Humans have many limitations that make them less than ideal as weapons of war. For example, we get tired and need sleep. As such, it is no surprise that militaries have sought various ways to augment humans to counter these weaknesses. For example, militaries routinely make use of caffeine and amphetamines to keep their soldiers awake and alert. There have also been experiments
In science fiction, militaries go far beyond these sorts of drugs and develop far more potent pharmaceuticals. These chemicals tend to split into two broad categories. The first consists of short-term enhancements (what gamers refer to as “buffs”) that address a human weakness or provide augmented abilities. In the real world, the above-mentioned caffeine and amphetamines are short-term drugs. In fiction, the classic sci-fi role-playing game Traveller featured the aptly (though generically) named combat drug. This drug would boost the user’s strength and endurance for about ten minutes. Other fictional drugs have far more dramatic effects, such as the Venom drug used by the super villain Bane. Given that militaries already use short-term enhancers, it is certainly reasonable to think they are and will be interested in more advanced enhancers of the sort considered in science fiction.
The second category is that of the long-term enhancers. These are chemicals that enable or provide long-lasting effects. An obvious real-world example is steroids: these allow the user to develop greater muscle mass and increased strength. In fiction, the most famous example is probably the super-soldier serum that was used to transform Steve Rogers into Captain America.
Since the advantages of improved soldiers are obvious, it seems reasonable to think that militaries would be rather interested in the development of effective (and safe) long-term enhancers. It does, of course, seem unlikely that there will be a super-soldier serum in the near future, but chemicals aimed at improving attention span, alertness, memory, intelligence, endurance, pain tolerance and such would be of great interest to militaries.
As might be suspected, these chemical enhancers do raise moral concerns that are certainly worth considering. While some might see discussing enhancers that do not yet (as far as we know) exist as a waste of time, there does seem to be a real advantage in considering ethical issues in advance—this is analogous to planning for a problem before it happens rather than waiting for it to occur and then dealing with it.
One obvious point of concern, especially given the record of unethical experimentation, is that enhancers will be used on soldiers without their informed consent. Since this is a general issue, I addressed it in its own essay and reached the obvious conclusion: in general, informed consent is morally required. As such, the following discussion assumes that the soldiers using the enhancers have been honestly informed of the nature of the enhancers and have given their consent.
When discussing the ethics of enhancers, it might be useful to consider real world cases in which enhancers are used. One obvious example is that of professional sports. While Major League Baseball has seen many cases of athletes using such enhancers, they are used worldwide and in many sports, from running to gymnastics. In the case of sports, one of the main reasons certain enhancers, such as steroids, are considered unethical is that they provide the athlete with an unfair advantage.
While this is a legitimate concern in sports, it does not apply to war. After all, there is no moral requirement for a fair competition in battle. Rather, one important goal is to gain every advantage over the enemy in order to win. As such, the fact that enhancers would provide an “unfair” advantage in war does not make them immoral. One can, of course, discuss the relative morality of the sides involved in the war, but this is another matter.
A second reason why the use of enhancers is regarded as wrong in sports is that they typically have rather harmful side effects. Steroids, for example, do rather awful things to the human body and brain. Given that even aspirin has potentially harmful side effects, it seems rather likely that military-grade enhancers will have various harmful side effects. These might include addiction, psychological issues, organ damage, death, and perhaps even new side effects yet to be observed in medicine. Given the potential for harm, a rather obvious way to approach the ethics of this matter is utilitarianism. That is, the benefits of the enhancers would need to be weighed against the harm caused by their use.
This assessment could be done with a narrow limit: the harms of the enhancer could be weighed against the benefits provided to the soldier. For example, an enhancer that boosted a combat pilot’s alertness and significantly increased her reaction speed while having the potential to cause short-term insomnia and diarrhea would seem to be morally (and pragmatically) fine given the relatively low harms for significant gains. As another example, a drug that greatly boosted a soldier’s long-term endurance while creating a significant risk of a stroke or heart attack would seem to be morally and pragmatically problematic.
The assessment could also be done more broadly by taking into account ever-wider considerations. For example, the harms of an enhancer could be weighed against the importance of a specific mission and the contribution the enhancer would make to the success of the mission. So, if a powerful drug with terrible side-effects was critical to an important mission, its use could be morally justified in the same way that taking any risk for such an objective can be justified. As another example, the harms of an enhancer could be weighed against the contribution its general use would make to the war. So, a drug that increased the effectiveness of soldiers, yet cut their life expectancy, could be justified by its ability to shorten a war. As a final example, there is also the broader moral concern about the ethics of the conflict itself. So, the use of a dangerous enhancer by soldiers fighting for a morally good cause could be justified by that cause (using the notion that the consequences justify the means).
There are, of course, those who reject using utilitarian calculations as the basis for moral assessment. For example, there are those who believe (often on religious grounds) that the use of pharmaceuticals is always wrong (be they used for enhancement, recreation or treatment). Obviously enough, if the use of pharmaceuticals is wrong in general, then their specific application in the military context would also be wrong. The challenge is, of course, to show that the use of pharmaceuticals is simply wrong, regardless of the consequences.
In general, it would seem that the military use of enhancers should be assessed morally on utilitarian grounds, weighing the benefits of the enhancers against the harm done to the soldiers.