A Philosopher's Blog

Chemical Weapons & Ethics Revisited

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on April 7, 2017

When Obama was president, the “red line” he drew for the Syrian regime was the use of weapons of mass destruction, specifically chemical weapons. President Trump has also embraced the red line, asserting that Syria has gone “beyond a red line” with its recent use of chemical weapons. Trump has said that this attack changed his attitude towards Syria and Assad. Presumably the slaughter of civilians with conventional weapons did not cross the red line or impact his attitude very strongly. Those of a cynical bent might contend that the distinction between conventional and chemical weapons is accepted because it grants politicians the space needed to tolerate slaughter while being able to create the appearance of a moral stance. This moral stance is, of course, the condemnation of chemical weapons.

As I wrote in 2013, this red line policy involving chemical weapons seems to 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.” This leads to the question I addressed then, which is the question of whether chemical weapons are morally worse than conventional weapons.

Chemical weapons are clearly perceived as being worse than conventional weapons and their use in Syria has resulted in a level of outrage that the conventional killing has not. Some of the reasons for this perception are rooted in history.

World War I one saw the first large scale deployment of chemical weapons. 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 helped establish the feeling that chemical weapons are especially horrific and worse than conventional weapons.

There is also the ancient view that the use of poison is inherently evil or at least cowardly. After all, poison allows one to kill in secret and without taking the risk of facing an opponent in combat. In historical accounts and in fiction, poisoners are typically cast as villains. One excellent example of this is the use of poison in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. 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 morally acceptable or even heroic. This view of poison as cowardly and evil seems to have infected the view of chemical weapons. This makes sense given that they are poisons.

Finally, there is the association of poison gas with the Nazi concentration camps. This connection has served to cement the connection of chemical weapons with evil. While these explanations are psychological interesting, they do not resolve the question of whether chemical weapons are morally worse than conventional weapons. It is to this issue that I now turn.

One good reason to regard chemical weapons as worse than conventional weapons is that they typically do not merely kill—they inflict terrible suffering. The basis of the difference is the principle that while killing is morally wrong, the method of killing is morally relevant to its wrongness. As such, the greater suffering inflicted by chemical weapons makes them morally worse than conventional weapons.

There are three counters to this. The first is that conventional weapons, such as bombs and artillery, can inflict horrific wounds matching the suffering inflicted by chemical weapons.

The second is that chemical weapons can be designed so that they kill quickly and with minimal suffering. An analogy can be drawn to capital punishment: lethal injection is regarded as morally superior to more conventional modes of execution such as hanging and firing squad. If the moral distinction is based on the suffering of the targets, then these chemical weapons would be morally superior to conventional weapons. Horrific chemical weapons would, of course, be worse than less horrific conventional (or chemical) weapons. As such, being a chemical weapon does not make a weapon worse, the suffering it inflicts is what matters morally.

The third is that wrongfully harming people with conventional weapons is still evil. Even if it is assumed that chemical weapons are worse in terms of the suffering they cause, the moral red line should be the killing of people rather than killing them with chemical weapons. This is because the distinction between not killing people and killing them is greater than the distinction between killing people with conventional weapons and killing them with chemical weapons. For example, having soldiers kill everyone in a village using their rifles seems to be as morally wrong as using poison gas to kill everyone. The result is the same: mass murder.

In addition to supposedly causing more suffering than conventional weapons, chemical weapons are said to be worse because they are often indiscriminate and persistent.  For example, a chemical weapon deployed as a gas can easily drift and spread into areas outside of the desired target and remain dangerous for some time after the initial attack. As such, chemical weapons are worse than conventional weapons because they harm and kill those who were not the intended targets.

The obvious counter to his is to note that conventional weapons can also be indiscriminate or persistent. While bombs and artillery shells are accurate, they do still result in unintended causalities. They can also be used indiscriminately. Land mines present an excellent example of a conventional weapon that is both indiscriminate and persistent. Chemical weapons could be designed to have the same level of discrimination as conventional area-of-effect weapons (like bombs) and to be non-persistent (losing lethality rapidly). As such, it is discrimination and persistence that matter rather than the composition of the weapon.

