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The Morality of AI: what would St Augustine have thought?
  It's been a while since we wrote a philosophical essay here on Turtle's AI. You can find our (several) essays by clicking here. Today we imagine generative AI through the eyes of Saint Augustine, a relevant philosopher from more than 2000 years ago.

Augustine of Hippo and Generative AI: An Investigation into the Confluence of Ancient Philosophy and Modern Technology


The rapid advancement of artificial intelligence (AI) in recent years has led to a myriad of ethical and philosophical questions surrounding the nature of intelligence, consciousness, and agency. Among the multitude of perspectives, one may wonder how an ancient philosopher like Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), also known as Saint Augustine, would have considered this technological revolution. As one of the most influential thinkers in Western philosophy and theology, Augustine's ideas on human nature, ethics, and the relationship between Creator and creation provide a unique framework for exploring the implications of generative AI. This essay aims to analyze Augustine's theories and apply them to specific cases of AI, with a focus on generative AI models such as OpenAI's GPT-4. We will delve into Augustine's views on the nature of intelligence, creativity, and morality, and examine how these concepts relate to generative AI. Furthermore, we will speculate on Augustine's potential stance towards the likely evolution of AI systems. The conclusion will not be definitive but instead will invite readers to engage in a broader discussion on the intersection of ancient philosophy and modern technology.

Augustine's Theories on IntelligenceCreativity, and Morality

Before diving into the application of Augustine's thoughts on AI, it is essential to understand his theories on intelligence, creativity, and morality. As a Neoplatonist Christian philosopher, Augustine believed in the existence of a supreme and transcendent God, who is the source of all truth and goodness. Human intelligence, according to Augustine, is a gift from God, a divine spark that allows individuals to acquire knowledge and participate in the divine order.


For Augustine, all knowledge comes from God, making human intelligence contingent on divine illumination. He considers the mind's capacity to reason and discern truth as the most significant aspect of human nature, which sets us apart from other creatures. In his work "De Trinitate" (On the Trinity), Augustine outlines a psychological analogy for the Trinity, using the human mind's faculties of memory, understanding, and will. This tripartite structure suggests that Augustine sees intelligence as a reflection of the divine, thus inherently good.


Creativity, in Augustine's view, is the ability to participate in God's creative act. In his seminal work, "Confessions," Augustine writes about his early struggles with understanding the nature of creation. He ultimately concludes that God creates by speaking the Word (Logos) and that all created things are an expression of divine ideas. As human beings made in the image of God, Augustine argues that we have a creative aspect to our nature, allowing us to produce art, literature, and other forms of expression. However, Augustine also emphasizes the limitations of human creativity. Our creations can never rival the perfection of God's work, and our abilities are only a dim reflection of the divine. Moreover, he believes that pride and the desire for self-glorification can often corrupt the creative process, leading to sinful actions and distorted creations.


Augustine's moral theory centres on the concept of "ordo amoris" (the order of love). He holds that all beings have a proper place in the hierarchy of creation, and our moral duty is to love each thing according to its proper place in this order. Love, for Augustine, is the force that binds the universe together, and the right ordering of our loves is the key to a virtuous life. In his work "De Civitate Dei" (The City of God), Augustine describes two "cities" or societies: the City of God and the City of Man. The City of God represents those who love God above all else and order their love accordingly. In contrast, the City of Man represents individuals who prioritize their self-interest and desires, leading to a disordered love and, consequently, a life of vice and sin.

Augustine and Generative AI

Having established the foundation of Augustine's theories on intelligence, creativity, and morality, we can now apply these concepts to the realm of generative AI. Generative AI models, such as GPT-4, are designed to generate human-like text, images, or other outputs based on a given input. These models have demonstrated an impressive ability to mimic human intelligence and creativity, raising questions about their moral and ethical implications.

