Danaher’s Ethical Behaviourism: An Adequate Guide to Assessing the Moral Status of a Robot?

Jilles Smids (Corresponding author)

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)


This paper critically assesses John Danaher’s ‘ethical behaviourism’, a theory on how the moral status of robots should be determined. The basic idea of this theory is that a robot’s moral status is determined decisively on the basis of its observable behaviour. If it behaves sufficiently similar to some entity that has moral status, such as a human or an animal, then we should ascribe the same moral status to the robot as we do to this human or animal. The paper argues against ethical behaviourism by making four main points. First, it is argued that the strongest version of ethical behaviourism understands the theory as relying on inferences to the best explanation when inferring moral status. Second, as a consequence, ethical behaviourism cannot stick with merely looking at the robot’s behaviour, while remaining neutral with regard to the difficult question of which property grounds moral status. Third, not only behavioural evidence ought to play a role in inferring a robot’s moral status, but knowledge of the design process of the robot and of its designer’s intention ought to be taken into account as well. Fourth, knowledge of a robot’s ontology and how that relates to human biology often is epistemically relevant for inferring moral status as well. The paper closes with some concluding observations.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2849-2866
Number of pages18
JournalScience and Engineering Ethics
Issue number5
Early online date16 Jun 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2020


  • Ethical behaviourism
  • Inference to the best explanation
  • Moral status
  • Robot
  • Robot ethics


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