Fall 2016 (30.3) Response

Robots and Respect: A Response to Robert Sparrow

Robert Sparrow recently argued in this journal that several initially plausible arguments in favor of the deployment of autonomous weapon systems (AWS) in warfare are in fact flawed, and that the deployment of AWS faces a serious moral objection. Sparrow’s argument against AWS relies on the claim that they are distinct from accepted weapons of war in that they either fail to transmit an attitude of respect for enemy combatants or, worse, they transmit an attitude of disrespect. In this reply we argue that this distinction between AWS and widely accepted weapons is illusory, and therefore cannot ground a moral difference between AWS and existing methods of waging war. We also suggest that if deploying conventional soldiers in a given situation would be permissible, but we could expect to cause fewer civilian casualties by instead deploying AWS, then it would be consistent with an intuitive understanding of respect to deploy AWS in this situation.

Sparrow’s Objection

Drawing on Thomas Nagel’s influential “War and Massacre,” Sparrow argues that AWS fail to manifest an attitude of respect toward the adversary. Quoting Nagel, he says that during warfare, “whatever one does to another person intentionally must be aimed at him as a subject . . . [and] should manifest an attitude to him rather than just to the situation” (p. 106). For Sparrow, establishing this interpersonal relationship with the adversary requires at least “acknowledging the morally relevant features that render them combatants or otherwise legitimately subjected to a risk of being killed” (p. 107). Deploying AWS, he argues, prevents the establishment of this interpersonal relationship since “in some fundamental sense there is no one who decides whether the target of the attack should live or die” (p. 107).

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