Protecting Noncombatants from Biological Weapons:

The Rights and Obligations of States




Michael W. Brough

Captain, Engineers

Assistant Professor

Department of English

United States Military Academy




At the outset of the 21st Century, Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) occupy an important position on a listing of global concerns, and the threat is of a new kind, despite its subsequence to the Cold War’s arms race.  The Cold War’s WMD, though frightening in their own way, were predictable in certain, strangely comforting, ways: were the worst circumstance to obtain, nuclear holocaust would issue from one of the two superpowers, the only two nuclear actors of consequence.  These superpowers were, despite occasional indications otherwise, relatively stable, and the prospect of mutually assured destruction issued an assurance that the weapons would never be used.

Biological weapons, for various reasons, comprise a matter entirely different in kind.  We include them in the useful amalgam WMD, but their differences from nuclear and chemical weapons (NW and CW, respectively) force us to consider them differently from an ethical standpoint.  Although I have just asserted that biological weapons (BW) are different in kind, I would like to first mention that they are different in one important degree, as well: although they, as NW and CW, potentially kill on huge scales, their users can do so with considerably less control than users of the former.  A bullet is quite controllable: a soldier directs a rifle toward a properly-identified fellow combatant, then squeezes the trigger, and in this process the probability of noncombatant casualties is low.  High-trajectory artillery is less immediately discriminate, as artillerists kill targets they have not personally seen, but rely on the reports of  military spotters.  The international community has banned the even more indiscriminant antipersonnel landmine because it can remain potent to noncombatants for decades after a conflict’s resolution.  Because they possess the possibilities of mass destruction, some instantiations of WMD constitute examples of indiscriminative weapons, but WMD need not always lack the ability to discriminate (reasonably well) between combatants and noncombatants.  Small nuclear weapons that pose little immediate threat to noncombatants are not simply logically conceivable, but also scientifically attainable; their use could be militarily feasible, as well.  Quickly dissipating, finely targeted poison gas might, too, find its way to become, in some uses, a relatively discriminative weapon.[1]  The users of BW, however, cannot discriminate between combatants and noncombatants in the important ways that users of NW and CW might, for germs persist and can spread unpredictably, and even the most delicate, deliberate introduction of a pathogen on the battlefield could find its way to civilian population centers.  It is true that in some ways, BW have the potential in the weapons themselves to be more discriminative, as ongoing genetic research reveals the keys to crafting germs that only affect certain genetic strains, so that, say, the soldiers of a certain ethnicity fall victim to the agent while those of another are immune.  Of course, since such discrimination has nothing to do with the combatant-noncombatant distinction, it is irrelevant (and, in important ways, all the more repugnant).

To explain a central problem with biological weapons: when a nuclear or chemical attack hits, casualties amass immediately as a result of what I will call the weapon’s primary thrust—the firestorm of a nuclear blast or the inhalation of a pulmonary agent, for example.  After this, other death and suffering may occur, too, as delayed effects of the NW or CW attack, but they occur secondarily to the primary thrust, and as they continue, discussion of limiting the primary thrust’s effects is moot, as those effects have already been realized.  A nuclear attack may, for example, result in environmental degradation, but that is not its primary thrust.  BW, however, can create lingering effects that are identical to—in fact, are—their primary thrust.  That individuals sicken is a BW’s intended consequence, and whether they sicken one day after introduction of the biological agent or years after, the user’s attack on the individual victim is equally as ferocious.[2]  The virulence and unpredictability of these weapons make the prospect of their use particularly horrific.

But, while I claim a difference in degree (of possible target discrimination) between BW and the other two constituents of WMD, there are significant differences in kind.  A salient one concerns the prevention or containment of the deleterious result.  There exists no immunization against a nuclear weapon’s incendiary effect, and aside from, for example, potassium bromide for the preservation of the thyroid, little can be done against the radioactive effect, either.  Lead-lined, subterranean lairs might be adequate to mitigate most nuclear effects, but feasibility dictates that defensive preparations thus far have focused on diplomacy and intercepting the missiles in their aerial path to the target (though of course feasibility here, too, has been questioned).  The only real hope of defense is to keep such weapons out of our airspace to begin with.  Chemical weapons are slightly different: there is prevention after touchdown, and it comes now in the form of physical prophylaxis:  personal protective masks and suits or sealed vehicles or buildings.  The use of such items, which is obviously contingent on their possession, determines individual fates in a CW attack.  BW are different from these other two, though.  Where there is no vaccine for nuclear or chemical attack, there are or can be inoculations for some BW (the US orders anthrax vaccinations for its military, for example), and there are, in some cases, after-contact treatments such as antibiotics.  In other words, even if we might not be able to prevent a BW attack (through diplomacy or by intercepting the BW itself before its use), we might still be able to effectively treat its victims; perhaps even better, prospective victims could be protected from the BW prior to attack.  

