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The artists, writers and poets who witnessed World War I aside, why is there

The artists, writers and poets who witnessed World War I aside, why is there such an aversion to chemical weapons? Don't 'conventional' weapons kill people just as dead? Are chemical weapons more inherently immoral than conventional weapons?

I don't know much about weapons of war, so I can't be confident of the details here, but consider this thought.

Suppose an army has a choice between two kinds of weapons. The two are equally lethal, but one kills quickly while the other leads to a slow, painful death. That seems to be a good moral reason for using the first rather than the second. The enemy soldiers will be just as dead, to use your phrase, but the world will have been spared some suffering. The chemical weapons that those World War I poets wrote about—mustard gas, for example—were so horrifying precisely because they killed so slowly and so painfully.

I take it that's the reason (or at least one reason) for treating chemical weapons differently from bombs and guns. And on the face of it, it seems like a pretty good one.

Commentators on the Holocaust often refer to the oft cited justification "just

Commentators on the Holocaust often refer to the oft cited justification "just following orders" as a paltry excuse. But given that "just following orders" can often mean that a person must choose to follow orders or face legal consequences or death isn't that a pretty good excuse? We generally don't judge a person who is acting under duress in the same way as someone who isn't. Maybe when commentators reference this phrase they are only citing the most egregious cases where it was used, but I can't help but feel that these commentators are glossing over the moral complexity involved in cases where a person is said to be "following orders".

It is certainly true that moral philosophers recognize that people who are in receipt of orders are operating under duress, and this may play some part in excusing their behavior. The fact that one is under duress does not necessarily excuse everything that is done, though. The evidence of what happened in the Holocaust suggests that people who did not want to carry out the various atrocities that went on did not suffer as a consequence. In fact, most of the participants were enthusiastic and profited directly from their cruel conduct.

Even where this is not the case, many would refuse to do something immoral even if the consequences are serious for the agent. Utilitarians might contemplate the balance between the pains and pleasures involved, but from the point of view of deontologists there are many situations where the fact that the agent will suffer if he or she does something evil would be irrelevant to the issue of whether they should do it or otherwise. If it is wrong you do not do it regardless of the consequences, order or no order.

If a State A attacks another State B's military apparatus knowing full well that

If a State A attacks another State B's military apparatus knowing full well that there will be civilian collateral damage, then why is it that even if State B retaliates by intentionally targeting civilians, it's terrorism?

Andrew is obviously right, but what he is proposing is actually a utilitarian basis for double effect.

My concerns about the disproportionate civilian casualties in the Israeli-Gaza

My concerns about the disproportionate civilian casualties in the Israeli-Gaza have fallen on deaf ears among my friends. "There's no moral equivalence between the two sides," they respond. "If Israel has to kill innocent civilians to get at Hamas attackers, sobeit." Their argument seems to be that Hamas is much more "evil" an entity than a self-defending Israel, but I am not certain that Israel did enough to mitigate those civilian casualties. That "moral equivalence" argument seems like a rhetorical hand-grenade that makes actual discussion impossible. Am I being soft-hearted or soft-headed when I question the morality of Israel's response to Hamas'attack? Please, if you can, point me toward sources who have addressed this question. Thanks so much. Scott F. W.

I know what you mean. There is the position that there are no circumstances at all in which one is entitled to harm the innocent, in which case both sides were wrong. Was one more wrong than the other, and if so would this sort of justify killing the innocent?

If someone is hitching a ride on the back of his grandmother's wheelchair and decides to attack me, am I entitled to resist when it might involve harm to his grandmother, who is not an assailant? What the Israelis said is that they were not trying directly to kill civilians, but like in the grandmother case, innocents were cynically put in harm's way by their assailants. That is what since the dawn of time weaker armies always try to do, since direct confrontation with the enemy would result in obliteration. Very little fuss was made of the blanket bombing of German and Japanese cities in World War Two, although in these cases civilians were directly targeted. So it is difficult to see why Israel should come under especial opprobrium for resisting assault from civilian areas, and it is also difficult to see why their enemies should be criticized for what they did. Yes, they could have gone to an open area and fought, and that would have involved a rapid, albeit perhaps more noble, death.