While specific chemical weapons are worse than specific conventional weapons, chemical weapons are not inherently morally worse than conventional weapons. In fact, the claim of a moral distinction between conventional and chemical weapons can have terrible consequences: it allows a moral space in which to tolerate murder while maintaining the delusion of taking a meaningful moral stance.

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14 Responses

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  1. ronster12012 said, on April 7, 2017 at 9:02 am

    Michael

    Before we need to argue about the morality of alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria we should actually ascertain whether in fact this occurred, and if it did, who is responsible. Is there any reason to accept at face value any statement by any US politician(except for Ron Paul)?I would say not…therefore we should look and find the truth of the matter,no? Alleged ‘gas attacks’ , particularly against women and children are great for propaganda value as they tug at most normie’s heart strings and thus gain consent for what TPTB want to do. In this case overthrow Assad on behalf of Saudi, Qatar(both want a gas pipeline to Europe through Syria and to cut Iran out)Israel (Yinon plan for expansion of Israel and destabilization of surrounding countries) and the US/UK because they are Israel and the Saudis bitches…

    One reason for my scepticism is the fact that the Syrian government has no need to use CWs, since they are currently winning against ISIS/Al CIAda/Al Nusra etc and it would be absolute stupidity to use them and give the US a pretext to attack them. Therefore it is most likely a false flag or terrorist attack. If they were stupid enough to actually use them they would have been way to stupid to have survived against US/Saudi/Israel sponsored ISIS till now.

    ……………………………………………………………………………………
    “In addition to supposedly causing more suffering than conventional weapons, chemical weapons are said to be worse because they are often indiscriminate and persistent. ”
    ……………………………………………………………………………………

    What about all the depleted uranium that the US has spread throughout Iraq? It is persistant and deadly too but is old news so should we just move on?

    ……………………………………………………………………………………
    “Finally, there is the association of poison gas with the Nazi concentration camps. This connection has served to cement the connection of chemical weapons with evil. ”
    ……………………………………………………………………………………

    Associated yes, but only in a propaganda sense. Just show me one incontrovertible Nazi gas chamber, I dare you…Protip…don’t try bringing up Auschwitz as that ‘gas chamber’ has been readily acknowledged to be a post war Soviet construction for almost 30 years.

    • TJB said, on April 8, 2017 at 11:46 am

      One reason for my scepticism is the fact that the Syrian government has no need to use CWs, since they are currently winning against ISIS/Al CIAda/Al Nusra etc and it would be absolute stupidity to use them and give the US a pretext to attack them.

      I’ve been wondering about this, too. All I could come up with is that they wanted to test Trump.

      Of course we could also have been duped by a false flag operation. Not really surprising, given that our intelligence agencies seem more focused on domestic politics than on threats to the nation.

      • ronster12012 said, on April 8, 2017 at 10:50 pm

        TJB

        It seems that ISIS and AlQaeda are very happy about the attack and are praising Trump.

        http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2017-04-07/isis-al-qaeda-praise-trumps-attack Hey, how can anyone not be best pleased with praise like that?lol…

        Make of this what you will, but at least one report says that Syrian personnel and equipment were evacuated from the airbase prior to the cruise missile attack……so is this all just theatre? We are probably at least ten levels away from the real game.

        https://sputniknews.com/middleeast/201704071052385769-syrian-airport-evacuated-prior-missile-attack/

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 10, 2017 at 6:06 pm

        That is an interesting hypothesis. I would think the Russians would want to avoid provoking Trump in Syria; but perhaps (as you say) they wanted to see how he would react.

        It is certainly possible this was a set up; bu Syria has used chemical weapons before.

        • ronster12012 said, on April 14, 2017 at 8:36 am

          Michael

          Syria has been accused of using chemical weapons before, but didn’t it turn out to have been used by ISIS?
          Sooooo, what are the chances that they might do it again?Just askin’…

          http://www.globalresearch.ca/syria-un-mission-report-confirms-that-opposition-rebels-used-chemical-weapons-against-civilians-and-government-forces/5363139

          What I want to know is why anyone at all accepts govcorp bullshit at face value, given the number of times we have been lied to. There is something truly weird about large numbers of people lapping this nonsense up….how many times do they have to be lied to before they stop for a single minute and ask some pertinent(and some impertinent ones too) questions, ie. who benefits, who has lied to us before, who has a motive to lie again, what agendas are in play, who are the players and their motives etc??

