A Philosopher's Blog

Robo Responsibility

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Science, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on March 2, 2015

It is just a matter of time before the first serious accident involving a driverless car or an autonomous commercial drone. As such, it is well worth considering the legal and moral aspects of responsibility. If companies that are likely to be major players in the autonomous future, such as Google and Amazon, have the wisdom of foresight, they are already dropping stacks of cash on lawyers who are busily creating the laws-to-be regarding legal responsibility for accidents and issues involving such machines. The lobbyists employed by these companies will presumably drop fat stacks of cash on the politicians they own and these fine lawmakers will make them into laws.

If these companies lack foresight or have adopted a wait and see attitude, things will play out a bit differently: there will be a serious incident involving an autonomous machine, a lawsuit will take place, fat stacks of cash will be dropped, and a jury or judge will reach a decision that will set a precedent. There is, of course, a rather large body of law dealing with responsibility in regards to property, products and accidents and these will, no doubt, serve as foundations for the legal wrangling.

While the legal aspects will no doubt be fascinating (and expensive) my main concern is with the ethics of the matter. That is, who is morally responsible when something goes wrong with an autonomous machine like a driverless car or an autonomous delivery drone.

While the matter of legal responsibility is distinct from that of ethical responsibility, the legal theory of causation does have some use here. I am, obviously enough, availing myself of the notion of conditio sine qua non (“a condition without which nothing”) as developed by H.L.A. Hart and A.M. Honore.

Roughly put, this is the “but for” view of causation. X can be seen as the cause of Y if Y would not have happened but for X. This seems like a reasonable place to begin for moral responsibility. After all, if someone would not have died but for my actions (that is, if I had not done X, then the person would still be alive) then there seems to be good reason to believe that I have some moral responsibility for the person’s death. It also seems reasonable to assign a degree of responsibility that is proportional to the casual involvement of the agent or factor in question. So, for example, if my action only played a small role in someone’s death, then my moral accountability would be proportional to that role. This allows, obviously enough, for shared responsibility.

While cases involving non-autonomous machines can be rather complicated, they can usually be addressed in a fairly straightforward manner in terms of assigning responsibility. Consider, for example, an incident involving a person losing a foot to a lawnmower. If the person pushing the lawnmower intentionally attacked someone with her mower, the responsibility rests on her. If the person who lost the foot went and stupidly kicked at the mower, then the responsibility rests on her. If the lawnmower blade detached because of defects in the design, material or manufacturing, then the responsibility lies with the specific people involved in whatever defect caused the problem. If the blade detached because the owner neglected to properly maintain her machine, then the responsibility is on her. Naturally, the responsibility can also be shared (although we might not know the relevant facts). For example, imagine that the mower had a defect such that if it were not well maintained it would easily shed its blade when kicked. In this case, the foot would not have been lost but for the defect, the lack of maintenance and the kick. If we did not know all the facts, we would probably blame the kick—but the concern here is not what we would know in specific cases, but what the ethics would be in such cases if we did, in fact, know the facts.

The novel aspect of cases involving autonomous machines is the fact that they are autonomous. This might be relevant to the ethics of responsibility because the machine might qualify as a responsible agent. Or it might not.

It is rather tempting to treat an autonomous machine like a non-autonomous machine in terms of moral accountability. The main reason for this is that the sort of autonomous machines being considered here (driverless cars and autonomous drones) would certainly seem to lack moral autonomy. That is to say that while a human does not directly control them in their operations, they are operating in accord with programs written by humans (or written by programs written by humans) and lack the freedom that is necessary for moral accountability.

To illustrate this, consider an incident with an autonomous lawnmower and the loss of a foot. If the owner caused it to attack the person, she is just as responsible as if she had pushed a conventional lawnmower over the victim’s foot. If the person who lost the foot stupidly kicked the lawnmower and lost a foot, then it is his fault. If the incident arose from defects in the machinery, materials, design or programming, then responsibility would be applied to the relevant people to the degree they were involved in the defects. If, for example, the lawnmower ran over the person because the person assembling it did not attach the sensors correctly, then the moral blame lies with that person (and perhaps an inspector). The company that made it would also be accountable, in the collective and abstract sense of corporate accountability. If, for example, the programming was defective, then the programmer(s) would be accountable: but for his bad code, the person would still have his foot.

