Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

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 ( Around the same time of Senator Daschle's 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 man's 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...plants...and 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 weapons" interchangeably.

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 cooperating state.

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 nation’s 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.

Works Cited

CNN article on Anthrax: Article
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        (SIPRI)

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