The Ethics of Chemical and Biological Weaponry
by Daniel Reyes
Introduction: A Modern Day Trojan Horse
Although the envelope resembled a letter from a fourth grade student,
the contents addressed to Senator Tom Daschle were life threatening. Laced
within the envelope was a form of the bacteria known as Bacillus Anthracis,
bacteria more commonly known as anthrax. When exposed to humans, an anthrax
infection leads to the release of toxins, which if not properly treated
are fatal (cnn.com). Around the same
time of Senator Daschles threat, other cases of anthrax exposure
were publicized. Just like that, chemical and biological weaponry worry
the minds of the public. Some call such weapons the poor mans
atomic bomb its construction cheaper and effects potentially
as far-reaching and devastating. The ability to manufacture chemical or
biological threats is relatively much easier and its availability more
widespread that nuclear weapons. Because of this, many believe any future
terrorist attacks might be done with biological weapons similar to anthrax.
Though seemingly a new threat, similar weaponry has been the subject of
debate for decades. This paper discusses the subject of many of those
debates, the ethical implications of its use and development.
To clarify, biological warfare is the intentional use of disease-causing
microorganisms or other entities that can replicate themselves (e.g.,
viruses, infectious nucleic acids and prions) against humans, animals
or plants for hostile purposes (Adam Rotfeld, SIPRI
Fact Sheet, page 1). Furthermore, it may also involve the use
of toxins: poisonous substances produced by living organisms
animals. If they are utilized for warfare purpose, the synthetically manufactured
counterparts of these toxins are biological weapons (Rotfeld 1).
Delivery of such substances can be as easy as sending it via mail, as
in the anthrax example, or as sophisticated as mounting a chemical warhead
onto a missile. Other possible means of delivery include introducing a
substance to a water supply or through air dispersal in the form of gas.
This paper will use the terms biological weapons and chemical
A Brief History of Use
As far back as the 6th century BC, warring nations have been involved
with the use of biological weaponry (Henry Hardy, Biological
Weapons FAQ). Despite its long history, it is perhaps best to look
at more recent events. With the better understanding of disease in the
20th century, various forms of chemical and biological weaponry emerged.
During World War I, poisonous gases were used (Nicholas Fotion, Military
Ethics, page 73) in addition to anthrax applications by German operatives
(Rotfeld, 2). Even more recently, radical groups have implemented various
chemical agents with the intent of mass destruction. In addition to the
anthrax threat, in March of 1995, a nerve gas called sarin was released
in a subway system of Japan. In such cases, it is clear that the endangerment
of human life is wrong. However, stopping such activity is becoming increasingly
more difficult with the continued development of chemical and biological
weaponry by rogue parties and states.
Legal Issues: The Chemical Weapons Convention
In 1992, in order to curb the proliferation of chemical and biological
war agents, members of the United Nations agreed upon the text of the
Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling
and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction (more simply, the
Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)). It is, most simply put, an extension
of the Geneva Protocol of 1925 and the Biological Weapons Convention of
1972. The Geneva Protocol called for the prohibition of the use of chemical
and biological weapons in war, while the Biological Weapons Convention
outlawed biological and toxin weapons altogether and required their destruction
(OPCW, The Chemical Weapons Convention).
What the CWC added was more specific information regarding actual chemicals
as well as provisions for assistance if chemical weapons are used on a
The CWC and like-minded protocols have given an outline for cooperating
states to follow. However, it is difficult to contend with groups who
do not adhere to the CWC. Because the development and use of biological
weapons continue throughout rogue states, the question arises on how to
deal with the situation. Under the guidelines of the CWC, cooperating
nations such as the United States are not allowed to develop, produce,
or use chemical weapons. As such, the use of weapons by a cooperating
state should not be an issue. In order to deal with the possible use of
toxins against a nation under the CWC, research for vaccines are allowed.
Issues related to this bring up ethical discussion.
Ethical Issues: Application and Development
Among the most important issues is the issue of biological weapon use.
In some respects, its use is similar to a nuclear weapon. Both are capable
of mass destruction and, in the case of poisonous gases, can disable
living creatures when carried by winds to areas far beyond the immediate
impact zone (Fotion, 74) (fallout in nuclear terms). Both are militarily
very effective (Fotion, 75). As such, the ethical discussion of
chemical weapons closely resembles the ethical discussion of nuclear weapons.
Under the CWC guidelines, the following scenario is unlikely to happen
because of restrictions on the production of chemical weaponry but it
is an ethical issue regarding the use of it and its moral implications.
Nicholas Fotion gives the example of a fascist nation under a Nazi-like
regime known to practice genocide. Its military forces need only
to overcome [the other nations forces] to gather another two hundred
million people to murder. If [they] are successful, it will
likely send at least ten million people to their deaths, and will
likely mean success for their military campaign. Their only weakness would
be against chemical weaponry. Would the use of chemical weapons by the
nation being invaded by ethically responsible? Nearly any view, not only
utilitarian, would say that by almost any means, stopping genocide of
such scale is paramount.
Does this apply to current times would the use of chemical weapons
against terrorist groups be the most effective way of eradicating such
a threat? It is difficult to say. The issues that arise are issues similar
to nuclear use, but perhaps on a smaller scale. On the other hand, to
reduce the potential for civilian casualties as a result of fallout,
traditional means of war appear more effective.
Perhaps equally important is the issue of chemical weapon development.
This topic, however, is a little trickier. Biotechnology is applied commercially
every day. The dual-use potential of most technology involved in the research
and development of biotechnology complicates the issue. Dual-use
means that anything made for the public could also be used by the military
or vice versa (Rotfeld, 8). Researching vaccines means researching, and
possibly the development of, weapon agents. Is this ethically responsible?
Conclusion: The Future of Warfare
With the current evolution of potential threats, the issue of biological
and chemical weaponry is a very important one. Ethical issues regarding
war in general are a paper in and of itself. The use of weapons comes
down to whether or not it is morally acceptable and ethically responsible
to do harm to another person. And essentially, the destruction of human
life is in most parts unacceptable as should be the use of chemical
and biological weapons. Just like nuclear weapons, the potential for mass
destruction is too great a threat; in a modern example, targeting specific
small groups is rather difficult. The CWC is right in imposing such guidelines.
However, because the threat of biotechnological attacks exist, it is also
important to develop the technology to fight that. Countermeasures are
necessary to ensure the safety and health of the general population. While
it may be unethical to develop weapon agents, it is most responsible to
develop the vaccines to cure them.
- CNN article on Anthrax: http://www.cnn.com/2001/US/12/21/gen.anthrax.contamination/index.html
- Fotion, Nicholas. Military Ethics. Hoover Press Publication, 1990.
- Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The Chemical
Weapons Convention, February 2001
- Rotfeld, Adam. Biotechnology Fact Sheet. November 2001. pdf file.
- Written for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute
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