The difference in workable approaches to defense against the varieties of WMD leads to what, for my purposes, is a crucial ethical difference: that the research that results in the defenses against BW is identical to the research that results in new biological weapons themselves.  I will elaborate on this important facet of BW defense elsewhere in the paper, but I wish to manifest the importance of the topic here: if the same biological research has the potential for both defensive and offensive use, what are the rights of states today?  Do the BW-posed dangers to other states trump the cause of populace protection, or does the obligation of a state to protect its citizens overpower the concerns for neighboring states’ self-protection and more general worries of BW proliferation?


The Rules Today

            The extant international rule on BW research is found in Article 1 of the  Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) of 1972:

Each State Party to this Convention undertakes never in any circumstances to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain:
(1) Microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes;
(2) Weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict.[3]

The straightforward wording of the BWC belies the complications of BW research.  The components of BW research have been popularly called dual use, and the term dual use itself seems to be used in two ways.  First, almost all of the equipment required to research and create offensive BW is the same equipment that is required for research for purely benevolent purposes that have nothing at all to do with BW (developing vaccines for non-BW sicknesses, for example, or developing disease-resistant crop strains).  It is, therefore, exceedingly difficult to determine in an inspection whether a particular research facility is conducting research for an offensive military application or an utterly nonmilitary one. 

If unenforceable rules are ineffective ones, the BWC tips precariously close to ineffectiveness.  The problem is magnified by the second meaning of dual use: biological laboratories that inspections determine are engaged in biological warfare research might still be allowed under the BWC, since the BWC only forbids biological agents “that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes.”  If the agents are for defensive research (to develop better vaccines, antibiotics, or protective garments, for example), then their retention is legitimate.  The problem that this sense of dual use is even slightly worse than the first: minus a few pieces of equipment that denote offensive use (aerosolizers to distribute an airborne virus, for example, or milling machines to grind anthrax to a size that will lodge in the alveoli), the programs are identical.  Thus, an inspection regime undertaken to keep all signatories to the BWC honest threatens sterility.  Henry C. Kelly, president of the Federation of American Scientists, recently wrote that “In truth, it is possible to imagine a malicious use for virtually any biological research or production site.  The difference between a lab for producing lifesaving vaccines and one capable of making deadly toxins is largely one of intent.”[4]  Of course, intent can be notoriously difficult to judge.    

            Some lines of argument begin even prior to the BWC’s assumption that justifies defensive BW research.  According to this perspective, even purely defensive research is morally tainted, for it gives the researching state (or nonstate actor) the ability to conduct offensive BW missions while protected from the toxic agents.  As one ethicist remarked, “The development of protective clothing or other materials, monitoring devices and detection devices, and decontamination procedures is…double-edged in that all types of such activities, while ostensibly ‘purely’ defensive in nature, are in fact required to assure that any offensive attack take place under controlled conditions.  To the extent that these activities are thus tightly linked to waging biological warfare, they are also appropriately criticized.”[5] While this is a cynical view of international actors, one that assumes that they will not pursue purely defensive projects without an ulterior goal, the view is probably the appropriate one in many cases.

            Such objections have elicited responses that sought to justify bona fide defensive military biological research programs while castigating offensive BW programs.  Generally, these responses have emphasized the differences between offensive and defensive BW programs and maintained that scientists could conduct morally justified research to defend a military from enemy BW.  Michael E. Frisina, for example, assumes non-pacifism and offers the following syllogism:

1.      Those associated with the healing professions have a moral obligation to do all they can to promote health.

2.      Soldiers deploy worldwide [and] require vaccines to promote their health that…civilians do not need.

3.      Thus, defensive biological research to develop special vaccines is a pragmatic and moral necessity.[6]

I suppose I part with Frisina in his conclusion that defensive BW research is a “moral necessity,” perhaps simply because necessity is a word with multifarious definitions.  If he means the research is an obligation on the part of the body of microbiologists, then he is almost certainly wrong: when there are many compelling benevolent purposes to which they might dedicate their efforts (the AIDS pandemic, for example), then obligation is too strong a word to describe the relation between potential researchers and their potential military beneficiaries.[7]  But if Frisina means instead that there is a compelling moral case for defensive BW research to be made to microbiologists, then perhaps he is not off track, for (assuming nonpacifism) armies can do–and have done—good.[8]  Mention of the paradigmatic Allied militaries of the Second World War demonstrates this point amply. 