You are not being either soft-hearted or soft-headed on this issue, but you do need to ask why you think it is wrong to harm civilians if that is the only way to defeat the enemy in war.Let's assume that both sides have good arguments for what they do, which is often the case, and examine what should be done when they both attack civilians. Hamas after all sent off rockets directly against civilian areas, with no pretense of attacking military units. If you think as I suppose most people do that one has the right to defend oneself in war, then civilians are always going to be in the way, however much that is officially regretted.

In war, is it worse for civilians to be killed than soldiers? For example,

In war, is it worse for civilians to be killed than soldiers? For example, suppose that it's possible to attain an objective by killing a certain number of civilians, or by killing a significantly greater number of soldiers. Is the latter course preferable from an ethical standpoint, even though it involves more deaths?

Many would say that it is always wrong to kill civilians even if that would result in far less military deaths, since civilians are basically innocent and it is never right to do evil so that good may result. This is even the case if the civilians are nasty people who have nothing but hate in their hearts for the enemy, they are still civilians and as such are not ethical targets of death. That is certainly the position of international law.

For consequentialists the situation could be quite different, since the relevant question is what course of action would cause least suffering overall. A problem with such a strategy is that there is probably a horrible action that would affect the enemy to give in quicker, but just could not be considered ethically (say it was possible to murder a number of babies, for example). Another problem is that it is so difficult to work out what the balance is between civilian and military deaths, and once we start thinking in these terms it is difficult to know where to stop.

Several days ago the Syrian government began assembling “Chemical” weapons,

Several days ago the Syrian government began assembling “Chemical” weapons, which it was suspected would be used against that nation’s anti-government force, and presumably any innocent civilian bystanders. The United States Government stated that this action would “…cross a red line,” possibly forcing the direct involvement of the US into the situation. My question is; what does the “Chemical” part of it have to do with anything. How is dropping a 500 pound high explosive bomb on a school yard any more or less horrific than dropping a chemical weapon? The kids in the playground aren’t going know the difference. Does it really matter the “way” in which people are slaughtered, maimed, and terrorized in order to provoke and defend an intervention on those people’s behalf? It all seems a little disingenuous to me to tell somebody it’s OK to hit somebody else in the head with a wooden stick, but NOT OK to hit them in the head with an iron bar…. Is it possible that the 500 pounder is seen as more humane? If...

Very compelling question. I see your point, but will try my best in response. Probably a panelist should reply who has more first-hand experience in this area (I have not yet killed anyone with chemical agents, wooden sticks, iron bars, and such), but I suspect that what makes some weapons such as chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons of special concern is that they are both more difficult to control (and hence more likely than conventional weapons for indiscriminate damage / harm) and they are part of a family of weapons that puts one on a slippery slope. So, for example, if North Korea launched a preemptive strike against the South, and the USA and South Korea in response used a small, contained nuclear bomb launched with great precision against the invaders and avoided any civilian casualties, this would open the door for the North to use a not-so-small nuclear weapon, perhaps going after civilian as well as military targets. There is another reason that may come into play: as odd as it may sound, I think there is a long-standing, sound tradition about honorable and dishonorable ways of fighting. The oldest poem in the west, the Iliad, records a repudiation of Odysseus who wanted to put poison on his arrows: this was deemed unfitting or wrong. In an important essay on war and massacre published during the Viet Nam War, Thomas Nagel argued (I believe cogently) that there are certain ways of killing that are permissible in a just war, and certain ways that are not. He singled out flamethrowers as especially heinous. I share Nagel's position here. Whether in a case of legitimate lethal force against an individual in self-defense, or use in a war against an invading, military force, I think there are right and wrong weapons and ways of killing. So, I think it was not good that, for example, some USA soldiers in the Viet Nam War smeared their bullets in human feces. This served no military purpose and reflected a demeaning attitude toward the "enemy." (I might add, though, that I thought at the time, and still think, the war was unjust --I was a Conscientious Objector in that era, despite having two brothers who served in Viet Nam in the army.) Perhaps the reason for seeing the use of chemical weapons as a "red line" is because they are deemed inhumane.