          And one other thing regarding mass psychology. Why do large numbers of people not bat an eyelid when it turns out that the State Department admitted that Al Qaeda is on the US side, as per wikileaks email…
          https://wikileaks.org/clinton-emails/emailid/23225#efmAGIAHu ???? Supposedly the group that did a bit of lower Manhattan redecorating a decade and a half ago and to which the so-called “Global War on Terror” was dedicated to eliminating, is now on the same side as the US? And no one actually (besides Ron Paul and a couple of others) has a public WTF moment?? Perhaps with this level of gullibility none of us deserve to be told the truth about anything as it appears we are too happy to live in fantasy land.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 14, 2017 at 3:24 pm

            Could be ISIS; but was most likely the Syrian government. In any case, the government is killing civilians.

  2. TJB said, on April 8, 2017 at 11:54 am

    In general, force should be directed against military targets, and there should be efforts made to minimize collateral damage. Chemical weapons are useless against military targets and mainly just kill civilians.

    I think any weapon whose primary purpose is to kill civilians should be banned.

    • WTP said, on April 8, 2017 at 2:54 pm

      I think any weapon whose primary purpose is to kill civilians should be banned.

      This thing about “banning” weapons…who does the banning? In order to “ban” them you must have a superior force to that of those willing to use them AND you must have the will to use that force to enforce the ban. Who does that?

      • TJB said, on April 10, 2017 at 9:37 am

        Obviously, it is not possible to enforce the ban. But we can at least make a sternly worded speech at the UN.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 10, 2017 at 6:12 pm

          WWII showed that warring nations can agree to abide by weapon restrictions. Punitive steps can also be taken against weaker nations that break the rules-as happened to Syria. But banning weapons is currently not possible.

          • wtp said, on April 10, 2017 at 8:08 pm

            Yes. The bans were the reasons chemical weapons were not used in WWII. Must have been. Excepting the Japanese use of such in China. Gosh darn it if we had only banned genocide, think of the lives that could have been saved. And civilian casualties. And hiding among civilians, out of uniform. Should have banned that too. And dum-dums. No dum-dums. And exploding projectiles of less than 400 grams. All banned. Good it did, mm-hmm.

          • WTP said, on April 14, 2017 at 6:43 pm

            Mike’s comment is now even more amusing in the context of the heat Sean Spicer just took. But it’s all good ’cause Mike’s a leftist. As much as he denies it. You’re sooooo cute Mikey Boi.

        • wtp said, on April 10, 2017 at 8:37 pm

          To TJ’s point, there is some effect of expressing moral outrage. If those nations who cross a line that has been clearly expressed are fairly certain doing so will bring further action against them by a far more powerful adversary or will bring that otherwise non-belligerent adversary into the conflict, not using such weapons is likely in their best interest and thus they will refrain. But the moral outrage, etc. is pointless unless there is genuine fear of such a reprisal. A non-conforming nation, especially when it feels it has nothing left to lose, may go ahead and cross that line if they think they can get away with it. So far, Assad has.

  3. ajmacdonaldjr said, on April 8, 2017 at 4:51 pm

    Same chemicals believed to have been used in Syrian attack being stored at army depot

    RICHMOND, Ky. (WKYT) – The chemicals believed to have been used in the Syrian attack are the same type stored at the Bluegrass Army Depot.

    Sarin is one of several toxins stored at the Bluegrass Army Depot. Those chemical weapons are scheduled to be neutralized in the coming years.

    As word of the attack spread across the world, members of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons were in Madison County touring the depot.

    That group is part of a global effort to rid the world of chemical weapons, and includes a treaty that Syria signed off on.

    Craig Williams, the director of the Kentucky Environmental Foundation’s Chemical Weapons Working Group, says they’ve been working with the military as they plan the disposal of those chemicals.

    The original plans included incinerating many of those chemical weapons, but that project was scrapped after there was an outcry about those toxins being burned.

    Williams says the plan is to neutralize and destroy those chemicals by 2023.

    Source: Same chemicals believed to have been used in Syrian attack being stored at army depot http://www.wkyt.com/content/news/Same-chemicals-belived-to-have-been-used-in-Syrian-attack-being-stored-at-army-depot–418679973.html


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