Chemical Weapons & Ethics

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While the Syrian government has been condemned for killing people with conventional weapons, the “red line’ drawn by President Obama was the use of weapons of mass destruction, specifically chemical weapons. Those more cynical than I might suggest that this amounted to saying “we do not like that you are slaughtering people, but as long as you use conventional weapons…well, we will not do much beyond condemning you.”

While the Syrian government seemed content with conventional weapons, it has been claimed that government forces used chemical weapons. Fortunately, Secretary of State John Kerry did not use the phrase “slam dunk” when describing the matter.  As this is being written, President Obama has stated that he wants to launch an attack on Syria, but he has decided to let congress make the decision. While this raises some interesting issues, I will focus on the question of whether chemical weapons change the ethics of the situation. In more general terms, the issue is whether or not chemical weapons are morally worse than conventional weapons.

In terms of general perception, chemical weapons are often regarded with more fear and disgust than conventional weapons. Part of this is historical in nature. World War I one saw the first large scale deployment of chemical weapons (primarily gas launched via artillery shells). While conventional artillery and machine guns did the bulk of the killing, gas attacks were regarded with a special horror. One reason was that the effects of gas tended to be rather awful, even compared to the wounds that could be inflicted by conventional weapons. This history of chemical weapons still seems to influence us today.

Another historically based reason, I suspect, is the ancient view that the use of poison is inherently evil or at least cowardly. In both history and literature, poisoners are rarely praised and are typically cast as villains. Even in games, such as Dungeons & Dragons, the use of poison is regarded as an inherently evil act. In contrast, killing someone with a sword or gun can be acceptable (and even heroic).

A third historically based reason is, of course, the use of poison gas by the Nazis in their attempt to implement their final solution. This would obviously provide the use of poison gas with a rather evil connection.

Of course, these historical explanations are just that—explanations. They provide reasons as to why people psychologically regard such weapons as worse than conventional weapons. What is needed is evidence for one side or the other.

Another part of this is that chemical weapons (as mentioned above) often have awful effects. That is, they do not merely kill—they inflict terrible suffering. This, then, does provide an actual reason as to why chemical weapons might be morally worse than conventional weapons. The gist of the reasoning is that while killing is generally bad, the method of killing does matter. As such, the greater suffering inflicted by chemical weapons makes them morally worse than conventional weapons.

There are three obvious replies to this. The first is that conventional weapons, such as bombs and artillery, can inflict horrific wounds that can rival the suffering inflicted by chemical weapons. The second is that chemical weapons can be designed so that they kill quickly and with minimal suffering. If the moral distinction is based on the suffering of the targets, then such chemical weapons would be morally superior to conventional weapons. However, it is worth noting that horrific chemical weapons would thus be worse than less horrific conventional (or chemical) weapons.

The third is that wrongfully killing and wounding people with conventional weapons would still be evil. Even if it is assumed that chemical weapons are somewhat worse in the suffering they inflict, it would seem that the moral red line should be the killing of people rather than killing them with chemical weapons. After all, the distinction between not killing people and killing them seems far greater than the distinction between killing people with conventional weapons and killing them with chemical weapons. For example, having soldiers machine gun everyone in a village seems to be morally as bad as having soldiers fire gas shells onto the village until everyone is dead. After all, the results are the same.

Another aspect of chemical weapons that supposedly makes them worse than conventional weapons is that they are claimed to be indiscriminate. For example, a chemical weapon is typically deployed as a gas and the gas can drift and spread into areas outside of the desired target. As another example, some chemical agents are persistent—they remain dangerous for some time after the initial attack and thus can harm and kill those who were not the intended targets. This factor certainly seems morally relevant.

The obvious reply is that conventional weapons can also be indiscriminate in this way. Bombs and shells can fall outside of the intended target area to kill and maim people. Unexploded ordinance can lie about until triggered by someone. As such, chemical weapons do not seem to necessarily worse than conventional weapons—rather it is the discrimination and persistence of the weapon that seem more important than the composition. For example, landmines certainly give chemical weapons strong competition in regards to being indiscriminate and persistent.