A Changed Threat

This paper’s thesis is broader than the one I have just covered (that which justifies defensive biological research on behalf of militaries).  For that reason, I believe it more widely acceptable, as well.  An important premise, for which I will argue, is this: rather than remaining relegated to the battlefield, the threat of biological weapons will become a serious danger to noncombatant populations worldwide.  Some believe it already is. 

History so far reveals a dirth of WMD terrorist attacks generally or terrorist attacks with biological agents in particular.  Some detractors of a biological defense program note an insignificant threat: since terrorist organizations lack the requisite skills or money for success in such endeavors, nations need not (and ought not) consider the possibility threatening.[9]  There are, however, several trends that seem relevant to determining the imminence of biological terrorism.  The first, an increase in the amount of terrorism seen worldwide, indicates at its core that a significant and continuously growing number of groups (with various motives, financial capabilities, levels of desperation, and moral inhibitions) have an interest in targeting civilian populations to achieve political change.  A second: biological weapons, at the same time, have become more plentiful and, thus, more available.  With predictable advances in genetic science, they may (and probably will) become increasingly more virulent, more persistent, more deadly, or more discriminating.  These two hastily-sketched trends, I argue, constitute a threat to civilian populations: perhaps not one that is imminent, but a threat nonetheless.[10] 

I am not sure that very many states exist in a state of danger from BW as I write this.  That, I think, will have no bearing on my argument.  If states do not currently face a serious threat to their populations, then they might not possess the rights I will detail.  The argument remains relevant, though, because the momentum toward BW terrorism (not to mention BW use by states against civilian populations) shows no indications of flagging in the future.  If states do not face a threat now, all indications are that they will in the future—perhaps ten or fifteen or fifty years hence.  I would submit that the time to discuss the issues, however, is now. 

If the claim that biological warfare by either state or nonstate actors constitutes a danger to civilian populations is true, then the issue of biological defense research takes on utterly new dimensions.  The problem is no longer one to be considered within the realm of just war theory or bioethics, but larger questions of political philosophy become relevant.  If there exists a threat to the citizens of a state, then what rights (and, subsequently, what obligations) has a state to these citizens?  I turn to this question now.

The mainstream contractarian position holds that states owe their existences to some (actual, hypothetical, or somewhere in between) consent by their citizens, and this consent is gained with the prospect of an escape from the state of nature, an existence of uncertainty, violence, and death.  As members of the state, citizens accept certain responsibilities: they may be required to obey laws, pay taxes, serve on juries, fight in defensive wars.  In return, they expect to receive certain benefits.  Chief among these is protection against enemies’ unjust action from within and without the state’s boundaries.  Other benefits (e.g., education, transportation infrastructure,  equitable wealth distribution) might be desirable, but they are subordinate to the protection of its citizens.  As Locke puts it, “The Reason why Men enter into Society, is the preservation of their Property,”[11] where Property includes for Locke the lives, liberties, and possessions of citizens.[12]  Modern contractarians echo this idea: Robert Nozick famously argues for the minimal state, and trimming the superfluous and the right-violating trappings of modern states results, for him, in a state solely performing its most fundamental function: enforcing and protecting the rights of its citizens.[13]

            Notably, one need not hold a social contract view of the state in order to agree with the idea that the protection of a state’s populace should be paramount among the state’s concerns.  A thick notion of the common good will suffice, and the Aristotelian idea of a common good will serve the general idea quite nicely.  The notion, I think, is intuitive to most, and so I will assume it and move on.


