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.