Thus, while a specific chemical weapon could be morally worse than a specific conventional weapon, chemical weapons are not inherently morally worse than conventional weapons.

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24 Comments.

  1. I remember the soldiers of WWI saying they hated phosgene gas, not because of the death that it caused but because of the blindness that it created. The result of the use of phosgene and mustard gas in WWI was an amendment to the Geneva Protocol of 1925 which declared the use of blinding gases and chemical weapons to be a war crime. The Geneva Protocol should be a prerequisite for discussions on chemical weapons and ethics.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geneva_Protocol

    In particular, the chemical sarin is mentioned which is alleged to have been used recently in Syria. Most countries have also been lax on following the protocol by the use of tear gas on civilian populations. However, the enforcement of the Geneva Protocol is lame. Ideally, it should be monitored by the United Nations, but apparently the United Nations has become lame itself. Currently, the International Red Cross is the only organization that monitors the Geneva Protocol.

    Mike LaBossiere wrote, “Thus, while a specific chemical weapon could be morally worse than a specific conventional weapon, chemical weapons are not inherently morally worse than conventional weapons.” If this is true, then the difference must not be in the death that a chemical might cause, but in the possibility of permanent disability and mutilation.

    Mike has asked how many people should be hurt and with what weapons. Is this a question that philosophy can offer any answers? Some things can be proven by reason, but other things can only be proven by force or threats of violence. If reason is to be used to resolve some issue, then reason should be done with sobriety and without anger. A bad answer is to reduce the discussion to comparisons of imbeciles and fools.

    It seems the most philosophy can offer is suggestions on how to make diplomatic compromise. When that fails, who is to blame – besides the philosophers?

  2. Dennis Sceviour,

    “It seems the most philosophy can offer is suggestions on how to make diplomatic compromise. When that fails, who is to blame – besides the philosophers?”

    No. The philosopher can be the fundamental enabler of atrocity.

    “Mark this well, you proud men of action: You are nothing but the unwitting agents of the men of thought who often, in quiet self-effacement, mark out most exactly all your doings in advance.” – Heinrich Heine

    Unwitting agents; drones. Complete unaware they are being piloted from some remote and hidden location.

  3. Re: Posted by JMRC September 2, 2013 at 12:08 pm
    “Unwitting agents; drones. Complete unaware they are being piloted from some remote and hidden location.”

    No. This is a serious topic. If this is meant to be humorous, then where is the joke? Further, the statement tries to reduce the discussion to insults.

  4. Dennis Sceviour,

    I do agree that the nature of the weapon is morally relevant. Psychologically, I also worry a bit more about weapons that would blind me rather than just kill me. Also, the suffering inflicted by a weapon type seems to relevant, if only on utilitarian grounds (although, ironically, a horrific weapon might generate more utility by its deterrence value). So, gas that consistently inflicts horrific pain before it kills would be worse than a conventional shell or bullet.

    Ideally, no one should be hurt. But, realistically, we would need to address the number of kills that are morally tolerable as well as the type of killing that is morally tolerable. In the case of Syria, the US response seems to be that the killing has been bad, but the alleged gas attack is so bad that we now need to have congress vote on doing something within the next several days.

  5. Dennis Sceviour,

    I wasn’t joking, and neither was Heine.

    And neither was Voltaire.

    “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” – Voltaire

    The people who came and arrested Anne Frank, took her away and had her killed, did so because they believed she was trying to take over the world.

    The absurdity of evil.

  6. Mike wrote, “…we would need to address the number of kills that are morally tolerable …”

    There are two sides to the issue. Both sides are trying to determine the ideal number of kills. Realistically, whatever answer they arrive at means twice as many people will die. The numbers can never add up. Further, history shows that such decisions are heavily influenced by the lex talionis, the law of revenge, and “eye for an eye.” Much of the world still tries to form judgment based on this principle. The answer usually leads to an exponential in violence.

    “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind (Gandhi).”