The Hitman’s Son

Plato famously compares the state to a parent in the Crito.  Philosophers have examined the dangers inherent in such an analogy, but I think it can (with some modification) instruct our exploration of the issues involved in BW research.  Because the concern about BW research regards offensive use (enabled under the pretense of defensive intent), the parent will be comparable to a state that is unconcerned about ethics in its international actions—an immoral, historically aggressive state. Take a hypothetical case of a gangster hitman who also happens to be a father.  The hitman practices a grisly vocation, killing, torturing, and threatening the enemies of his organization; his actions are crimes, and they taint his moral condition, making him (on the whole) morally repugnant.  One night (his night off from the murder that pollutes his existence), a suspicious noise awakens the hitman from a nighttime slumber.  His first thought is of his family—that an intruder might have forced a way in to hurt the hitman or his family while they sleep.  The hitman then observes through his open doorway that his fears are justified—an intruder making his way to the home’s exit carrying the hitman’s baby.  The hitman must make a quick decision at this point: he may elect to stop the kidnapping by shooting at the intruder (and the hitman’s accuracy is such that he is assured to hit his target and miss the baby), or he may choose to do nothing to defend his baby, allowing the kidnapping to continue.  Given these two choices (admittedly, a false dilemma), we should expect the hitman to stop the abduction.  Most, I think, will agree that he has a right to halt the intruder, even with a bullet.  After all, he has special obligations of care and protection to the baby, and so forth.  We might further agree that he has a duty to stop the abduction and that if he refrains from action, his inaction is immoral.

       The significant aspect of this allegory is that the hitman retains his right to protect his baby in the face of his immorality in other areas of his life.  While we might question his competency as a father based on his murderous background, as long as he remains the de facto father he retains a right to act so as to protect his child.  Furthermore, he is obligated to do so.  If a state is, vis-à-vis other states, as a person is, vis-à-vis other persons (in a state of nature), then it appears our intuitions lead us to conclude that the government of any state has the right and, moreover, the obligation to protect their charges.  The hitman’s regular practice of murder strips neither the right nor the duty from him, since his de facto guardianship accords both the right and the duty, other considerations notwithstanding.  In the same way, other considerations are irrelevant to any state’s right or obligation to protect its citizens—its metaphorical charges.

            There are disanalogies, and a seemingly-relevant one is this.  We have apparently assumed a hitman who is wicked in his professional life, but seems a dedicated, even righteous family man within his private existence.  The analogy may work in that case, but practical philosophy must take account of reality: not all states exhibit concern for their citizens.  What rights to defensive biological research do these states (like the Taliban-controlled Afghansistan) have?  To use the analogy, what rights does the hitman possess if he is a child abuser?  I think in this case, the hitman still possesses the right and obligation to protect his son.   Qua father, his primary obligation is to his son, and his past failure to fulfill this obligation does not negate the obligation itself.  To see this, image our reaction to the child abusing hitman who, seeing the kidnapper with his child, made no effort to prevent the abduction.  Certainly we feel moral outrage at the father—even one who has abused his child—who allows such a thing to occur.  One’s duty does not fade into nonexistence through habitual abrogation.

            Perhaps we should continue to challenge the analogy: what about the case where the hitman remains an abusive parent, but the intruder is not a kidnapper with malign intentions, but a rescuer?  Then, the hitman’s opposition seems unjust.  This scheme possesses a significant negative analogy, though:  BW don’t rescue, they ravage.  The “protection” the hitman offers in the story is from his child’s just rescuer.  The analogy dismantles in its transition to the international scale: a state’s BW defenses might be secondarily helpful in a war against a “rescuing” power engaged in a humanitarian intervention effort, but the primary threat the defenses address is that of BW themselves.  By preparing defenses against BW, the hitman-state does not frustrate the immediate efforts of the rescuer-state to transport the civilians to a utopia; it saves the lives of its civilian inhabitants.  Again if it does not do that (or conscientiously prepare for the danger), it violates its fundamental obligation. 

            This point becomes important when we ask what states might be able to conduct defensive biological research.  By our analogy, we arrived at both a right and an obligation for all states to defend their citizens against harm from other (invader) states.

