Bioethics and Armed Conflict: Moral Dilemmas of Medicine and War, Michael Gross

March 1, 2007

Professor Michael L. Gross of the University of Haifa visited Brandeis to talk about his latest book, Bioethics and Armed Conflict, the first comprehensive study of medical ethics in conventional, unconventional, and low-intensity wars. Gross argued that, contrary to what the World Medical Association has declared, medical ethics in a time of peace are very different from medical ethics in a time of war.

Gross began his talk by asking the audience whether biomedical scientists should ever help to build weapons of war. He pointed out that weapons can include nonlethal options that disable, rather than destroy, enemy troops. (At least, that's the intent; Gross noted that even weapons termed "nonlethal" carry the risk of death.)

According to Article 35 of the Geneva Convention, biological and chemical weapons -- both of which can have nonlethal forms -- are prohibited in warfare because of their potential to cause "superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering." Gross questioned why nonlethal weapons, simply because they fall into these categories, are considered "worse" than commonly accepted forms of warfare, i.e. the use of high explosives.

He also questioned the distinction between scientists who will work on "defensive" weapons but not "offensive." If a scientist supplies an army with gas masks, antidotes, filtration systems, etc., that scientist is effectively arming those troops for war. How is that different from putting armor on a tank?

Gross concluded by noting that one goal of weapons development can be deterrence; neither side in World War II used chemical weapons, for fear the other side would retaliate by doing the same. Is it unethical for scientists to create weapons with such a goal in mind? Scientists and physicians, he observed, do not live by different moral standards than other men and women. If others can make weapons to make peace, can't they?

Gross is Codirector of the Graduate Program in Applied and Professional Ethics in the Division of International Relations at the University of Haifa. He is the author of Ethics and Activism: The Theory and Practice of Political Morality. Articles that he has written on this and similar topics are available at

This talk was cosponsored by the Heller School for Social Policy and Management; the Department of Health: Science, Society and Policy; the Peace, Conflict and Coexistence Program; the Philosophy Department, Rosenstiel Basic Medical Sciences Research Center; and Undergraduate Academic Affairs.