But your main point is well taken. It does seem irrelevant whether one kills with a stick or bar; moreover the mere fact that a bomb is chemical rather than conventional is hardly consoling to someone killed on a playground (using your example). I believe that chemical weapons were actually first invented with the intention of creating weapons that would be more humane than not. And if we could come up with a non-lethal chemical weapon that would, say, make an invading army listless and bored and yet enchanted with non-violent, pacifism and the weapon would have no harmful long-term effects, this sort of thing may be hard to resist. Still, in today's world, we are dealing with lethal forces, and I suggest we should make some prohibitions. So, imagine that someone unjustly threatens me with lethal force, and the only way I can escape him killing me is by killing the aggressor, but there are two weapons I could use with equal effectiveness in self-defense: an iron bar which could be used to bring about almost instant death with minimal pain or injecting the assailant with ProStrength Drano Max Gel (resulting in internal bleeding and the person suffering a profoundly painful death), I should use the former.

Is terrorism worse than conventional warfare? My initial response is "yes," but

Is terrorism worse than conventional warfare? My initial response is "yes," but on reflection I'm not sure. A soldier's life is surely worth no less than a civilian's, so why should it be preferable that the former die instead of the latter?

I think there is a difference morally between soldiers and civilians. Of course there can be terrorist attacks on soldiers also, and often are, but soldiers are to a degree prepared to deal with violence and are appropriately equipped in material terms also. Civilians are in principle only indirectly involved in the conflict and so should not be harmed. This is even the case where the civilians are full of hatred for the cause espoused by the terrorists while soldiers are not. It is even true when attacking civilians is very effective in ending the conflict sooner. Unless we restrict who shall be harmed in a conflict then potentially anyone could be harmed and this is immoral.

Is war inevitable? Since war, like murder, has been historically unavoidable, is

Is war inevitable? Since war, like murder, has been historically unavoidable, is war something to be accepted, anticipated, and dealt with as a fact of human nature? Or is war is becoming less frequent and less destructive globally, suggesting it is more natural to cooperate than fight for self-interest. I distinguish between local ad hoc conflict between individuals (you took my sandwich) and small groups (y'all took our sandwiches), not under consideration here. I am talking about extended, global, fatal combat between states and beliefs. A second question inevitably follows: does the development of military power inhibit war or invite it? I suppose your answer will clarify when war is war and when it is not quite war.

An excellent question! You are right to distinguish individual conflict from war. War seems to involve impersonal collaborative lethal conflict, though sometimes the definition of war is stretched to include a state of affairs when two communities (nation-states, cities, empires, tribes...) have declared war and so there might be a war even if the two or more sides never get around to do any actual killing. In any case, you are correct that war is not merely (though perhaps the word "merely" is not the best to use!) a matter of individual stealing or murder. Insofar as your question is more empirical than philosophical, it seems that one can make a pretty good historical argument that war is virtually inevitable. The latest thinking is that warfare probably came about approximately when we developed agriculture (on the theory that hunters and gatherers may fight as groups, but there was not quite the pressure to protect land in the absence of farms and (with surplus agriculture) you can get cities and have armies and have more motives to attack others or defend yourself. I believe (though I may be off a century or two) that the current, best attested case of when there was probably a war was 12,000BCE (that is, this is the oldest date of when there is evidence of the oldest war). There is a mass grave (cemetery 117) in Egypt in which there are 59 bodies of both genders, all ages, and all with signs of wounds which would probably be fatal. The thesis is that the most likely explanation is a mass attack by a hostile group (and thus this is not a case of individual struggle). So, empirically it seems we have had war for 14,000 years of human history, and this is likely to continue without some kind of radical change. From time to time, we have thought that conditions have changed that would make war less likely (better and better communication, better weapons making war too costly, more trade with would-be enemies) but so far, it seems difficult to be optimistic about the end of war.

