Human Dignity in an Age of Autonomous Weapons: Are We in Danger of Losing an 'Elementary Consideration of Humanity'?

20 Pages Posted: 6 Feb 2017

See all articles by Ozlem Ulgen

Ozlem Ulgen

Birmingham City University; University of Cambridge - Lauterpacht Centre for International Law

Date Written: January 31, 2017


Military investment in robotics technology is leading to development and use of robot weapons, which are machines with varying degrees of autonomy in target, attack, and infliction of lethal harm (i.e. injury, suffering or death). Examples of robot weapons include automated weapons systems, unmanned armed aerial vehicles (UAV), remotely-controlled robotic soldiers, bio-augmentation, and 3D printed weapons. Robot weapons generally fall into one of two categories: semi-autonomous, involving levels of automation and remotely controlled human input (e.g. UAV or “drones”); and autonomous, involving higher levels of independent thinking as regards acquiring, tracking, selecting and attacking targets, without the need for human input (e.g. USA Navy X-47B UAV with autonomous take-off, landing, and aerial refueling capability). The trend is clearly towards developing autonomous weapons. Development of new weapons aimed at reducing costs and casualties is not a new phenomenon in warfare. Technological advances have created greater distance between the soldier and the battlefield. A bullet fired from a rifle handled by a human has been superseded by a missile fired from a remotely controlled or autonomous machine. So what makes robot weapons different? What particular challenge do they pose international law? Although autonomous weapons may be employed to attack non-human targets, such as State infrastructure, here I am primarily concerned with their use for lethal attacks against humans.

In this paper I focus on autonomous weapons and their impact on human dignity under two of Kant’s conceptual strands: 1) human dignity as a status entailing rights and duties; and 2) human dignity as respectful treatment. Under the first strand I explore how use of autonomous weapons denies the right of equality of persons and diminishes the duty not to harm others. In the second strand I consider how replacing human combatants with autonomous weapons debases human life and does not provide respectful treatment. Reference is made to contemporary development of Kant’s conceptual strands in ICJ and other international jurisprudence recognizing human dignity as part of “elementary considerations of humanity” in war and peace.

Keywords: Kantian human dignity, autonomous weapons, Kantian ethics, international humanitarian law

Suggested Citation

Ulgen, Ozlem, Human Dignity in an Age of Autonomous Weapons: Are We in Danger of Losing an 'Elementary Consideration of Humanity'? (January 31, 2017). European Society of International Law (ESIL) 2016 Annual Conference (Riga), Available at SSRN: or

Ozlem Ulgen (Contact Author)

Birmingham City University ( email )

School of Law
The Curzon Building, 4 Cardigan Street
Birmingham, West Midlands B4 7BD
United Kingdom
+ 44 (0)121 331 5547 (Phone)

University of Cambridge - Lauterpacht Centre for International Law ( email )

Lauterpacht Centre for International Law
5 Cranmer Centre
Cambridge, CB3 9BL
United Kingdom


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