The Alexander Hamilton Society recently hosted a panel about the rising danger of bioweapons. ELIZABETH BACHMANN | COURTESY

It’s not often that you find a biology pro­fessor, chem­istry pro­fessor,  phi­losophy pro­fessor, and history pro­fessor all together in the same room. But on Tuesday night, faculty from each of those depart­ments came together to discuss the sci­en­tific, his­torical, and philo­sophical impli­ca­tions of bio­logical and chemical weapons during an Alexander Hamilton Society Faculty Panel. 

The panel fea­tured Pro­fessor of History Tom Connor, Assistant Pro­fessor of Phi­losophy Blake McAl­lister, Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of Biology Silas Johnson, and Assistant Pro­fessor of Chem­istry Kelli Kazmier. 

Kazmier and Johnson pro­vided the sci­en­tific basis for the dis­cussion. Kazmier, a spe­cialist in bio­chem­istry high­lighted the dif­ference between non-lethal bio­chemical weapons, like tear gas, mustard gas, and chlorine gas, and lethal gasses like sarin. 

She explained that Fritz Habor, the Jewish German sci­entist who pio­neered the use of bioweapons in World War I, viewed them as the moral and mer­ciful alter­native to artillery. While artillery proves lethal on the bat­tle­field, poison gasses are only lethal 1% of the time. 

Connor added that Churchill shared a similar view of poison gas, and advo­cated for its use in both WWI and WWII. Hitler, however, refused to use it on prin­ciple, and so Churchill had no cause to implement gasses. 

McAl­lister addressed the ethical impli­ca­tions of using chemical weapons through the lens of a human emotion:  horror. 

“Emo­tions are not raw feelings,” he said. “Rather, emo­tions are a way of per­ceiving reality, of seeing some­thing as good or bad in a par­ticular way.” 

Ref­er­encing philosopher Robert C. Roberts, McAl­lister sug­gested that the natural reaction to chemical weapons — horror —  ought to inform our moral con­ception. 

“Could it be that this horror man­i­fests a kind of deep wisdom embedded within our sen­ti­ments and an attunement to the evil of this act?” he asked. 

However, McAl­lister rec­og­nized that not all bio­logical or chemical weapons are nec­es­sarily unac­ceptable, because not all weapons elicit the same degree of horror. 

Kazmier brought up an argument in oppo­sition to McAllister’s position. 

Habor, the mas­termind behind the first chemical weapons, argued that poison gas hor­rifies for the same reason that artillery hor­rified when it first entered the fray: because it is new and unac­cus­tomed. 

As a biology pro­fessor, Johnson was more con­cerned with the bio­logical than the chemical, and intro­duced bioethics ques­tions into the fray. The most con­cerning bio­logical weapons on today’s storm­front, he said, concern some­thing called the bio­hacking movement, a trend towards democ­ra­ti­zation of bio­logical exper­i­men­tation. In other words, biol­o­gists and pseudo-biol­o­gists are con­ducting unof­ficial bio­logical exper­i­ments on them­selves, animals, and friends from their garages. 

These biol­o­gists often operate outside of the accepted norms of biology and are at risk of releasing some sort of bio­logical con­tagion into the pop­u­lation. This bio­logical democ­ra­ti­zation also opens the pos­si­bility of these new “bio­hacks”  falling into the hands of someone who would use them as weapons. 

The other pressing bio­logical threat, Johnson said, derives from genetic engi­neering. In the near future, biol­o­gists could poten­tially design super­humans, which would function as bio­logical weapons on the bat­tle­field. 

McAl­lister did not ignore the bio­logical side of the issue, but specif­i­cally focused on the practice of using bio­chemical weapons to spread a fatal con­tagion to a civilian pop­u­lation such as to inca­pac­itate that entire society and knock it out of the war. 

He used the example of germ warfare in WWII, when Japanese air force dropped fleas infected with the bubonic plague on a Chinese city in 1940. The assumption behind this type of warfare is that civilians will die in war, and dropping chemical dropping bio­logical weapons on a city now will actually end the war, resulting in less overall fatal­ities. 

McAl­lister invoked the law of double effect to rule this practice morally imper­mis­sible. While it is true that civilians will cer­tainly die in war, normal battle prac­tices do not explicitly operate with the intent to kill civilians. Civilian death is an unin­tended con­se­quence. However, using germ war on a civilian pop­u­lation crosses a moral line: its prin­cipal objective is to kill non-com­batant women and children.