Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 22, Issue 3, pp 731–747 | Cite as

Responsibility for Killer Robots

  • Johannes HimmelreichEmail author


Future weapons will make life-or-death decisions without a human in the loop. When such weapons inflict unwarranted harm, no one appears to be responsible. There seems to be a responsibility gap. I first reconstruct the argument for such responsibility gaps to then argue that this argument is not sound. The argument assumes that commanders have no control over whether autonomous weapons inflict harm. I argue against this assumption. Although this investigation concerns a specific case of autonomous weapons systems, I take steps towards vindicating the more general idea that superiors can be morally responsible in virtue of being in command.


Moral philosophy Causation Moral responsibility Responsibility gap Hierarchical groups Artificial intelligence 



I have benefitted from presentations and discussions of this paper at the London School of Economics, the Australian National University, the Graduate Reading Retreat of the Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, the Future of Just War conference in Monterey, the Humboldt University Berlin, the University of Sheffield, and the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management. I am also grateful for conversations with and/or comments by Gabriel Wollner, Christian List, Susanne Burri, Helen Frowe, Ying Shi, Seth Lazar, Matthew Adams, Sebastian Köhler, and Christine Tiefensee, as well as two anonymous referees for this journal.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.McCoy Family Center for Ethics in SocietyStanford UniversityStanfordUSA

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