In a series of publications, Ronald Arkin and his team (Arkin, 2009; Arkin et al., 2009) have proposed the concept of an “ethical governor,” which is supposed to effectively control and enforce the ethical use of lethal force by robots on the battlefield. The idea of an ethical governor, although presently of little influence on the philosophical discussion, has had a great influence on both the engineering and the public discourse on robot ethics, and is often cited in general interest publications to justify the use of war robots. This paper attempts to analyse the concept of an ethical governor as presented by Arkin et al. and to compare it to the original concept of Watt’s mechanical governor for steam engines, to which it alludes. I argue that the metaphor of the ethical governor is dangerously misleading in multiple respects: the governor, as proposed by Arkin, overlooks a fundamental clash of interests of the robot designer/operator, which is not present in the original governor, and which can be shown to make effective robot control in the proposed implementation impossible. The concept also suggests that ethics control is a matter of correcting behavioural deviations from a “reference ethical action” by a negative feedback loop, although it can be shown that this does not lead to an appropriate description of moral behaviour, and that in particular it overlooks the central role of conscience and dissent in morality. Finally, the concept as proposed is based on a fundamental confusion of the properties of laws, rules of just war, terms of engagement, and moral rules. At the same time, experimental implementations of it threaten to produce an ad-hoc regulation of ethical issues on the battlefield, which is removed from public scrutiny and democratic control. Considering these issues, the concept of an ethical governor as favoured and already implemented by the military research community can be shown to be both misleading and dangerous, and to not address the moral problems it is supposed to solve. Consequently, the concept in its present form (not only the metaphor) should be dropped, and a more critical approach to artefact morality must be adopted.


MATTHIAS Andreas, “Is the Concept of an Ethical Governor Philosophically Sound?” Best paper award at TILTing Perspectives 2011: “Technologies on the stand: Legal and ethical questions in neuroscience and robotics”, Tilburg University, Netherlands, April 11-12, 2011.


Best paper at TILTing Perspectives 2011