    It is not clear how one can address a satisfactory number for the number of kills, whether anyone will ever follow those numbers, whether those numbers have a realistic probability, or whether they will solve any problem. No, there is no number.

  7. “I do agree that the nature of the weapon is morally relevant. ”

    Here it becomes unusual. In that for reasons, there is a general consensus among the public as to what is less or more morally reprehensible as a weapon, or a means. When you examine this consensus for moral consistency and moral coherence, not only is it lacking, but by pointing out the inconsistencies invokes horror, revulsion and anger.

    I believe there is a fundamental problem with ethics derived through consensus. Doctors are forbidden from attempting experimental cures on terminally ill cancer patients, even with the patients permission, as in a puzzling illogical way, this is considered unethical. If I’m terminally ill, and my doctor says he’s got one bullet left, but it’s a very long shot, and might kill me if it doesn’t work, is it ethical do deny me that shot? Because it makes someone who is not dying, but has the power to say yay or nay, emotionally uncomfortable.

    Should ethics ever be decided by the emotions of a third party who is not directly involved.

    A hypothetical situation. Say I’m an executioner for the State of Texas – I have a job coming up; it’s just a job to me, like being a plumber, a baker, or a ladies shoe ware salesman. I consult the governor, a fine Christian and a firm believer in the justice of capital punishment. I tell George, that I will do the deed, but he must take moral responsibility for the method. I offer him two choices. The first choice, is I take the condemned man, and cook him for at least three minutes, while he is likely conscious, until his internal organs stew, smoke spews from his orifices, and the room fills with a stench of the feces boiling in his colon. Or, the Electric Chair. George says “The electric chair of course”. “tu deseo es mi comando, the Electric Chair it is”, and George is visibly relieved, like a man reprieve – dabbing his clammy forehead with a monogrammed handkerchief of lace possibly French in origin. ….. I leave George and I walk on down the hall.

    I take the condemned man, and cook him for at least three minutes, while he…..

    “Psychologically, I also worry a bit more about weapons that would blind me rather than just kill me.”

    You would seriously chose this disability over death?

    “Also, the suffering inflicted by a weapon type seems to relevant, if only on utilitarian grounds”

    Mike back to my hypothetical job with Texas State Board of Corrections. And hypothetically you’re on death row, for some domestic misunderstanding – And I’m the one responsible for correcting, your misunderstanding; nothing personal, it’s just a job. I offer you a choice; I sneak up on you while you’re not looking and hit you across the head with the back of an axe – or the more humane alternative; The Chair. Two different roads that lead to the same destination – which path would you chose? Or, okay…since it’s you…you can have the lethal injection…I’ll set up the tubes and the pipes, and when everything is ready, I’ll set a little egg timer, and skid daddle from the room – when the grains run out, a switch will be triggered, the chemicals will be realeased and you shall gently humanely drift off into eternity…………Mike, I don’t know about you, but I would pick the axe.

    “(although, ironically, a horrific weapon might generate more utility by its deterrence value).”

    It’s that ironic thinking that usually results in people finding themselves in front of war crimes tribunals. It’s one of those ideas, that in the cold light of day, in front of judges, lawyers, and observers, becomes very very difficult to explain. If you ever watched any of Adolf Eichmann’s trial – a very uncomfortable bit of explaining Eichmann had to do.

    “So, gas that consistently inflicts horrific pain before it kills would be worse than a conventional shell or bullet.”

    Conventional shells or bullets will only give a painless death if they’re instantly lethal. They’re not. Mustard gas is more effective when it is not lethal. It causes burns and blindness – it destroys moral, and creates terror, zapping the oponents will to fight. It’s the same principle behind the favoured design of land mines. A soldier who is alive but seriously injured will take several soldiers out of direct combat activity. The KLA; Kosovar Liberation Army, used crossbows to snipe on the Serbs. Injure a soldier the rest have to take their concentration off combat activities.

