What is the ethical status of Weapons of Mass Destruction?
Throughout the Cold War, nuclear weapons, their possible use and consequences, were high on the ethical discussion agenda. However, in the post Cold-War era, new types of WMD have come into the forum: biological and chemical weapons. As early as 9 February 1989, President George Bush claimed that ‘Chemical weapons must be banned from the face of the earth, never to be used again… And the spread of nuclear weapons stopped’.
These anxieties were compounded by the Gulf War (1991), the belated admission by President Boris Yeltsin of the covert biological warfare programme of the former Soviet Union (February 1992) and the subsequent revelations about the extent of the Iraqi NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical) programmes1. The recent use of chemical and biological weapons and the increased probability of their use has awakened the ethical debate on this issue.
The term weapons of mass destruction attempts to distinguish these NBC weapons from conventional weapons by their capacity to inflict death, injury and physical destruction in the case of nuclear weapons over considerable areas, with the related possibility of causing extensive collateral damage2. “The development and acquisition of NBC weapons gives the option of employing them in strategic roles, with the aim of causing large numbers of deaths and casualties, widespread terror and, in the case of nuclear strikes, extensive physical damage”3.
Clearly, the aim of all these weapons is the same even if the effects vary slightly and in assessing their ethical status, they should be regarded in the same manner. Through this essay I will attempt to examine the ethical status of these weapons of mass destruction. There are two main questions facing the ethical theorist. When, if ever is it morally acceptable to use weapons of mass destruction? And is it ethical to use WMD as deterrents? In order to assess these questions we must examine each of them within the parameters of Just War moral apparatus.
If the criteria of just war theory, specifically just conduct, can be applied in relation to the use of WMD then their use should be as ethical as any other conduct in war. Firstly, the use of any violence outside of the context of war is always unjustified, so we have to assume that the use of the NBC weapons is within a just war context. This assumes that the war discussed fulfils the just recourse to war or jus ad bellum criteria: just cause, legitimate authority, proportionality and last resort.
The just cause, or justification of the resort to war is usually defence of national territory in the face of an aggressor4. This is reinforced by article 51 of the UN Charter, which asserts that ‘nothing in the present charter shall impair the right of the individual or collective self defence if an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations’. The absolute conviction that their cause is just may encourage combatants to override the moral limits of war, therefore the strategic importance of just cause must not be allowed to devalue or suppress other important moral criteria.
There is no provision in just war made for the attack of another state not as an act of self-defence but as an act of aggression, as this is considered unjust and ethically abhorrent, although terrorists will assert that their supremely ‘just’ cause permits them this right. Which brings us to the next criterion, legitimate authority. Just War theory requires that decisions to wage war be made only by those who are legally authorised to do so, those who have the support of the majority of the nation.
A terrorist organisation may believe that their cause is just but they do not have legitimate authority if they cannot evoke mass support. The constitution and laws of nation-states specify the institutions and personnel authorised to make their war decisions, and the UN Charter authorises the Security Council to make the International Community’s war decisions. The third factor in just recourse is proportionality. The criterion of proportionality requires potential combatants to consider whether or not war is a fitting or proportionate response to the injury that has been threatened or received.
Put in its simplest form the question that the criterion of proportionality is intended to raise is this: is this just cause worth a war? 5. Finally, the criterion of last resort has to be satisfied. The recourse to war is to be justified only when all other means short of war have been exhausted. Only after all these criteria have been satisfied should we resort to war. For the purposes of this essay, we shall assume that all these criteria have been met and we shall analyse when if ever, the use of WMD could be morally justified in war?
To answer the question of the use of NBC weapons, we first need to examine the just war criteria of just war conduct or jus in bello; proportionality and non-combatant immunity. Firstly proportionality in relation to the conduct in war. Economy or restraint is the basic imperative, and combatants are required to employ only as much force as is necessary to achieve legitimate military objectives and as is proportionate to the importance of those targets6. The second criterion is that of the principle of non-combatant or civilian immunity. Realistically in modern war, the deaths of civilians are an inevitable part of any war.
Though an undoubted physical evil, they may not constitute a moral evil. The moral difficulty arises only when non-combatant deaths are the foreseen (and foreseeable) consequence of a proposed course of action7. Having examined the criteria of just conduct, how does the use of WMD fulfil them? Of the three weapons of mass destruction, only nuclear weapons have been used in a just war context. World War II was arguably a just war, but was the use of nuclear weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 in keeping with the criteria of Just Conduct?
The atom bomb was built because it was believed that the Nazis were constructing one to use against the world. But, “in the event, the bomb was not used against Germany (or to deter its use by Hitler, which is what men like Einstein had in mind), but against the Japanese, who had never posed such a threat to peace and freedom as the Nazis had”8. The two main questions here are intertwined, was the action proportionate and does it violate the principle of non-combatant immunity (NCI)?
