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National Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Why the Responsibility Gap is Not a Compelling Objection to Lethal Autonomous Weapons

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This article received an honourable mention in the undergraduate category of the 2023 National Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics

Written by Tanae Rao, University of Oxford student

There are some crimes, such as killing non-combatants and mutilating corpses, so vile that they are clearly impermissible even in the brutal chaos of war. Upholding human dignity, or whatever is left of it, in these situations may require us to hold someone morally responsible for violation of the rules of combat. Common sense morality dictates that we owe it to those unlawfully killed or injured to punish the people who carried out the atrocity. But what if the perpetrators weren’t people at all? Robert Sparrow argues that, when lethal autonomous weapons cause war crimes, it is often impossible to identify someone–man or machine–who can appropriately be held morally responsible (Sparrow 2007; Sparrow 2016). This might explain some of our ambivalence about the deployment of autonomous weapons, even if their use would replace human combatants who commit war crimes more frequently than their robotic counterparts.Read More »National Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Why the Responsibility Gap is Not a Compelling Objection to Lethal Autonomous Weapons

Should we punish crimes from the distant past?

Former Auschwitz SS officer Oskar Gröning is currently being tried as an accessory to murder for his role as an administrator in the extermination camp, and the trial has stirred up a lot of debate. One strand of the debate addresses the question whether Gröning was complicit in the extermination of prisoners, and whether he was culpable for this complicity. (Roger Crisp wrote a fascinating post on this a couple of weeks back.) But another strand – and the strand that I want to look at here – has addressed the question whether former Nazi war criminals should be tried and punished for deeds in their distant past. Eva Mozes Kor, an Auschwitz survivor and witness in Gröning’s trial has claimed that he shouldn’t be tried, though he should use his knowledge to help fight holocaust denial.

Let’s suppose that Gröning was indeed a culpable accomplice to murder. Should he then be punished? More generally, should serious crimes from decades go be punished? My intuition is that they should, but reflecting on why I have found it is not straightforward to defend this view.Read More »Should we punish crimes from the distant past?

In defense of the double standard for chemical weapons

As the US and other nations gear up for war in Syria, the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against civilians has received great, perhaps inordinate attention.  A little over a year ago, US President Barack Obama called the use of chemical weapons a “red line”, though was vague about what would happen if that line were crossed.  And while there were previous allegations of chemical weapons attacks, the most recent accusations concerning an attack in a Damascus suburb that killed hundreds seem to have been taken more seriously and will likely be used as a Causus Belli for air strikes against Assad’s forces in Syria.  Yet, some have argued that this focus on chemical weapons use is rather inconsistent.  Dominic Tierney at the Atlantic sarcastically comments, “Blowing your people up with high explosives is allowable, as is shooting them, or torturing them. But woe betide the Syrian regime if it even thinks about using chemical weapons!”  And Paul Whitefield at the LA Times inquires, “Why is it worse for children to be killed by a chemical weapon than blown apart by an artillery shell?”  These writers have a point.  But, while it may not be entirely consistent, I will argue that the greater concern over the use of chemical weapons compared with conventional weapons is justified.  Read More »In defense of the double standard for chemical weapons