As with issues involving non-autonomous machines there is also the practical matter of what people would actually believe about the incident. For example, it might not be known that the incident was caused by bad code—it might be attributed entirely to chance. What people would know in specific cases is important in the practical sense, but does not impact the general moral principles in terms of responsibility.

Some might also find the autonomous nature of the machines to be seductive in regards to accountability. That is, it might be tempting to consider the machine itself as potentially accountable in a way analogous to holding a person accountable.

Holding the machine accountable would, obviously enough, require eliminating other factors as causes. To be specific, to justly blame the machine would require that the machine’s actions were not the result of defects in manufacturing, materials, programing, maintenance, and so on. Instead, the machine would have had to act on its own, in a way analogous to person acting. Using the lawnmower example, the autonomous lawnmower would need to decide to go after the person from it own volition. That is, the lawnmower would need to possess a degree of free will.

Obviously enough, if a machine did possess a degree of free will, then it would be morally accountable within its freedom. As such, a rather important question would be whether or not an autonomous machine can have free will. If a machine can, then it would make moral sense to try machines for crimes and punish them. If they cannot, then the trials would be reserved, as they are now, for people. Machines would, as they are now, be repaired or destroyed. There would also be the epistemic question of how to tell whether the machine had this capacity. Since we do not even know if we have this capacity, this is a rather problematic matter.

Given the state of technology, it seems unlikely that the autonomous machines of the near future will be morally autonomous. But as the technology improves, it seems likely that there will come a day when it will be reasonable to consider whether an autonomous machine can be justly held accountable for its actions. This has, of course, been addressed in science fiction—such as the ‘I, Robot” episodes (the 1964 original and the 1995 remake) of the Outer Limits which were based on Eando Binder’s short story of the same name.


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11 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on March 2, 2015 at 10:09 am

  2. ronster12012 said, on March 2, 2015 at 11:13 am


    For a machine to be ‘punished’ it must be capable of feeling pain, either physical or emotional, no? And wouldn’t that mean its feelings could be hurt? Could a machine sue a human for abuse ie. leaving it the garden shed all alone for months at a time?

    All those considerations aside,I swear I do actually own an evil ride on lawnmower. Maybe its not really evil, perhaps it’s possessed. I should look for a lawnmower exorcist.

    We are moving into interesting times………

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 2, 2015 at 4:48 pm

      Interesting question-does the recipient of punishment need to be able to suffer in order to be punished? I think you are probably right. After all, a stone cannot be punished in a meaningful way. That said, a person might be subject to a punishment that does not hurt her-yet it might still be classified as a punishment.

      I am very familiar with evil machines…or maybe they were, like your lawnmower, possessed.

  3. wtp said, on March 2, 2015 at 10:43 pm

    Was it my imagination or did I see some anti-Semitic rambling (not unusual here) specifically questioning the European laws regarding free speech and the Holocaust twixt Ronster and AJ this afternoon? Don’t recall what thread it was on but thought it was one of these recent ones.

    • ronster12012 said, on March 3, 2015 at 7:47 am


      No, it wasn’t your imagination, it was right here…https://aphilosopher.wordpress.com/2015/01/21/charlie-islam-justification/#comment-116023

      As for ‘anti semitic’, well, not in this case or at least very much, if that matters at all. I have been called an anti semite/xenophobe/racist/bigot/islamophobe/sexist/stupid/redneck/yob/hater(ffs)/’unenlightened'(pretentious eh? lol)as well as the ever popular “ignorant’. It all means nothing to me and simply says more about the namecaller than perhaps they would like.You may or may not have noticed, I don’t usually call people names but give do back 3X shit given to me.

      In that post, I pointed out that the Charlie Hebdo ‘Je suis Charlie’ campaign was just so much theatrical bullshit, a circle jerk of circle jerkers and nothing more.

      Sylvia Stoltz is a German lawyer who had been jailed for not believing the standard ww2 narrative enough, while defending in court a defendant who similarly didn’t believe it enough. They were both jailed. She got 3 1/2 years. She has just been jailed again for a speech she gave at a free speech conference in Switzerland. So much for free speech in Europe. Be very, very thankful for your first amendment rights, though they will try to water it down with ‘hate speech’ laws that all ‘good right-thinking’ people will applaud.