    Under the Geneva convention fragmentation munitions, and the use of phosphorous are forbidden. Guess who uses them, and who has resisted becoming signatories to either the Geneva convention or recognising the International Criminal Court. “Hey…We’re always the good guys…we don’t need to sign anything like that”

    “Ideally, no one should be hurt. But, realistically, we would need to address the number of kills that are morally tolerable as well as the type of killing that is morally tolerable. ”

    Double entry book keeping. Is there any kind of book, with recognised moral accounting standards. An exam you can do to become qualified to dispense these certainties – a guild to join.

    “In the case of Syria, the US response seems to be that the killing has been bad, but the alleged gas attack is so bad that we now need to have congress vote on doing something within the next several days.”

    One thing, a strategic strike like in this instance, is a low mortality action. Simply bombing Syria’s runways is enough to disable their fighter bombers – who have been bombing civilians for quite a while now. Fuel dumps, electricity, logistics, any heavy artillery. This will not cause huge casualties. ……But once these are removed, it will be like a zombie film where someone has opened a barrier that’s been keeping the zombies out. Are people more trouble by letting the zombies in, than letting Assad and his wife slaughter hundreds of thousands.

    Two. Mike you don’t really believe in all this democracy nonsense, do you. What’s Congress…..For all intents and purposes it doesn’t seem any different from an exclusive golf club. To us Assad may seem strange, but when he looks at our democratic system, could he be accused of thinking we’re having some kind of joke. His Syrian democracy is no different from ours.

    No different from ours.
    http://si.wsj.net/public/resources/images/NA-BC057_DAMASC_G_20091116173503.jpg

  8. JMRC:

    Your comments are very amusing and insightful.

    I don’t want to seem pedantic, but I’m a translator and “comando” in Spanish does not mean “command” in the sense you use it.

    http://es.thefreedictionary.com/comando

    Here are the ways “command” is translated into Spanish:
    http://www.wordreference.com/es/translation.asp?tranword=command

    Google suggests translating “your wish is my command” as “su deseo es mi orden”, but that sounds artificial (although correct) to me.

    “Usted manda” or “mande” sound more natural to me in the situation.

  9. Doris Wrench Eisler

    All weapons when wrongly used are intrinsically evil but some are outlawed by agreement, as in chemical weapons, so are more evil by convention. In Any case, so-called victor’s justice is the final arbiter of good and evil on the social level, at least. But it is a fact that many soldiers have killed people as part of their “duty to king and country” and feel fine about it, even exultant, for a while. But then something else kicks in when the heat of battle is over along with the “us and them”, and serious guilt results. Which implies there is a sense of good and evil that goes beyond the social context and addresses the individual conscience. Too bad many of us are not consistently in touch with it.

  10. JMRC:

    “A sus ordenes” or “a la orden”: they are best way to communicate the sense of “your wish is my command”.

  11. swallerstein,

    “I don’t want to seem pedantic, but I’m a translator and “comando” in Spanish does not mean “command” in the sense you use it.”

    Yes. But this is Texas correctional facility officer Spanish – which is not really Spanish. In fact I have no idea where he picked it up, bits and pieces in jail – I have no idea. He has his phrases, and it’s always laboured, and in a thick Texas accent – each word punctuated like it’s an achievement. He probably says things like “And. What. Would. You. Like…For. Your….Meal Finalisimo….”…..Then slower but louder “Por Vor Meal Finalisimo…..Finalisimo…Meal” hands gesturing putting food in his mouth and chewing, maybe even rubbing his belly, smiling and swaying in simulation at the satisfaction at having an enjoyable meal.

    I have heard it is true, that they do, do this last meal where you can have anything you like…..but not many people have the appetite, for when the feast arrives. In American prisons they don’t even let people smoke on death row anymore. Concerned for their health I suppose.

    El Diablo. Sempray habla mal Spanola.

  12. JMRC:

    You have quite a talent for inventing characters.
    Have you ever written fiction?

  13. Perhaps the morally relevant distinction is that chemical weapons have only one use, killing people, whereas conventional weapons are used to destroy infrastructure and the killing happens as a side effect. Therefore, while it is clearly possible to misuse conventional weapons, the use of chemical weapons is a clear sign that the perpetrators intention is purely killing.