Few people would disagree with the principle of discrimination or NCI but some utilitarian or consequentialist theorists would argue that ordinary civilians may be targeted, if doing so, promises to save a greater number of lives. If the end justifies the means. The then secretary of war Henry L. Stimson argued that dropping the bombs on the Japanese civilian population of Hiroshima and Nagasaki shortened the war and saved one million potential Allied casualties that would have resulted had the Allies been forced to invade the mainland9.
For the Americans had already killed an estimated 100,000 people in incendiary raids on Tokyo in March 1945 and the battle of Okinawa had cost nearly 200,000 lives. Along similar lines, some defended the Allied firebombing of residential areas of Cologne and Dresden, Germany in the last year of World War II. Opposing the consequentialist view is that of the deontologists who believe that some means are always impermissible, the end doesn’t always justify the means. They feel that even if the cause is just, by employing an immoral means to achieve it, you subvert the good intention.
The principles of proportionality and discrimination prohibits acts of war which target ordinary citizens, bombing civilian residential areas that include no military target and using nuclear weapons against cities. However, even acts of war that attempt to discriminate can sometimes end in civilian deaths, so proportionality is subsumed under the principle of double effect. Which states that first the action itself, should be at least morally neutral. Second, the human agent should desire the morally good effect not the morally bad effect.
Third the morally bad effect must not be the means whereby the morally good effect is achieved. For example, one cannot kill an innocent human being to save one’s own or another’s life. Fourth, the morally good effect should outweigh the morally bad effect10. Although President Truman is known to have asked Stimson, when choosing a target for the first bomb, which Japanese cities were “devoted exclusively to war production”, it was clear that, knowing the effects the bombs would have, he was targeting civilians.
It can not be argued that there was a moral good intention with bad effects, the intention at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was to shock the Japanese into surrendering their war effort by destroying two cities and thousands of innocent civilians. The killing of non-combatants is immoral. Nevertheless, such killing may yet be morally justified, all things considered, if they were proportionate. Yet, the evil to be prevented or the good to be secured must be sufficiently greater than the foreseen evil consequence and in the case of nuclear weapons this is not possible.
Therefore, we cannot employ the foregoing sorts of justification to legitimate a massive use of nuclear weapons against either tactical and strategic forces or industrial and population centres. The killing of large numbers of innocent people is so morally abhorrent that it cannot be justified on the grounds of preventing a greater evil or securing a greater good. There simply is no greater evil or greater good that could outweigh the killing of large numbers of innocent people in the massive use of nuclear weapons11.
Atomic war was death indeed, indiscriminate and total, and after Hiroshima, the first task of political leaders everywhere was to prevent its recurrence12. The arguments shown condemning the use of nuclear weapons as intrinsically immoral are equally relevant to Chemical and Biological Weapons, which kill indiscriminately and massively. Indeed, never have Chemical or Biological weapons been employed by a legitimate authority since the signing of the CWC and BWC treaties, which prohibit their use.
Terrorist acts such as Aum Shinrikyo’s use of Sarin in the Tokyo underground 20th March 1995 and the use of chemical and biological weapons by Iraq in the war against Iran and against its own Kurdish civilians between 1983 and 1988 are condemned as unjust and disproportionate actions. Even terrorists hesitate when thinking of employing weapons of mass destruction such as chemical and biological weapons because the outcome can disgust the very people from whom they hope to gain support.
However recent uses of Anthrax in America and threats of a similar attack to that of Aum Shinrikyo on the metro have shown that perhaps these weapons could still pose a risk for the future. The trouble taken recently by the UN to check Iraq’s weapons shows the international concern as to Saddam’s WMD capacity. However, creation and dispersion of such weapons remains difficult even for our governments, terrorist organisations without the capital or expertise would find it nearly impossible to effectuate an attack causing mass casualties.
Apart from the Aum Shinrikyo incident in 1995, in 96% of the cases worldwide where such weapons have been used since 1975 three or fewer people were injured or killed13. The second question relating to the ethical status of weapons of mass destruction is that of deterrence. Is the use of WMD as deterrents morally acceptable? Roughly speaking, two approaches are taken to the question of whether or not the strategy of deterrence can be morally justified. These are on the one hand, utilitarian and consequentialist – for example, does the strategy succeed in reducing the likelihood of war and the lethality of war if it comes?
And, on the other hand, Kantian or deontological – for example, is it just to hold innocent millions hostage as a necessary element in a politico-military strategy if we hold, as a first principle, that some human beings may not be used as means by others? 14 The moral problem lies, according to deontologists, in the intention of the deterrence. Once the foregoing moral constraints on the use of nuclear weapons are recognised, comparable constraints on threatening the use of such weapons would seem to obtain in accord with the wrongful threatening principle: If an act is wrong, then threatening to perform that act also is wrong.