However, if you bring in a little philosophy, things might look a bit different. Some philosophies of nature (going back at least to Empedocles in the 5th century BCE) have seen human conflict as stemming from a deep conflict within the natural world itself (Empedocles wrote of the conflict between love and strife). But there are other philosophies of nature and humanity that sees the natural world (and human history) as intended for something better. Certainly, in some of the great world religions there have been claims that we human beings were made to love and care for one another and through radical compassion, we can (perhaps with God's help or grace or luck) live in a world of peace. Check out prophetic visions like Isaiah 65;17-25 (Hebrew Bible / Christian Old Testament). There is also a tradition of cosmopolitanism in philosophy, with ancient roots, but represented today (e.g. by Martha Nuusbaum) that seeks to reduce or eliminate mass violence. Perhaps the greatest modern philosopher to push for this was Kant. Check out his work on history from a cosmopolitan point of view. I believe President Wilson got the idea (ideal?) of there being a League of Nations from reading Kant. OK, the League did not work out, but it seems the UN has been doing better, and perhaps a contemporary cosmopolitan might hope a stronger UN is the answer.

You asked a specific question I have glided over: "Does the development of military power inhibit war or invite it?" I believe sometimes it does one, sometimes the other. It seems likely that having a standing army brought down the Roman Republic and caused a bloody civil war, but it also seems like the USA's military power prevented the cold war with the USSR from going hot (slang for overt, direct violence, as opposed to fighting through proxy parties, etc). You have presented your fascinating question to philosophy panelists, not military generals, so forgive me if I try a more philosophical reply in closing. I suggest that the more a culture cultivates the ideal of a warrior as hero, and perhaps as the culture's greatest hero for, after all, the warrior is prepared to pay the ultimate price for his or her community, then the more likely it is that we will use our warriors (whether in war or black ops). Please don't get me wrong here: I think that the military is and certainly can be an honorable calling / vocation, and there are soldier heroes. But there are also heroic fire fighters, police, doctors and nurses, teachers, scientists, artists, civil rights workers, farmers, miners, cab drivers.... I think that one way we might inhibit the attractiveness of going to war (and there is evidence that many Europeans, including the youth, welcomed the outbreak of what we call world war I) is by seeing the virtues and greatness of a warrior alongside of other great vocations, including the vocation to do philosophy and try to love wisdom.

Sorry the reply is so long, but your question(s) are fascinating and important. I might add one more observation, though this is more about British and American culture rather than global. I believe that so-called "liberals" tend to think war is avoidable and so-called "conservatives" tend to think war is inevitable. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, I suggest. If you think something is inevitable (racism, say) you may be less aggressive in trying to eradicate it. But if you think something can be solved easily, you can wind up living on false hopes and be utterly unprepared to reply to aggression. So perhaps we should aim for a middle path?

Good wishes in further reflection on this...

I've been reading about the attempts of the US and other western nations to

I've been reading about the attempts of the US and other western nations to dissuade Iran from its nuclear program. On what grounds might a country that maintains nuclear arms insist that other countries not acquire such arms themselves?

I suppose the argument would be that Iran is an aggressive country that frequently threatens to destroy its enemies, while the United States is not. Whether the argument is valid depends of course on one's political point of view, but that is the general approach, it seems to me.

Are the American Soldiers at Abu Ghraib responsible for their actions, and

Are the American Soldiers at Abu Ghraib responsible for their actions, and should they be considered the 'evil wrongdoers' they were made out to be.

I find it hard to see why anyone would suggest they are not responsible at all for their actions. But surely it is a good question whether they alone are responsible for their actions. And here, of course, the controversy becomes political. Did "higher-ups" issue orders that were tantamount to suggesting that such abuse would be tolerated or even welcome? Did the "higher-ups" turn a blind eye to what was happening and fail to supervise the prison properly, perhaps intentionally, so as to distance themselves from what they knew was likely to happen? This latter responsibility, for oversight, is particularly important, since we know, from the Stanford prison experiment and the classic work by Stanley Milgram, that otherwise decent human beings, when subjected to the right sorts of stresses, will do almost arbitrarily horrendous things to one another.

Finally, then, one might ask whether what we know from these experiments does to some extent excuse the behavior of the soldiers at Abu Ghraib, that is, reduce their responsibility. This is a very hard question, and I am not qualified even to try to answer it. I will say, however, that I recently heard an excellent paper by Gideon Rosen on this very topic---not on Abu Ghraib specifically, but on the moral implications of the Milgram experiments. The paper doesn't seem to be available anywhere yet, but one day....