            What difference does it make, we might ask, if the state in question brings the attack upon itself?  Let us expand this question a bit.  In spite of the conceptual possibility of a war without civilian casualties, war, realistically speaking, endangers noncombatants.[14]  What if the state in question is the aggressor nation, guilty of, as Michael Walzer puts it, the jus ad bellum crime of aggression?  It has, let us say, committed an unprovoked attack on a neighboring country from completely selfish motives.  The victim nation’s counterattack retains a prima facie jus ad bellum justification; the initial aggression legitimizes a violent reaction to aggression in order to cease it and to right the incurred injustice.  Consistent with the extant war convention, the victim state may fight into the aggressor state’s territory and amongst its people as the war continues: there is typically no broad geographical restriction against fighting within the two states’ boundaries.  So, we may assume the possibility that any aggressor state’s aggression endangers its own populace indirectly.  Not all victims of crimes fight in accordance with the law, and it is possible, too, that certain victim states would violate the war convention—the jus in bello rules the international community has adopted for humanitarian purposes.  The breaches might include violations of human rights, which remain crimes of war, even though they were invited by the aggressor.  They also constitute challenges to the guardianship of the state—it is, in times of both war and peace, the protector of its citizens, and it owes its citizens an honest attempt to protect them from extra-state perils (we might agree that states equally owe their citizens efforts to defend them from intra-state dangers, like disease, natural distaster, and crime, as well).  If the aggressor state owes a defensive attempt to its citizens, then it cannot be forbidden for it to defend its citizens in war—or, for that matter, against peacetime threats, as well.  The protection the state gives may take many different forms, but we are prone (justifiedly, I think) to view unfavorably the state that abdicates its role as protector of its people.

            If, in the face of some perceivable threats, a state (even a historically aggressive state) refuses to take steps to protect those in its charge, it defaults on an important responsibility—a responsibility that is logically separate from its aggressive nature.  A relevant, real-world example may illustrate the point.  The global community rightly criticizes the Chinese government’s oppression of the Chinese intelligentsia during Mao’s reign.  The carefully engineered atmosphere of intellectual repression was unjust and is (nearly) uniformly so regarded.  The Chinese state is, in this case, analogous to an abusive parent.  The condemnation of a separate kind of neglect is a logically separate decision, though: Maoist indifference to peasant suffering during the Great Leap Forward—that government officials ate lavishly while  the peasants ate bark[15]—is a separate injustice than the first, an injustice of a different kind.  It cannot be subsumed under the first kind. 

As the hitman would be morally culpable for inaction as the kidnapper escapes with his child, even the historically aggressive nation is culpable for inaction in the face of distinct threats.  At this point, I would like to connect my points with my previous premise: we now exist (or soon will) in a time when biological warfare has become a credible threat to the populaces in the world.  So it seems to follow that all states have the obligation and right to protect their citizens from the threat of BW—the question of this conclusion’s import in practical terms, though, remains a question. 

All states appear to have the right to protect their citizens, we might agree, but they do not possess unlimited right.  The hitman’s position as de facto protector of his child does not accord him the right to do anything for the purpose of protection.  The interests of others in the community, for example, might restrict his options.  Rights of others will no doubt bind his options, too.  The hitman retains a right to protect his child, but some means of protection are off limits then—killing anyone who gives the child a sideward glance, for example, remains a forbidden course of action, regardless of an intent of safeguarding the child.  Civil societies typically recognize a parent’s right and obligation to protect a child while simultaneously restricting the means by which he or she exercises the right and fulfills the obligation.  Societies forbid surrounding a home with minefields (even if parent lays the minefields with a focused intent to protect the child) because they recognize other interests as well—such as the danger to innocents the minefields themselves pose.  It is exactly this kind of danger that is most relevant in our discussion about this hitman.

States control the legitimate use of force within their boundaries.  They can regulate or forbid the possession of certain weapons because (in spite of their usefulness to the end of household protection) individual possession of the weapons constitutes a significant danger to other individuals.  Controlling private citizen possession of, say, nuclear weapons or bazookas seems entirely in line with any individual citizen’s obligation to protect her children; it seems less intuitive to deny a citizen a canister of pepper spray that she might be able to use to prevent a kidnapping.  Furthermore, not all inhabitants of a state retain equal rights—past transgressions may become the justification for circumscribed rights, as in the case of a felon who is denied gun ownership privileges. 

The question, distilled, is this:  what is analogous to denying a historically aggressive state the ability to conduct defensive BW research?  Which does restricting a state from conducting defensive BW research more resemble: forbidding the hitman to own a bazooka (for the purposes of protection only), or fitting him with a straitjacket?  That there may be other options for defense might indicate that it is closer to the former than the latter.  If some states have demonstrated ill intent in the past, the global community might have a forceful pragmatic reason to prohibit them from conducting their own defensive BW research.  That may leave open other options, however.  If there are states within the global community (that, ostensibly, have shown their resolve against offensive BW research and use), then these states might provide the defensive fruits of their labors to even a “hitman” state.  It could sell the technology for protective overgarments, for example, or sell the overgarments themselves.  Of course, such trade would require careful overwatch.  Since some prophylaxes (vaccines, for example) include weakened forms of the biological agent—which might then be used for malign purposes, perhaps through backwards engineering—the international community might restrict the sale of some defensive measures.  Still, the global community should investigate promising possibilities that seek to reconcile its need for a bulwark against offensive BW proliferation and its requirement for the security of populations against a real threat.

