intelligent robots (those belonging to the third and fourth tiers), these laws no longer apply. In fact, as Daniel Howlader has rightly observed, ‘To create machines that can make their own choices, be aware of their existence, and at the same time subordinate that free will to the benefit of humanity is frankly unethical’.

Here, the question ‘Who is responsible?’ must not only be looked at from a different angle but radically broadened. The question must be directed not to just at the designer, manufacturer, programmer, user and the robot itself. It must be directed at society as a whole for allowing some kinds of machines to come into existence in the first place.

As researchers Pawel Lichocki, Peter Kahn and Aude Billard have poignantly put it, in designing and building robots, ‘We might be motivated by the beauty of our artifacts. Or by their usefulness. Or by the economic rewards. But in addition we are morally accountable for what we design and put into our world’.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was originally published in the December 2016 issue of the Methodist Message. 

As Good as Dead

June 2016 Pulse

One of the most disturbing moral fictions in the field of medicine in our time is the so-called neurological criteria for determining death that equate brain death with the death of a human being.

This new approach was proposed in 1968 by an Ad Hoc Harvard Medical School Committee as a supplement to the traditional cardio- respiratory criteria in order to address the issue of “obtaining organs for transplantation”. In 1970, Kansas became the first state to accord this new definition legal status. Today, many countries in the world, including Singapore, accept the neurological determination of death.

According to the Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA) adopted by most American states, brain death is the “irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem”. Brain death is accepted as the legal definition of death because the brain is deemed as the body’s central integrator.

The neurological determination of death is theologically, philosophically and ethically problematic.

To equate brain death with the death of a human being is to embrace a fallacious and dangerously reductive view of what it means to be human. The brain cannot be seen as the central integrator of the human body, responsible for uniting what is otherwise a mere collectivity of organs.

The materialist philosophy that undergirds the neurological criteria must be challenged and rejected from the standpoint of Christian anthropology.

It is a serious misnomer to claim that the person in irreversible coma and diagnosed as “brain- dead” is dead. As Dr Peter Bryne puts it, forcefully underscoring the obvious: irreversible coma “is a term for someone who’s alive, not someone who’s dead”.

Although it is extremely rare for comatose patients diagnosed as brain dead to regain consciousness, there have been a number of documented cases. For example, the Journal of California Nurses for Ethical Standards reported the gruesome case of a brain-dead patient who put his arm around the nurse in the operating room as the surgeon was about to retrieve his beating heart for transplantation.

It is extremely disturbing that advocates have elected to discount brainstem functions like the maintenance of a normal body temperature, production of hormones via the hypothalamic- pituitary glands, normal blood pressure and neurogenic control of heartbeat in brain-dead patients as inapplicable or insignificant for determining death.

“Somatic survival” in brain-dead patients must not be brushed aside so superficially. A few examples will suffice to illustrate the conundrum this phenomenon presents to proponents of the brain- based criteria for death.

The brain-dead body is known to react to incisions during organ removal. The blood pressure rises considerably even as the heartbeat quickens. That is why in some hospitals the brain-dead patient is put under general anaesthesia for the surgery!

To prevent a brain-dead body from developing diabetes insipidus, which may cause organ damage, various forms of hormone treatment are usually administered. However, many brain-dead patients do not develop diabetes insipidus at all, indicating residual pituitary function and hence brain function.

Doctors are also known to keep on life support a pregnant woman diagnosed with brain death, in the hope that her child will be delivered alive. The Daily Mail recently reported that a Canadian woman gave birth to a premature but healthy baby one month after she was diagnosed as brain-dead.

This has prompted bioethicists like James J. Hughes to maintain that the death “at issue in the brain death debate is not an empirical reality, but a social category: ‘social death’ ”.

The neurological approach is fundamentally flawed and should not be accepted as the unambiguous basis for determining death. It confuses prognosis and diagnosis in a way that has grave and far-reaching moral consequences.

The human being cannot be simply reduced to his brain function. Brain death cannot be equated with the death of the human being. Brain death cannot even be regarded as a sign of death or as an indication of the time of death.

The advocates of the brain-based definition of death will no doubt insist that a patient diagnosed with brain death is as good as dead. But a patient who is “as good as dead” is not dead – he is still alive! And it is morally wrong and reprehensible to hasten the death of such a patient by harvesting his organs.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 

The Christian Mind

June 2016 Feature Article

“We take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5)  is what comes to my mind in writing about engagement of the mind.  In 2 Corinthians 10, Paul writes about how we are not waging war according to the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.  A stronghold which needs to be conquered is that of the mind.

A rabbi lawyer asked Jesus the following question to test him: “which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”  The rabbis were engaged in an ongoing debate to determine which commandments were “light” and which were “weighty”.  The law referred to the whole of the Old Testament. Jesus responded by quoting Deuteronomy 6 verse 5: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”. Faithful Jews repeated this twice daily but seldom understand the totality of personal devotion to God as represented by this verse in the Old Testament.  We need to love God with our mind as well as with the heart and soul.

