The Case Against Weapons Research

The Case Against Weapons Research

John Forge (Unit for History and Philosophy of Science, The University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia)
Copyright: © 2014 |Pages: 10
DOI: 10.4018/ijt.2014070101
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Weapons research seeks to design new or improved weapons and their ancillary structures. It is argued here that weapons research is both morally wrong and morally unjustified. This ‘case against weapons research' requires lengthy discussion and the argument given here is a summary of that discussion. The central claim is that the ‘standard justification; for all forms of weapons acquisition and deployment, which appeals to defense and deterrence, does not stand up for weapons research because the harms caused by the latter projects into the future in unknowable ways. Weapons research produces practical knowledge in the form of designs for the means to harm, and its practitioners cannot know how this knowledge will be used in the future.
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One of the most morally challenging, and most enduring, forms of technology is military technology, technology that is associated with the organised violence that has been in the stock-in-trade of armed forces since ancient times. Military technology covers a broad area, including some forms that are similar if not identical to civilian technologies, so-called dual use technologies (Forge 2010). However, there are other forms that are unmistakably military and these include all of those that enable weapons to be produced. My concern here is with the endeavour that leads to such technologies, what I call weapons research. The aim of weapons research is thus to produce the technology, or more directly the design, for a new or improved weapon, or for the ancillary structures, such as platforms, necessary for using a weapon (Forge 2012: 13-14). This topic has been almost entirely neglected by moral philosophers and others.1 I suspect that this may be because it is thought to be subsumable under discussion about the morality of war, and that moral judgements about weapons research follow from moral judgements about war. I believe that this is wrong and that weapons research is a topic for discussion in its own right. Having said this, I do of course acknowledge that certain particular classes of weapons research, namely those directed towards weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons, have been discussed at length, and judgements have been made about the morality of such research. My own interest in the topic stemmed from my work on the responsibility for the use of the atomic bombs on Japan, but it has since expanded to cover weapons research as a whole.2

It is surely clear that this a topic which falls within the scope of the present journal, and my thesis, that weapons research is morally wrong and morally unjustifiable, is certainly a judgement in regard to the ‘impact of ethics on technological advance’. Indeed, if we look back to one of the seminal works on technoethics by Mario Bunge, we find a clear statement to the effect that not all technology is good and he explicitly mentions military technology. Bunge writes: “Just think of thanatology or the technology of killing: the design of tactics and strategies of aggression, of weaponry” (Bunge 1977: 100). Moreover, Bunge makes it clear that those who design technologies must accept moral responsibility for the impacts of their work. I agree completely and entirely with these sentiments. I also note that Bunge, and following him Luppicini (see Luppicini 2008: 1-2), stress that technoethics is a highly inter-disciplinary field. This accords with my own experience in regard to the morality of weapons research.

The purpose of this paper is to set out an argument that aims to establish that weapons research is both morally wrong and not morally justified.3 I have made this ‘case against weapons research’ on several occasions (Forge 2004, 2007a), but most fully in Designed to Kill: The Case against Weapons Research (Forge 2012). This paper is a sketch of the argument of that book and makes no claim to be anything more that an outline – it takes a whole book to fully present the case. One way to mount such a case is to begin by affirming some form of pacificism, and then maintain that if war is wrong, so is weapons research. But this is not a good option, even granted that we could come up with a coherent version of pacifism. If weapons research provided the means for robust defense, then this might keep the peace by deterring war. In general, it is hard to see why weapons research is wrong if fighting is wrong. A better option is to address what I believe to be assumption behind the assimilation of weapons research to questions about the morality of war, namely that war and all that is needed for fighting wars is justified by appeal to defense and deterrence. The only justified war, or just war, is war which resists aggression. Hence weapons research is justified for the purposes of defense, and, even better because it prevents war, for deterrence. I refer to this as the standard justification for war and for all forms of defense spending, weapons procurement, etc. However, I believe that while the standard justification can apply to certain wars, it does not serve to justify weapons research. The case against weapons research can be seen in this sense to be a argument against the standard justification.

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