Ethics and weapons of mass destruction

Unsurprisingly, my review of Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb generated a discussion on the ethics of the United States using such bombs on Japan in 1945.

In the same book, a moral question with some similar characteristics comes up. Describing the American attack on Iwo Jima, Rhodes explains:

Washington secretly considered sanitizing the island with artillery shells loaded with poison gas lobbed in by ships standing well offshore; the proposal reached the White House by Roosevelt curtly vetoed it. It might have saved thousands of lives and hastened the surrender – arguments used to justify most of the mass slaughters of the Second Worlld War, and neither the United States nor Japan had signed the Geneva Convention prohibiting such use – but Roosevelt presumably remembered the world outcry that followed German introduction of poison gas in the First World War and decided to leave the sanitizing of Iwo Jima to the U.S. Marines.

In the end, 6,821 American marines were killed and 21,865 were injured. 20,000 Japanese troops died, with 1,083 ultimately surrendering.

I presume most readers think the use of poison gas would have been more immoral than attacking with Marines, despite how similar numbers of Japanese troops would likely have been killed in either case. What I am curious about is the reasoning. Is the use of certain kinds of weapons fundamentally unacceptable, regardless of the consequences of their use or non-use? Or would using poison gas on Iwo Jima have established a harmful precedent that would have caused greater suffering later? Or is there some other justification?

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

9 thoughts on “Ethics and weapons of mass destruction”

  1. I don’t think the use of any means of violence is fundamentally unacceptable, but I also think every means of violence is unacceptable when there is a non-violent alternative.

  2. Obviously, it is always better to accomplish a set aim without the use of violence, rather than through its use.

    That being said, there may well be situations in which using violence is less bad than the alternative. A simple example would be disabling or killing someone who is randomly firing into a crowd of civilians.

    At some point, the degree of difference between the outcome that can be produced through violence and the best outcome possible through non-violent means may be sufficient to justify the use of force.

  3. There are purposes of law that go beyond immediate utilitarian considerations. If you want, you can say they exist for something like long-term utilitarian considerations, but in fact what they exist as are norms which, without, appropriate social and foreign relations can easily break down leading to chaos. For that reasons, norms or rules themselves can be very strong reasons for not using certain weapons or certain interrogation techniques. Breaking a norm reflects back on the one who breaks it in the same way as establishing a norm reflects back on the one who establishes it.

  4. Sure – but the consequences of breaking a law can include that law’s degeneration, both in yourself and in others. The consequences of the degeneration of both specific laws and law in general needs therefore be considered as possible negative consequences of breaking a law. Even if you break a law to do what you are entirely certain to be the “right thing”, other wrong things might be done as a result of you breaking the law. Martin Luther King Jr. knew this, so did Aquinas, so did Hegel, so do every contemporary natural-law theorist I know of. Positive-law theorists don’t have much to say about the immoral consequences of breaking laws, simply because they don’t have much to say about morality in general.

  5. The consequences of the degeneration of both specific laws and law in general needs therefore be considered as possible negative consequences of breaking a law.

    I agree. Civil disobedience only really makes sense when it serves an important purpose.

  6. This logic applies equally to civil disobedience as it does to those who commit torture or agression or genocide with “good intentions”.

  7. It’s hard to see how the overall outcome with torture or genocide could be better than the overall outcome without those things.

    By contrast, peacefully violating unjust laws can be appropriately motivated by quite a range of injustices.

  8. The taboo became even stronger after the second world war, in which they were used only by Japan. Their special status ensured that political leaders got involved in discussions about their use, and not all shared Churchill’s view that ethical prohibitions were “simply a question of fashion”. A strong military case was made for the use of gas before America’s attack on the island of Iwo Jima; Japanese defenders in caves and tunnels would have been particularly vulnerable. Franklin Roosevelt rejected the idea.

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