These last options depend on a move away from the periphery.  As philosophically instructive as it might be to make examinations with extreme cases in order to assay common intuitions, most of life—the international lives of states included—is lived away from the margins.  Although there certainly are hitman states, most states are not hitmen, but law-regarding, if not always law abiding, members of the global community.  They are obligated to protect their own populations from threats, even when the protection takes a form that is potentially threatening to other states.  The existence of standing armies is an example of this principle, and it is worth noting that some states have their right to a standing army legitimately taken away.  The malign intent Japan demonstrated in World War II did not rid its citizens of their rights to protection, but it did diminish the options left to the Japanese government, and since, given the then-recent history, a standing army was too dangerous to allow, the US occupation forces provided the protection instead.



My argument, then, concludes like this: a contractarian foundation for the state’s obligation to its citizens requires that the state protect those citizens from real dangers.  If the threat of biological terrorism (not to mention biological warfare against civilian populations by state militaries) is real, which I believe it to be, then an honest effort to defend its citizens against the threat is incumbent upon a state, regardless of how unjust it might be in other facets of its governance.  The right and obligation of protecting its citizens, I have argued, takes precedence over the international community’s desire to limit biological weapons proliferation, at least for states that have not demonstrated a malign intent that should disqualify them from defensive BW research.  The global community should investigate ways to allow states in that category to fulfill their most basic duties to their citizens while it simultaneously disallows their participation in potentially disastrous BW research programs.

Still, I remain troubled, as I recognize there are lingering problems with my conclusion, because there are germane issues it ignores.  One is a practical difficulty: the feasibility of developing a defense that is both effective against the biological agent used and well-administered.  Some scientists have testified that a defensive plan relying on development and stockpiling of vaccines and antibiotics is unworkable, that the staggering number of naturally occurring biological agents renders the widespread inoculation against them all utterly unviable.  To worsen things, newfound technologies to change biological agents stultify such a defensive program to an even greater extent.  When a biological terrorist who considers employing a particular virus knows a state’s defenses against it, he may decide upon a different agent altogether, or he may alter the virus so that it is resistant to the state’s prophylactic measures.  He possesses the advantage of initiative, and we ought not underestimate it.[16]  The issue here, then, boils down to this: the right and obligation of a state to protect its populace might become irrelevant if the successful carrying-out of the obligation is an impossibility.  Just as an obligation implies a right, it implies an ability, and if a state simply cannot protect its citizens from a biological weapons attack, then the general obligation does not hold in this case.  The question of the truth or falsity of the claim is one that I leave to the scientist rather than the ethicist.   

A second kind of concern is more philosophically-rooted, and it involves the allocation of resources.  Most ethical theories commend some amount of eleemosynary action on the individual level.  They may, by extension, commend an amount of it corporately (i.e. at the international level), as well.  If we accept one of these theories, we might weigh the benefits of a biological defense program against the opportunity cost of the resources committed elsewhere.  In his germinative essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” utilitarian Peter Singer proposes a principle that is pertinent here:  “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”[17]  The force of Singer’s argument rests on the principle’s appeal in terms of utilitarian,  deontic, virtue theoretic, Christian agapic, and other grounds for ethical theory.  Few find they can argue with the principle, and those who demur more often attempt rival definitions to “anything of moral significance.”  The basic idea, though, is relevant here.  There are, we know, compelling medical needs worldwide (Africa’s AIDS crisis is the best example) that dwarf the threat of biological attack.  For one, the AIDS crisis exists now, while a biological weapons attack is hypothetical—a hypothetical the consequent to which, many argue, can be postponed indefinitely through measures such as diplomacy.  Secondly, the AIDS crisis that confronts Africa possesses a scope that a biological weapon-induced pandemic will not soon match, in spite of the conceivability of such an idea.