  14. Matt,
    From the above discussion, you can infer that the main problem with chemicals is not killing, but disability from mutilation, blindness and nerve destruction.

  15. Consider the following:

    Design and release a chemical into a war-torn country that kills only those people who want to kill other people and leaves everyone else alive.

    Is this chemical bad?

  16. Dennis,
    I agree that the ability to cause particular and horrific types of suffering is clearly an issue! However, I don’t believe this is a strong argument for chemical weapons being inherently morally worse than conventional weapons – for one could also use conventional weapons to cause (arguably equivalent) suffering without killing.

    So let me try and rephrase my point without specfic reference to killing – Say that both chemical and conventional weapons cause harm to people (both can kill, both can cause horrific disabilities, both can take your loved ones etc.). And lets say that using a weapon for the sole purpose of causing harm to people is morally wrong.

    Then any individual use of a conventional weapon may or may not be morally wrong. The example in the article of machine gunning an entire village is morally wrong by this definition. The use of conventional weapons to destroy air defences (and causing collatoral human harm) may or may not be.

    But there is no argument about chemical weapons – any and all use of them is morally wrong. By definition, their sole use is to deliberately cause harm to people.

    So perhaps this is a difference in principle between conventional and chemical weapons (and why, therefore, their use or even possession may cross a “red line”) – and perhaps by virtue of this chemical weapons are inherently morally worse.

  17. Kevin Henderson,

    It depends on why a person wants to kill. After all, some folks might only want to kill because people are trying to kill them. But, if it is stipulated that the weapon only kills people who truly want to kill unjustly (that is murder) and intend to act on these wants, then it would seem to be a rather ethical weapon-when deployed, it would only kill potential and actual murderers.

  18. Matt,

    True-chemical weapons generally do target people (although chemical weapons could be designed to target vehicles, structures and such). But, most conventional weapons are designed to kill people. While some are designed to destroy structures and vehicles, they also do a good job of killing people as well.

    You do make a good point, though. Someone could claim that the shelling was to destroy structures or the bombing run was aimed at a factory. But when chemicals are used, the target is people.

  19. Dennis,

    As a practical matter, we do come up with the rough amount of killing we will tolerate before acting. There is also the moral question of how many deaths we should tolerate before acting. Of course, one stock approach is to weigh the death toll against the cost of acting in response to that death toll. So, if going all in on Syria would result in worse results than tolerating the violence, then the utilitarian answer would be to tolerate it.

  20. Mike,
    Perhaps an easier number to discuss is the number of refugees, rather the number of deaths. A reported 2 million refugees that have crossed the Syrian border, and the refugees will bring a new set of problems. Would an attack on Syria improve the refugee crises, or worsen it? If the US could specifically target the supplier and distributer of toxic gases then they should proceed with a specific agenda against it. Unfortunately, history tells us events will unravel differently.

  21. It makes sense for two sides to forswear the use of chemical (or biological or nuclear) weapons if each side has the capability to use them to a roughly equal extent: neither side would gain a significant military edge, yet using those weapons would ratchet up the number of casualties. However if only one side has those weapons and that side fears extinction or military defeat, then that side will almost certainly deploy those weapons rather than acquiesce in its own annihilation.

  22. All weapons are chemicals be it TNT or C4 explosives. You need a better term to classify the use of poisonous gasses, viruses, bacteria, prions and the like as weapons of war. The US & Russia seek to sell old fashioned weapons which create jobs and revenue for their economies, and always leaves them with the advantage. Napalm & defoliants used by the US in Vietnam, Cambodia etc. can easily be included in this class of weapons. When I or my friends do something we are always right but when people we don’t like do something, they are always wrong. The driving force behind all the problems in the world is out of control population growth and lack of food. Malthus’s essay is coming to bite us again.

  23. Ravi Samson,

    Actually, the term “chemical weapon” seems to work fine-there does not seem to be any real confusion here.

    As far as the Malthus point, populations and resources are important concerns, but people fight for other reasons as well. Assad, for example, it not fighting because of food or population size.

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