“Heart”, “soul” and “mind” do not represent rigid compartments of human existence but rather refer to parts of the whole person.  The mind is part of the whole person but today it tends to be increasingly detached from the rest of the person so that we need to capture it back in our obedience to Christ, in integrating it with the heart and soul and then offering the whole person to God through Jesus Christ with the power and fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ himself was devoted to God totally, in heart, mind and soul.  Born a baby, growing up as a Jewish boy, we find Jesus able from the age of thirty able to obey God the Father totally in the path he took which led him to the cross.  His sacrifice of His whole person to God on the cross is what enables us to be whole persons through faith in who Jesus is and what Jesus did on earth and carries on doing now for us while seated at the right hand of God in resurrected glory.

Taking every thought captive means bringing the mind back to being part of the whole person. Today the mind today tends to have a life of its own, and I find this to be especially so in the academic activity that I am engaged in.  Academic life is centred around fields of study which can be professional (like medicine, accountancy, engineering) or humanities and science-based (like history, geography, economics, physics and chemistry).  Each of these acquires an autonomy or life of its own and very often those in one field of study knows very little of what goes on in another field.  Specialisation goes to extremes so much so the saying is that one may know everything about nothing!

Is it possible to then to know everything about everything?  Can we have wisdom?

Proverbs 8:22 states that “the Lord possessed me (wisdom)  at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old.  Ages ago, I(wisdom) was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth”.  This is but a reference to the Spirit of God which we read in Genesis 1:2 as “hovering over the face of the waters”.   

There was in addition a third person present when God the Father created the heavens and the earth. This was Jesus Christ. Jesus was born a baby but Jesus had the mind of God for Jesus was there when God created the world.  As stated in Colossians 1:16 “for by him (Jesus Christ), all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…all things were created through him and for him.”

When we engage our minds with God, we need to do so through the mind of Jesus Christ, for it was through the mind of Jesus that all things were created.  Good thinkers recognize that there needs to be prayer before any intellectual activity is started.  The mind of a person needs to be not only engaged with the body and spirit of a person but also with the body and spirit of God, i.e. with Jesus,  God-become man and also with the Holy Spirit, the go-between God, the God in whom Christians have fellowship with each other and also with God the Father and God the Son.

God is a tri-une Person, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit and in the same way as there is constant and complete communion between all three persons of the God-head, there needs to be constant communion between the body, mind and spirit of a person in order for any one of us to be a full person. The continual temptation is to fragment ourselves as if body, mind and spirit are separate persons not in contact with each other.

I am reminded of the description of the academic as an “egg-head” as if the head is out of proportion with the body in which it is located and the spirit which energises it.  Many of my colleagues in the university are like that.  It is a rare person who can engage in holistic companionship within the walls of a campus. The devil tempted Adam and Eve to disobey God in fragmenting their obedience to God.  The apostle John wrote of all that is in the world as coming from the desires of the flesh (body, my italics), the desires of the eyes (mind, my italics) and pride in possessions (spirit, my italics).  John stated that “if anyone loves he world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:15).

As Christians we are not to love the mind inordinately or excessively.  The division of our person in body, mind and spirit is there but not to be dwelt on literally for what matters is the whole person.  In order that the whole person can be made whole, the mind has to be brought into fellowship with the body and spirit through being made captive to Christ.

By the same analogy, there are some who love the body excessively or love the spirit excessively too.  For some, the mind needs to be developed further: for others, it has to be reduced in importance.  For some, the spirit needs to be developed, for others, there has to be some reduction.  What the “proportions” are varies from person to person and in each person, from one stage of one’s journey through life to another stage.

The temptation of Satan is makes ourselves the determinant of how the whole person is to grow.  The commandment of God is to make God the determinant at all times.  The body has a certain capacity to grow and we all know that this capacity is reached when one’s height or weight reaches a limit.  However the mind and the spirit are not so easily limited.  The mind can continue to grow long after my body stops growing.  We need to make it captive to Christ.   Even more capable of growth is the spirit which is evidenced in the growth of pride. For that there seems to be no limit as it was pride which made Adam and Eve disobey God. C.S. Lewis rightly pointed out that pride is the chief obstacle to our loving God fully.

Be that it may, my concern as a scholar and as a teacher is to urge my students and colleagues to make every thought captive to Christ.  This is easier said than done, for there are many activities of the mind which have yet to see the lordship of Jesus Christ.  Christians ought to engage themselves in seeing how the Christian mind can be applied to what they study.  There is no such thing as Christian economics, but there is the economics which a Christian writes about. It is the Christian person that matters, not economics. The person who is a Christian can write about economic knowledge as overflowing from his or her witness and life as a Christian.  There are as many varieties of economics as there are Christians who are economists.  It is the person that matters, not the subject.

Yet many Christians put the subject first.  This leads to the mind being reduced to an autonomy of its own which is not its true calling.  As Christians we are urged to make the mind part of the whole person and in so doing to give the appropriate significance to it as it deserves, in the context of a person’s walk with God.  Making every thought captive does not mean reducing thought but elevating it to its proper role.  May God helps us to make every thought captive and in so doing, give it the freedom it ought and deserves to have.


Dr Lee S A
Dr Lee Soo Ann is President of The Bible Society of Singapore. He is also Senior Fellow at the Department of Economics at the National University of Singapore, where he earned his PhD in economics. He was the former General-Secretary of the Bible Society, and has also served in a variety of roles in Christian organisations, public service and academic settings over the course of his career.