JOHN STOSSEL: Teaching ethics to machines is probably the wrong way to go

Watch John Stossel’s interview with Mindy Kent, one of three semi-finalists in the congressional competition for the annual Ayn Rand Prize.

Can a machine learn morality?

I was a little hesitant to go to a robotic teaching machine the Ayn Rand Prize, a contest to create a way for machines to better understand human moral values.

You may remember Rand as the author of Atlas Shrugged, a novel about people who don’t like the government, won Rand the Libertarian presidential nomination, and was the basis for many popular movies, including 2012’s “Atlas Shrugged.”

When I heard it was competing, I wanted to know if it was possible to teach ethics to an algorithm.

We used it to analyze her and two other experts on same-sex marriage who had different views. There were three questions: Should a heterosexual couple be able to marry?

Should they not be able to marry for ethical reasons?

Should same-sex couples have the same rights as heterosexual couples?

The machine did amazing work. It fell short in one. It thought that heterosexual couples should be allowed to marry. But these three experts each said that it should be allowed in exactly the same way as heterosexual couples.

However, that is exactly how people who stand for freedom like John Roberts and Al Franken felt.

Rather than practicing the free love they believe is wrong, Rand wanted everyone to follow the rules. That belief isn’t about love or aesthetics or morality or economic justice. It’s about finding good and doing what’s right, even when it isn’t what’s popular.

This aspect, as importantly as all of the others, makes Rand so deep and meaningful. It’s a different kind of philosophic philosophy from Adam Smith’s or even Thomas Jefferson’s. And that’s the way Rand lived her life.

All of us have to make choices and be responsible for our own behavior. Who are we to say that other people are morally wrong?

There are better ways to teach ethics than teaching it to machines.

John Stossel is the author of Stossel: Unseen America. You can get his new book and get access to his distribution list, mailing list, interviews and much more at You can also get his twice-monthly radio show and be a guest on his program by emailing [email protected].

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