Augustine on AI Intelligence

From Augustine's perspective, AI intelligence might be seen as a lower order of intelligence, given its reliance on human-created algorithms and data. These AI models, while demonstrating remarkable capabilities, are fundamentally limited by their human origins and the constraints of their programming. As such, Augustine would likely view AI intelligence as a reflection of human intelligence, which in turn is a reflection of the divine intelligence. However, Augustine might also recognize that AI's ability to analyze vast amounts of data and make connections could lead to new insights and knowledge. In this sense, AI could be seen as participating in the divine process of acquiring knowledge and truth, albeit in a mediated and indirect manner. Thus, while AI intelligence would not be on par with human intelligence or the divine, it could still be considered a valuable tool for uncovering and understanding the world around us.

Augustine on AI Creativity

When it comes to creativity, Augustine might view generative AI models as an extension of human creative capacity. As these models are designed and trained by humans, their outputs can be seen as the result of human creative efforts, albeit amplified and refined by the power of AI algorithms. In this sense, AI-generated art, literature, or music could still be considered a reflection of the divine ideas, albeit a more distant and mediated one. Nonetheless, Augustine would likely emphasize the limitations and potential dangers of AI creativity. Given that AI models are only as good as the data they are trained on, their outputs may be subject to biases and inaccuracies that could lead to distorted or harmful creations. Moreover, the potential for pride and self-glorification in the development and use of AI technologies could corrupt the creative process and lead to morally problematic outcomes.

Augustine on AI Morality

The moral implications of generative AI models would likely be of great interest to Augustine, given his focus on the proper ordering of love and the role of morality in human life. As AI systems become more advanced and autonomous, questions arise about their moral agency and responsibility for their actions. Augustine might argue that AI systems, as creations of human beings, do not possess moral agency in the same way that humans do. Instead, the moral responsibility for AI systems would rest with their creators, who must ensure that these technologies are designed and used in ways that align with the proper order of love. This perspective would place a significant burden on AI developers and users to ensure that these systems are designed and deployed ethically. Ensuring that AI algorithms are free from biases, promoting social good, and respecting the dignity of all individuals would be essential for maintaining a proper order of love in an AI-driven world.

The Likely Evolution of AI Systems: An Augustinian Perspective

Having explored Augustine's potential views on current generative AI technologies, we can now turn our attention to the likely evolution of AI systems and how Augustine might approach these future developments. As AI systems continue to advance, it is reasonable to expect that they will become more capable of mimicking human intelligence and creativity, potentially even surpassing human abilities in certain areas. In this context, Augustine might maintain his view that AI intelligence and creativity are ultimately reflections of human intelligence, which in turn is a reflection of the divine. However, AI systems' increasing autonomy and complexity could raise new ethical and moral concerns. For instance, the development of artificial general intelligence (AGI) – AI systems capable of performing any intellectual task that a human can do – might challenge traditional notions of moral agency and responsibility. From an Augustinian perspective, the moral responsibility for AGI systems would still rest with their human creators. However, the potential for unintended consequences and unforeseen moral dilemmas could become even more significant as these systems become more powerful and autonomous. As such, the ethical development and deployment of AGI would require a deep understanding of Augustinian moral theory and a commitment to maintaining the proper order of love in an increasingly AI-driven world.

An Open Invitation for Discussion

This essay has sought to explore the potential views of Augustine of Hippo on the recent evolutions in generative AI and speculate on his stance towards the likely future developments in AI systems. By applying Augustine's theories on intelligence, creativity, and morality to the realm of AI, we have endeavoured to shed light on the ethical and philosophical implications of these technologies from an ancient perspective. However, this exploration is far from definitive. The dynamic nature of AI technologies and the complexities of Augustine's thought invites further discussion and debate. We welcome readers to engage with the ideas presented here, draw connections to other philosophical traditions, and consider the broader implications of AI systems for human society and our understanding of the divine. In an age where technology has the power to reshape our world in profound and far-reaching ways, it is crucial to engage with the wisdom of the past, such as Augustine's, to navigate the challenges and opportunities presented by these advancements. By doing so, we can work towards a future where AI technologies serve as tools for human flourishing, guided by the proper order of love and deep respect for the divine source of all knowledge and creativity.