      I admire anyone with the courage of their convictions, and Sylvia Stoltz has more balls than 99% of all men and 99.999% of all women. She says what she believes and will not bend. How many of us can truthfully say that about ourselves?

      As for the standard ww2 story, I used to be a true believer. I was a true believer in the holocaust. I visited the Anne Frank House and museum in Amsterdam and Dachau concentration camp in 1979 and was very moved. I lapped up all that stuff like a thirsty dog…….then years later it all started to fall apart for me.

      The first thing was discovering that the Auschwitz holocaust museum had dropped the death toll there in 1989 from 4 mil to 1 mil. Bang, just like that! A 75% decrease. Still, the 6 million total remained. That made me think wtf is going on here……6-3=6??? Raoul Hilberg, the jewish holocaust historian put the total at Auschwitz at half that again. Then of course, many of the other stories got ditched along the way, the lampshades, the soap and the shrunken heads etc. Then it turned out that the ‘gas chamber’ that that had been presented to the public as authentic was actually a Soviet construction, from when they ran the camp post ww2. So what is actually left?

      I don’t know about you, but if I am lied to I usually do not give the same people the chance to lie to me a second time. Perhaps you are more forgiving.

      So now, I see these stories as merely either left over war propaganda(perhaps moral justification for the shit we did to them) or some sort of quasi religion that people need, and not much more. Of course, authorities never come out and say about anything “what the hell was I thinking, that really is a crock”, and instead either just dig themselves in deeper, or let the whole matter slide till time carries it all away. All this is not to say that ww2 did not entail great suffering, it surely did, as the deaths of 50-60 mil cannot be anything but. However to concentrate solely on the sufferings of one ethnic group (that has clearly exaggerated matters at the very least)to the exclusion of all others is IMO obscene.

      You may accuse me of being a ‘hater'(whatever that actually means) for all the above. It is very fashionable these days to label anyone that disagrees with some consensus or other a ‘hater’. However, I am very glad that the holocaust has been shown to be exaggerated because I am always happy to find that someone, anyone, I thought dead was not in fact so, and instead was alive. It seems that those upholding the story would rather have the dead actually be dead than be shown to have been mistaken


      • WTP said, on March 3, 2015 at 9:48 am

        Ah. There. I had only glanced over it and was planning to look at it later in depth. Not much to say about it except that while I would agree that the reactions in certain parts of Europe to questioning the Holocaust are somewhat extreme, to compare such to the Hebdo situation is very disingenuous and the sign of a stupid that, as Twain once advised, one should not engage lest one get dragged down to the stupid level and be beaten with experience. As for the rest of your post here, TL;DR. Also reference previous sentence.

        • ronster12012 said, on March 3, 2015 at 10:09 am



          “to compare such to the Hebdo situation is very disingenuous and the sign of a stupid that, as Twain once advised, one should not engage lest one get dragged down to the stupid level and be beaten with experience. ”

          In what way are the is it disingenuous? It is a simple matter of public proclamations of support for the principle of free speech, especially as that allegedly practiced by Charlie Hebdo versus the systematic jailing of others who say other things that others find offensive.That is in no way complicated……unless free speech means just speech that we approve of lol.

          As for the Mark Twain line it is quite amusing. My favourite one though is when he said that when he was 16 years old he had the most stupid father in the world but by the time he reached 21 was surprised by how much his father had learned in those 5 years. Excellent quote, however in your case it appears you are using it to back out of any discussion by saying that it is somehow beneath you. Call someone stupid in order to run away…I’ve seen it all before.


          • WTP said, on March 3, 2015 at 2:01 pm

            It’s disingenuous in the sense that Europe has a history, a rather long one with significant breaks, of murdering and abusing Jews, with the mid-20th century being about the worst of it. Nothing close to that has existed in Europe in regard to Muslims. I’m not excusing the overreaction but it’s far more understandable.

            As for your Twain quote, it’s a favorite of mine as well.

            As for running away, no. I have engaged in much, much more of this than our host does. I answer damn near every question put to me and answer them directly without avoiding the basic issue nor by playing word games, though I am fully capable of either. Which makes it quite easy (and also quite frustrating) for me to spot such. I have spent many hours exploring various conspiracy theories and found they follow much the same pattern. They avoid, ignore, or are dismissive of contrary evidence all the while picking at the slightest nit. It’s much like a religion. There’s no arguing with the hard-core religious either. I’ve been around a while. I have seen it all before…well most of it, anyway.