Even with a significant need for protection against biological weapons, we might still argue that the case for eradicating extant disease surpasses the case for defensive research.  Victor W. Sidel puts it nicely: “The billions of dollars committed to combating the so-far unrealized threats of bioterrorism could be used far more effectively to treat the very real threats of disease in other countries, especially developing countries.”[18]  This kind of objection seems potentially compelling to me—especially against the claim of an obligation to conduct defensive BW research.  If a state has the right to do so, but withholds the resources to concentrate on the AIDS problem, the action seems eleemosynary in the same way a father’s contribution to the starving poor is—even if the father has not provided the latest in technological prophylaxis against potential kidnappers.

In a previous draft of this essay I wrote that I was disappointed with the outcome of this project.  Through the work’s development, though, I have become very aware that this endeavor is far from reaching an outcome.  My thoughts here are preliminary at best, but I hope they begin a discussion that will only become more pressing in the coming years.



[1] I qualify the statement due to NW and CW’s sometimes-known effects on the untargeted.  Such weapons do create environmental changes with serious repercussions.

[2] BW do pose secondary risks, too.  Drains on antibiotics or medical equipment would be one.  Another would be a an overtaxed medical establishment.  On this, see e.g. Richard J. Danzig, “Two Incidents and the NEW Containment,” in Sidney D. Drell, Abraham D. Sofaer, and George D. Wilson, The New Terror: Facing the Threat of Biological and Chemical Weapons (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1999), especially  344-45. 

[3] Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction, signed 10 April 1972, available online at

[4] “Terrorism and the Biology Lab,” New York Times, 2 July 2003, late ed., A25.  See also Jonathan King and Harlee Strauss, “The Hazards of Defensive Biological Warfare Programs,” in Preventing a Biological Arms Race, ed. Susan Wright (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1990), 120-132.  The Council for Responsible Genetics  (CRG) expresses similar alarm in its “CRG Statement on US Bioweapons Initiatives,” 21 February 2003, available online at “The lack of consensus on a precise definition of what constitutes such permissible [use] has left the door open for offensive germ warfare programs to be carried out under the cover of a purportedly defensive purpose.”  Admittedly, not all researchers agree on this point.  While David S. Huxsoll concurs that “in some cases the only means of distinguishing offensive from defensive research is intent,” he believes intent discernable.  See his “Narrowing the Zone of Uncertainty between Research and Development in Biological Warfare Defense,” in The Microbiologist and Biological Defense Research: Ethics, Politics, and International Society, ed. Raymond A. Zilinskas (New York: Annals of the New York Academy of Scientists, 1992 [Vol. 66]) 177-185.  For another hopeful opinion on discernability, see Kenneth I. Berns and others, “Preventing the Misuse of Microorganisms: The Role of the American Society for Microbiology in Protecting against Biological Weapons,” Critical Reviews in Microbiology 24 (1998): 273-280.  In an article informed by his own experiences as a UN weapons inspector in Iraq, Raymond A. Zilinskas reports that the equipment, supplies, and facilities are the same for BW plants and plants with innocuous purposes: “Verifying Compliance to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention,” Critical Reviews in Microbiology 24 (1998): 195-218, especially 198-99.  Rolf Ekéus notes the difficulty of detecting intent, but he, too, believes it perceptible: “One clear distinguishing characteristic…is that agent production for military purposes is by definition aiming at much larger quanitiies than practically any civilian application.  (Production for terrorist purposes can, unfortunately, still be small-scale.)  Another is particle size, where BW particles should be small enough to remain in the atmosphere and not quicly settle to the ground.  Somewhere downstream in the production chain there emerges the production of delivery systems, bombs, missile warheads, drones, and spraying devices.”  “UN Biological Inspections in Iraq,” in Sidney D. Drell, Abraham D. Sofaer, and George D. Wilson, The New Terror: Facing the Threat of Biological and Chemical Weapons (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1999), 253-54.

[5] Marc Lappé, “Ethics in Biological Warfare Research,” in Preventing a Biological Arms Race, ed. Susan Wright (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1990), 84.  Also see Jonathan King, “Biological Defense is Just Another Name for Offensive Weapons,” Genewatch 15, no. 2 (2002): 6-8.