According to this principle, threatening nuclear destruction would be morally justified only if carrying out such threats would be morally justified. This principle has been challenged by Gregory Kavka, who argues that it fails to apply when threats are adopted solely to prevent the occurrence of the circumstances in which the threats would have to be carried out. Unfortunately, this line of argument also would serve to justify the threats standardly employed by bank robbers! 5 The only way a nation’s leaders can threaten to use nuclear weapons successfully is if they can envision themselves using those weapons under certain circumstances. So, this accepts that there may come a time when weapons of mass destruction are used. The real ambiguity of nuclear deterrence lies in the fact that no one, including ourselves, can be sure that we will ever carry out the threats we make. Nuclear weapons explode the theory of just war. They are the first of mankind’s technological innovations that are simply not encompassable within the familiar moral world.
Or rather our familiar notions about jus in bello require us to condemn even the threat to use them. This means that for leaders, who recognise the moral constraints on the use of nuclear weapons, the possibility of threatening nuclear destruction would be circumscribed drastically. Unless these leaders commit themselves to acting immorally, they can only threaten a form of limited nuclear retaliation. However, this limited nuclear retaliation poses a threefold problem.
Firstly, it is not necessarily the case that every war would become total war, but the danger of escalation is so great as to preclude the first use of nuclear weapons – except by someone willing to face their final use16. Secondly, the limits of a limited war could not be observed. Henry Kissinger once proposed that in a limited nuclear war a nation might announce that it would not use nuclear weapons of more than 500 kilotons explosive power unless an adversary used them first. Unfortunately however, no country has a system of instantaneous damage assessment to determine whether such a limit was being observed17.
Finally, war games have shown that if enough tactical nuclear weapons are employed over time in a limited area, such as Germany, the effect on noncombatants in that area would be much the same as in a massive nuclear attack. These three factors, the extent even of limited destruction and the dangers of escalation, and the impracticality seem to rule out any sort of nuclear war between the great powers and large-scale conventional war too, and therefore disallow deterrence on the basis that it is wrong to threaten to do something which is morally wrong.
Consequentialists would argue that the threat of slaughter, if it is believed, makes nuclear attack a radically undesirable policy. Doubled by a potential enemy, the threat produces a “balance of terror”. Both sides are so terrified that no further terrorism is necessary. But is the threat itself morally permissible? 18 Virtually all deontological arguments about deterrence seem to follow the just-war theory: they simply assert that it is wrong to kill innocents and that this rule cannot be violated. How can a nation live with its conscience,” John Bennett has asked “and know that it is preparing to kill twenty million children in another nation if the worst should come to the worst? ” However consequentialists argue that we can live with this strategy because preparing to kill, is not at all the same as killing innocent civilians. Also we don’t believe that we will ever have to actually fulfil our threat. The secret of nuclear deterrence is that it is a kind of bluff, one which has proved convincing, because deterrence has so far been a bloodless strategy19.
Against an enemy actually willing to use the bomb, self-defence is impossible, and it makes sense that the only compensating step is the (immoral) threat in kind. “We threaten evil in order not to do it, and the doing of it would be so terrible that the threat seems in comparison to be morally defensible”20. We could follow the path of complete disarmament, mutual disarmament would clearly be a preferable alternative, but it is an alternative available only to two countries working closely together; add more states that have the technology to build nuclear weapons, and you create mistrust.
Without constant verification, one state could never be sure that the others were not building nuclear, biological or chemical weapons in order to become the next superpower. Moreover, one can argue that if states are allowed to defend themselves, what about situations that can only be defended using nuclear weapons? Are there politico-military requirements of deterrence such that the United States requires a nuclear strategy? That is, if the deterrence of attack is a legitimate goal of national policy, are there some attacks that can be deterred only by nuclear strategies?
If it is legitimate for nations to provide for their self-defence, then the United States is justified in devising a nuclear strategy because there are some situations in which U. S. self-defence cannot be maintained without a nuclear deterrent. Nuclear war is and will remain morally unacceptable. Because it is unacceptable, we must seek out ways to prevent it, and because deterrence is a bad way, we must seek out others. Biological and Chemical War is equally unacceptable, even if unlike nuclear weapons, neither chemical nor biological weapons can damage the physical infrastructure, they target civilians indiscriminately.
The challenge posed by these weapons is becoming more diverse and daunting as the technology, particularly of biological weapons, steadily evolves. Events in the 1990’s have demonstrated the limitations of intrusive on-site inspections against a determined proliferator; the shortcomings of ‘precision’ aerial bombardments; and the controversies aroused by attempts to resolve WMD crises by diplomatic endeavour and economic inducements.
The use of chemical and biological weapons is prohibited by international law; perhaps the same prohibitive action could be taken against nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, as shown by the recent uses by terrorists of chemical and biological weapons, what is to stop those groups working outside the law from utilising nuclear weapons as well? As shown by the essay, the use of any of these WMD is ethically unacceptable.
The use of nuclear weapons as deterrents is flawed ethically because it involves using millions of innocent civilians as hostages, pawns in a strategic bluff which we hope will never be called. The threat cannot work unless both sides believe that they are capable of carrying out the threat; therefore you should not threaten to do what it is ethically wrong to do. However, without an alternative way of defending ourselves against other nations with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, we have no current choice but to continue a policy of deterrence until an alternative presents itself.
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