Ethics and Information Technology

, Volume 18, Issue 4, pp 243–256 | Cite as

Integrating robot ethics and machine morality: the study and design of moral competence in robots

  • Bertram F. MalleEmail author
Original Paper


Robot ethics encompasses ethical questions about how humans should design, deploy, and treat robots; machine morality encompasses questions about what moral capacities a robot should have and how these capacities could be computationally implemented. Publications on both of these topics have doubled twice in the past 10 years but have often remained separate from one another. In an attempt to better integrate the two, I offer a framework for what a morally competent robot would look like (normally considered machine morality) and discuss a number of ethical questions about the design, use, and treatment of such moral robots in society (normally considered robot ethics). Instead of searching for a fixed set of criteria of a robot’s moral competence I identify the multiple elements that make up human moral competence and probe the possibility of designing robots that have one or more of these human elements, which include: moral vocabulary; a system of norms; moral cognition and affect; moral decision making and action; moral communication. Juxtaposing empirical research, philosophical debates, and computational challenges, this article adopts an optimistic perspective: if robotic design truly commits to building morally competent robots, then those robots could be trustworthy and productive partners, caretakers, educators, and members of the human community. Moral competence does not resolve all ethical concerns over robots in society, but it may be a prerequisite to resolve at least some of them.


Social cognition Moral cognition Human-robot interaction Moral psychology Social robotics 



This project was partially supported by a grant from the Office of Naval Research (ONR), No. N00014-13-1-0269. The opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of ONR. The ideas on moral competence featured in this article have been developed jointly with Matthias Scheutz, Tufts University.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological SciencesBrown UniversityProvidenceUSA

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