Saturday, September 12, 2009

Dando on the moral responsibility of scientists

Malcolm Dando has an Opinion piece in the 20 August 2009 issue of Nature ("Biologists napping while work militarized") arguing that new biological non-lethal weapons are being developed and the developers are not addressing the ethical issues that they generate. He opines that that "all use of novel non-lethal agents such as fentanyl for law enforcement should be prohibited, or at least heavily restricted." We must do this lest we head down a slippery slope toward the militarization of biology, including the intentional manipulation of peoples' emotions, memories, immune responses, or fertility. (More on fentanyl shortly.)

Let us ignore the fact that this argument, by its own admission, is a slippery slope argument, and see to the main points of the piece. First, and this is rapidly becoming a pet peeve of mine, it seems like there is a rapidly growing consensus that unlike the rest of philosophy, the last place you want to look for military ethics is the military. The article's main point, or one of them at least, is that "the lack of engagement with [the issue of the development of non-lethal weapons] among life scientists is alarming." The assumption Dando makes, as best I can tell, is that scientists have a particularly special moral obligation to be introspective about the uses to which their creations can be put. Moreover, they have some particular insight about how to address these ethical problems. Without this assumption, this is a general ethical problem that ought to be solved the same way society solves all its other ethical problems, and the scientists' job is superfluous.

If his assumption is correct however, then one can just as easily draw the conclusion that those with the most insight into this topic (i.e., the scientists) simply don't see the issue as worth engaging, and perhaps the mere fact that they are developing these weapons reflects the fact that they have no moral qualms about it, and Dando is in the minority in seeing a moral problem. After all, the scientists are not working on new ways to randomly torture people; because if they were and not engaging that, then we would be able to say that they are being morally negligent. But Dando assumes that they are morally able and responsible enough to engage a moral issue as they create them. Yet they do not.

I am also curious to know if Dando finds it alarming that the average designer of conventional weapons is not engaged with the moral issues facing the ways their products may be used or misused. If he does not, why the disparity between conventional and non-conventional weapons? Have all the ethical issues about conventional weapons been solved? Does he not trust the engineers who make conventional weapons? If so, why not trust them to be moral experts?

Finally, the piece does not do a particularly good job of giving us any reasons or arguments for why these new weapons are bad (beside for the possible slippery slope mentioned above). The slippery slope that the militarization of biology is said to be sliding own sounds like an urban rumor (with particularly nasty origins) that circulates from time to time: The US is poisoning the wells or putting something in the water to make our villagers impotent or sick, etc.

Dando does take a paragraph to refute the idea that advocates of the argument put forth - to wit that these weapons are often used to minimize the amount of people being killed. He refutes it by claiming that "historical evidence suggests otherwise". What historical evidence? In the Nort-Ort seige where the Russians used fentanyl to sedate Chechen terrorists who held about 800 hostages in a Moscow theater, the terrorists were ultimately shot dead instead of arrested. Second, when the US used CS "tear gas" to flush the Viet Cong out of their hiding places, they generally did so to increase the effectiveness of their conventional weapons, thus increasing the body count, not decreasing it.

But first, the chemicals in the examples (CS gas and fentanyl) are a) hardly similar to the biological agents he claims are now being developed; b) in the case of fentanyl, not particularly good, as the gas killed over 100 hostages in the process. Thus this is an argument for better non-lethal weapons and better training on how to use them. c) A primary goal of any law enforcement or military agency is to minimize loss of life of your own people, not the enemy. And finally, the better your weapons are, even the non-lethal ones, the stronger the disincentive to fight against you. In the long run that should save lives. Minimizing the loss of life is a long-term goal, not one that is measured by a few incidents describing where people were killed. We also have no reason to assume that more lives were lost using these approaches than the alternative. A post-hoc utilitarian analysis requires a discussion of the counterfactual case where we examine what happened versus what the alternative was. We are given no such thing in the article, and there is no prima facie reason to believe that the fewer people would have been saved by a conventional rescue of the Nord-Ost Theater. Thirty Nine of the forty to fifty Chechen terrorists were killed. Without the fentanyl (if that is what it really was) how many hostages could the terrorists have killed? 300? 400? More? Without the CS gas, would the VC have killed more US troops? Would we have resorted to other more deadly tactics? Did the US get more prisoners using CS gas that generated useful life-saving intelligence than we would not have had otherwise? These must be considered in any ethical analysis.

In general, scientists should be giving us options, politicians make the decisions, hopefully with the consent of the peoples they govern, and it is the job of intellectuals to inform the discussion. Scientists like Feynman and Oppenheimer all said after they created the first atomic bomb that they were involved int he project because of the technical challenge and only later did they consider the ethical repercussions of their actions. However, their discussions of the reasons behind their backpedaling are generally woefully inadequate as compared to the magnitude of the weapons they created. And this is fine. Scientists are entitled to their conscience and their opinions. But like any public intellectual, they have a responsibility to give us reasons and justification, not just their remorse couched as a philosophical treatise.

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