            • ronster12012 said, on March 8, 2015 at 12:49 pm


              Sorry for the slow reply…I have had some connection problems and this site has been kicking me out after trying to post, I’ll see how I go this time.

              Sorry too about the running away comment, I may have misread you.

              “It’s disingenuous in the sense that Europe has a history, a rather long one with significant breaks, of murdering and abusing Jews, with the mid-20th century being about the worst of it. Nothing close to that has existed in Europe in regard to Muslims. I’m not excusing the overreaction but it’s far more understandable.”

              Sure there has been anti-semitism in Europe, but the question to ask is why, what provokes it. The early zionists stated quite frankly that jews and europeans are fundamentally incompatible culturally. They just get on people’s tits in one way or another and so the best thing to do was separate. That was the basis for zionism and the answer to the “jewish question” as it was known then. All that has been forgotten and now any alleged ‘antisemitism’ is simply a psychological problem or jealousy or something or other. It is used as a weapon against anyone questioning jewish power.

              The US is thoroughly jewed and screwed ATM, so dominated by a alien ethnic group, that Bibi can mount an inspection tour of his bitchez in Congress and all except 60 turn up to be lectured on why they should mount another war against Israel’s enemies. WTF??? Your founding fathers would be horrified at this merde..
              More blood and treasure for the eternally ungrateful even after the last adventures turned out so badly.

              Added to all that, your country is run by jews for jews, from Hollywood to the Fed to every dual passport holding jewish presidential or government advisor to the fact of jews owning your two major political parties. Your immigration policies were shaped by the jewish lobby, who happen to like multiculturalism(because it weakens white power vis a vis jewish power) so in the not too distant future whites will be fighting hispanics for their own country. Now that is something to look forward to, eh, fighting for political power in the country your ancestors founded.

              So,in light of all that, the amazing thing is that americans are not more antisemitic than they are. There really is a reason why this one group has been ejected 100+ times in the past and it isn’t because of a mass psychosis targeting the chosenites, or coincidence either.


              “Which makes it quite easy (and also quite frustrating) for me to spot such. I have spent many hours exploring various conspiracy theories and found they follow much the same pattern. They avoid, ignore, or are dismissive of contrary evidence all the while picking at the slightest nit. It’s much like a religion. There’s no arguing with the hard-core religious either. ”


              Are you sure that you aren’t just experiencing confirmation bias? Reading your posts shows that you are not a dummy but you do seem to have a blind spot about labeling various ideas as ‘conspiracy theories’. Just labeling something as a CT in no way invalidates it, only evidence and reason does.

              What constitutes a CT for you? I am actually interested in how you distinguish explanations. Do you accept dominant narratives as truth simply because they are dominant? Because it is common knowledge it must be true, or something like that?

              Thinking about your point about religion, my view is that it isn’t quite so clear cut as that. Sure some are on another planet, but ‘religious type’ thinking is in no way confined to religion. For example, the current ruling western (leftist) ideology is quasi religious utopianism.


            • ronster12012 said, on March 9, 2015 at 1:11 pm


              I came across this today. It ties in with my comments about the US being jewed and screwed.


              And this is all you get for your trouble:

              “Though Israel is a famously fractious society, Israelis tend to agree on one thing: Their strongest supporters are an inherently dupable people.

              “Most Israelis think Americans are pro-Israel and we can sell them anything, especially mud from the Dead Sea,” said David Lifshitz, the lead writer for the Israeli comedy show “Eretz Nehederet,” or “Wonderful Land.”

              “Or — just regular mud with a ‘Dead Sea’ sticker on it.””

              You spend your blood and treasure on them and they think of you as stupid and gullible. To be honest, Australia is no different. Seems that all the European based countries are in the same situation. Seems that there is a rational basis for anti semitism, eh? Unless you are a masochist lol


            • ronster12012 said, on March 20, 2015 at 1:07 pm


              I just came across this today and thought of your ‘problem’ with so-called conspiracy theories.

              There is a move in France to outlaw conspiracy theories.


              You couldn’t make this up,,,,,,,,really. So in order to implement such a law a police state must be erected.

              Sort of proves the conspiracy theorists theories, no? Conspiracy theory becomes fact….

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