The popular HBO series “Westworld,” which launched its second season in late April, is racy, violent fare, but a prominent daily Christian worldview commentary launched by the late Chuck Colson believes that while it wouldn’t recommend watching the show, the ethical issues it raises are worth considering.
As artificial intelligence and robot technology advance, says a BreakPoint commentary, one of the biggest questions the show poses is, “Why should we be good?
Or, as a New York Times review about the series put it in a headline, “What’s Wrong with Cruelty to Robots?”
“Westworld” is loosely based on a 1973 film about an amusement park where robots enable visitors — in a setting free of judgment and real-world consequences — to act out their darkest fantasies.
But things go very wrong as the robots, called “hosts,” revolt.
BreakPoint writer John Stonestreet notes that the producers of “Westworld” want viewers to feel sympathy and even anger for the robots when they are abused or “killed,” even though they aren’t really dead and their memories are erased.
“Still, viewers know something’s wrong with the whole arrangement. The question is – what?” he writes.
The authors of the New York Times article, psychologist Paul Bloom and new atheist Sam Harris, contend that what makes cruelty to robots wrong is that they possess consciousness.
They argue that with consciousness comes the capacity for suffering.
Stonestreet points out that only one robot in “Westworld” exhibits traits that might suggest consciousness, but he engages in their argument nonetheless.
Bloom and Harris claim that nearly every scientist and philosopher believes “consciousness emerges from the material world.” And the co-authors contend “the creation of conscious machines is possible.”
Stonestreet insists, however, that there’s “no shortage of scientists, much less philosophers, who doubt” those claims.
“Their backup argument is that even if the hosts don’t possess consciousness, they mimic us so well that it’s ‘irresistible to see this creature as a person … regardless of what its creators told you about how it was built,” Stonestreet writes.
But he argues that “human experience tells us that this is no shield against cruelty.”
“The ancient Romans had an expression, homo homini lupus est, ‘man is a wolf to his fellow man.’ We have no trouble preying on people we know possess consciousness. So what would stop us from doing so to a machine that we know doesn’t?”
In “Westworld,” the owner of the park knows that many of his guests believe in an all-knowing God who judges actions, which restrains their actions outside the park. The attraction of the park is “a place hidden from God; a place [where] they could sin in peace.”
Stonestreet argues “nothing is hidden from God,” and the only answer to “Why be good?”” is that all of human existence is lived in “Coram Deo,” which means “in the presence of God.”
He cites C. S. Lewis in the classic “Mere Christianity,” who wrote that “every time you make a choice, you are turning the central part of you, the part that chooses, into something a little different than it was before …. all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature.”
Stonestreet concludes: “In other words, acting with cruelty, no matter who or what is on the receiving end, makes us more fit for Hell than for Heaven.”
BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry founded in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast by Colson, the former special counsel to President Nixon and Watergate figure who became an evangelical Christian. Co-hosted by Stonestreet and Eric Metaxas, the radio show airs daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of 8 million people.