[6] “The Offensive-Defensive Distinction in Military Biological Research,” Hastings Center Report , May/June 1990, 21.  For a similar view, see Douglas MacLean, “Ethics and Biological Defense Research,” in The Microbiologist and Biological Defense Research: Ethics, Politics, and International Society, ed. Raymond A. Zilinskas (New York: Annals of the New York Academy of Scientists, 1992 [Vol. 66]), 100-112.  Although Michael Walzer does not take up the topic of BW, the concept closely mirrors the distinction he makes between those civilians who supply the military with what they need to subsist and those who supply the military with what they need specifically to fight; see Just and Unjust Wars, 3d ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2000) 145-147.

[7] It might not, on the other hand, be too strong a word to describe the relation between the collective body researchers and AIDS sufferers.

[8] Some scientists assume this.  See, for example, David L. Huxsoll, Cheryl D. Parrott, and William C. Patrick III, “Medicine in Defense Against Biological Warfare,” JAMA [the Journal of the American Medical Association] 262 (1989): 677-679.

[9] For a helpful introduction to some of the recent literature, see Laura Reed and Seth Shulman, “Weighing U.S. ‘Biodefense’ Against Qualitative Proliferation” in Biological Warfare and Disarmament: New Problems/New Perspectives, ed. Susan Wright (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002), 57-76, especially 64-67.

[10] Richard A. Falkenrath, Robert D. Newman, and Bradley A. Thayer agree that the “covert NBC attacks have been rare in the past, but the reasons for this infrequency are eroding.”  For their excellent book-length argument in support of this claim, see their America’s Achilles Heel: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Terrorism and Covert Attack (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1998), with special attention to pages 112-126 (concerning technical constraints on those who might perpetrate a biological attack), as well as Chapters 3 & 4 (examining the motives and abilities of both state and non-state actors who might use NBC weapons).  Walter Laqueur does not detail quite the spiral that Falkenrath, et al., do, but he seems pessimistic nonetheless: “I do not suggest that most terrorist groups will use weapons of mass destruction in the near future; most of them probably will not.  It is also quite possible that access to and the use of these weapons will not take a year or two but ten or fifteen.  The technical difficulties standing in the way of effective use of the arms of mass destruction are still considerable.  But he danger is so great, the consequences so incalculable, that even the occurrence of a few such attacks may have devastating consequences.”  The New Terrorism: Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction (New York: Oxford UP, 1999) 4.  Postponing the danger ten or fifteen or fifty years makes little difference to may argument, of course, as my goal is to show that soon (if not now), biological defense will be an issue of civilian, rather than military, protection.  Also see W. Seth Carus, Bioterrorism and Biocrimes: The Illicit Use of Biological Agents in the 20th Century [Working Paper] (Washington, D.C.: Center for Counterproliferation Research, National Defense University, 1998) 3-40; Raynond A. Zilinskas, “Rethinking Bioterrorism,” Current History (December 2001): 438-42.


[11] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government in Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (New York: Cambridge UP, 1992), sec. 222.

[12] See ibid. sec 123.

[13] Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), Part I.

[14] It is a common foundation for pacifism that all war entails noncombatant deaths (if not necessarily, then practically speaking).

[15] Sadly, the peasants did eat the bark off trees to stay alive.  See Jaspar Becker, The Chinese (New York: Oxford UP, 2000) 48-9.

[16] See King and Strauss, “Defensive Biological Warfare Programs,” 125-128; King, “Biological Defense is Just Another Name,” 7; and Ken Alibek, “Bioterrorist Weapons” in Super Terrorism: Biological, Chemical, and Nuclear (Ardsley, NY: Transnational Publishers, 2001), 23-25.  Others are more sanguine about protection against biological agents; see, for example, Stanley L. Wiener, “Biological Warfare Defense” in Biological Warfare: Modern Offense and Defense, ed. Raymond A. Zilinskas (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000), 119-129; Stanley L. Wiener, “Strategies for the Prevention of a Successful Biological Warfare Aerosol Attack,” Military Medicine (May 1996): 251-256; Philip K. Russell, “Vaccines in Civilian Defense Against Bioterrorism,” Emerging Infectious Diseases (Jul-Aug 1999): 531-33; and James M. Hughes, “The Emerging Threat of Bioterrorism,”  Emerging Infectious Diseases (Jul-Aug 1999): 494-95.

[17] “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” Philosophy and Public Affairs (Spring 1972): 229-243.

[18] “Defense against Biological Weapons” in Biological Warfare and Disarmament: New Problems/New Perspectives, ed. Susan Wright (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002), 85.