We’re delighted to kick off the discussion of Alexis Elder’s article, “Conversations from Beyond the Grave? A Neo-Confucian Ethics of Chatbots of the Dead.” We learned a lot from the paper, and it prompted us to think through some fascinating issues.
Elder begins by reporting that deceased people’s digital records – for example, text messages or social media posts – are sometimes used to create chatbots that converse in the style of the people who have died; and she notes that surviving friends and family members who talk to these bots often find the conversations “eerily convincing.” She describes several worries about the use of this technology and aims to address these worries by appealing (1) to discussions of the character and justification of mourning rituals in classical Chinese philosophy and (2) to recent work in clinical psychology that emphasizes the importance of our continuing bonds with loved ones who have died. Ultimately, Elder argues that chatbots of the dead may have an important role to play in our lives when loved ones die, and she suggests ways in which we might limit the risks associated with this technology.
Elder discusses several worries about this technology: Would interacting with chatbots of deceased loved ones prevent us from moving on and recovering from grief? Would it discourage us from cultivating relationships with living people? Would it lead us to overemphasize the instrumental role that loved ones play in enabling us to secure the goods that are associated with conversation, and would it thereby undermine our appreciation of our loved ones’ intrinsic value?
To address these worries, Elder appeals to discussions of mourning rituals in classical Chinese philosophy; in particular, she turns to Confucius and to the later Confucian scholar, Xunzi. Investigating the ethics of technology from a Confucian perspective may seem surprising. However, she makes a good case that contemporary discussions of grief have much to gain from classical Chinese debates about funeral practices and mourning rituals. Should funerals be small and simple? Should they be lavish? Confucian responses to such questions rest on an illuminating and attractive picture of the nature of grief, particularly the role that social practices play in shaping our experience of loss.
Confucius claims that grieving over the deaths of our loved ones is part of being a virtuous person, and even though grieving is a natural process, mourning rituals play a vital role in enabling us to grieve in appropriate ways. Xunzi provides a detailed description and justification of such rituals. “Ritual,” he writes,
cuts off what is too long and extends what is too short … It subtracts from what is excessive and adds to what is insufficient. It achieves proper form for love and respect (9).
In other words, mourning rituals – for example, cleaning and clothing the body of the deceased person, supplying grave goods, and ending mourning after a certain period – sometimes enhance and sometimes limit attitudes and behaviors that we are naturally disposed to adopt when a loved one dies. Indeed, the rituals that we just described may (1) curb the disgust that surviving family members feel toward the bodies of the deceased (2) enable survivors to preserve and act on their feelings of attachment and (3) discourage survivors from grieving in ways that prevent them from returning to normal life.
Elder draws on this account to respond to the worries about chatbots that we described above. Put roughly, she appeals to Confucius’s discussion of the importance of grief, and to recent work in clinical psychology on the importance of maintaining ongoing bonds with the dead, to dismiss the worry that chatbots would prevent bereaved people from moving on. And she argues that, if we incorporate the use of chatbots of the dead into mourning rituals that have certain features that Xunzi identifies, we can interact with these bots in ways that draw us into community with other survivors and enable us to express love and respect for loved ones who have died.
First, we should point out that, quite apart from its application to questions concerning chatbots, Elder’s discussion of mourning rituals in classical Chinese philosophy is interesting and important. Many people who write about their experience of grief over a loved one’s death report that, as they return to their normal routines, they worry that they thereby fail to do well by the people who died. These survivors yearn to show love and respect for their deceased loved ones, but they do not know what to do or how long to do it. Elder’s discussion helps make clear that, in communities in which they are established, mourning rituals can help address such anxieties. By developing such rituals, communities create meaningful ways to express love and respect for people who have died; but, because these rituals are limited in time, they allow the survivors to return to normal life.
Second, turning to the discussion of chatbots, the use of chatbots of the dead is strikingly different from many of the mourning rituals that Xunzi describes in that a conversation with a chatbot is (on one end!) a disembodied, incorporeal encounter. In contrast, the Chinese rituals that Xunzi discusses often involve the body of the deceased person, or of a substitute. We suspect that the fact that these rituals include a corporal representation of the dead is important; part of what we miss after someone dies is, for example, their smile, their eyes, or their voice (and not just what they can say to us). Especially within philosophy, where we are, perhaps, too apt to focus on the life of the mind, it is worth noting that the bereaved may mourn the loss of a loved one’s corporeal presence, and that mourning rituals which focus on this aspect of grief have an important role.
Third, Elder suggests that chatbots may facilitate bereaved people’s “continuing bonds” with deceased loved ones. We strongly agree that such continuing bonds are important. However, chatbots of the dead threaten to obscure important respects in which these continuing bonds differ from our relationships with living people. For example, according to one appealing conception of a good marriage, spouses build a shared life together. Loving one’s spouse well in such a relationship is partly a matter of being open and receptive to the spouse’s values, hopes, aims, and so on; and conversation with one’s spouse manifests and reinforces such openness. We will not attempt to explain in any detail what a good continuing bond with a deceased spouse might look like, but it seems plausible that such a bond would have a somewhat different character than the marriage that we just described. For example, it may have less emphasis on maintaining openness and receptivity and greater emphasis, say, on cherishing memories of one’s former life with the deceased person. Conversations with chatbots of the dead – particularly if these conversations are fairly open-ended – might obscure this distinction. In short, the worry is not that the use of chatbots would prevent survivors from moving on. Rather, the concern is that, if it is not limited in the right ways, the use of this technology might discourage survivors from developing or maintaining appropriate kinds of ongoing bonds with the deceased.
– Erica and Ryan Preston-Roedder (Occidental)