Dual Use Ethics, is More Better?

By James Revill

Ethical training represents a valuable and prevalent vehicle through which to engage scientists with dual use issues in university life science curricula. However, perhaps there is a need for caution in our expectations of ‘ethics’.  Indeed, ethics is not a monolithic concept; rather there are a number of different ethical perspectives and frameworks that can be applied generate vastly differing ‘ethical’ responses and solutions to the same problem. For example, at the academic level, much of the work done on bioethics is consistently supportive of the broader objectives of preventing the hostile exploitation of the life sciences and branding the development, production and use of biological weapons as the behaviour of a pariah, not least because of the indiscriminate nature of such weapons. However, not all ethical reasoning has reacted the same conclusions. For example, Larry May makes a cogent argument “that just war theory cannot support a complete ban on such weapons, unless a similar ban on the use of bombs is also endorsed” (See for example a podcast produced by ANU by Larry May, Professor of Philosophy at Washington University, in which reasons are given for thinking that just war theory cannot support a complete ban on such weapons [CBW], unless a similar ban on the use of bombs is also endorsed). Whereas Michael Gross’s text, Bioethics and Armed Conflict, infers that scientists who accept the just war paradigm could justifiably develop biological  weapons, on the basis that such weapons are so morally repugnant they will have a deterrence affect. Gross states:

“In the final analysis, there is sympathy for the claim that chemical and biological deterrence can work, that weapons of deterrence do not harm anyone … If medicine wishes to invoke medical ethics to condemn deterrence, it must identify the principles of bioethics with the same arguments that belie the cogency of deterrence, namely, a deotology that identifies cause and intent, and a consequentialism that is highly risk aversive. This, however, may push medicine uncomfortably into the corner of pacifism, where many practitioners may not wish to be.” (Gross. M. L (2006) “Bioethics and Armed Conflict: Moral Dilemmas of Medicine and War”, the MIT Press)

At the academic level, the results from the bioethics lab are thus inconclusive; and, as Dr Vivienne Nathanson, has stated “One of the many joys of bioethics is that it does not give final answers to questions but posits arguments and analysis for others to support or oppose.” (Nathanson. V (2006) “Bioethics and Armed Conflict: Moral Dilemmas of Medicine and War” Book Review,  British Medical Journal 2006; 333: 1177 (2 December))

This is complicated by the importance of context, and the interpretation of context, both of which have a significant bearing on what constitutes ‘ethical’ behaviour. For example, some UK bioweaponeers involved in research in the Second World War were reportedly motivated by a determination “to pay back the Germans for what they did… and to see that our country was not left defenceless as London was when my family was killed” (Stamp. T.C as Cited in Harris. E (1999) “The Biology of Doom”, pg 53). Whereas one of the drivers the of the Soviet biological weapons programme was a sense that survival was predicated on capacity to deter:

“We had been taught as schoolchildren and it was drummed into us as young military officers that the capitalist world was united in only one aim: to destroy the Soviet Union. It was not difficult for me to believe that the United States would use any conceivable weapon against us, and that our own survival depended on matching their duplicity.

A similar form of logic appears to have been applied by some scientist in the Manhattan Project, which several participants seemingly justified participation in on the basis that the “Nazi regime was the epitome of evil, and Germany might win the war and then dominate the world if it developed an atomic bomb first” (Marvin M. Miller (2002) “From Haber to Heisenberg and Beyond: The Role of Scientists in the Acquisition of  WMD”, CNS BRIEFING SERIES, March 26, 2002). Such sentiments certainly appear to have been influential upon Sir Josef Rotblatt, who joined the Manhattan Project, after deciding “the only way to stop Hitler from making an atomic bomb was to make sure the Allies could threaten retaliation in kind”. After realising that Hitler was far from achieving a nuclear weapons Rotblatt subsequently left the project for moral reasons and became deeply involved in the global campaign to eliminate nuclear weapons, later winning the Nobel peace prize jointly with the Pugwash organisations in 1995 for  “diminish[ing] the part played by nuclear arms in international politics and in the long run to eliminate such arms.” This latter point is particularly salient as it further illustrate the relationship between context and ethics; specifically the fact that changes in context are likely to influence what are fluid ethical frameworks.

There are thus limits to the utility of ethics as a standalone measure in seeking to respond to the challenge of biological weapons in the 21st Century and more ‘ethics’ is not necessarily better. Yet at the same time engaging scientist in a broader ethical discourse and inculcating life science students with an appreciation of the longstanding and cross cultural -if not always effect- moral opprobrium on the development, production and use of disease in warfare should not be overlooked as part of the web of prevention. Indeed, despite its failures and limitations, an understanding of biological warfare as somehow repugnant and subject to a taboo can be seen as reinforcing a moral baseline   and, in conjunction with greater awareness of legislative and regulatory measure – which are comparatively less flexible to changing context – can be seen as providing the tools to recognise and respond in a more informed manner, to dual use issues.