raise more ELSI concerns. Under this heading are some concerns that the Wilson Center report describes as concerns over “nonphysical” harms.23

A technology or application for which one of these statements is true is worthy of special consideration and effort to understand ELSI concerns, and a technology or application for which more than one is true is even more worthy of such consideration. Examples from history that have all of these attributes in some measure might include genetic engineering and recombinant DNA research, and Chapter 2 highlights the current discussion of what synthetic biology, as a similar kind of research, might produce and how its potential benefits are accompanied by a range of ethical, legal, and societal issues that its proponents have worked hard to address.

5.4.4 Frequently Heard Arguments

Finally, it is helpful to address a number of frequently heard arguments about ethics as they apply to new military technologies. Specifically, one common thread of the arguments discussed below is that they are often made with the intent or desire of cutting off debate or discussion about ethical issues.

An argument. U.S. adversaries are unethical, and so ethics should not be a constraint in using advanced weaponry against them. Moreover, they seek every advantage over the United States that they can obtain, and thus the United States, too, must do the same in any conflict with adversaries.

Response. The United States has publicly stated a commitment to abide by certain constraints in how it engages in conflict regardless of how its adversaries behave; these commitments are embodied in domestic law that criminalizes violations of the Geneva Conventions by the U.S. armed forces, and also by certain treaties that the United States has signed and ratified. The real question is not whether we constrain ourselves ethically but how and under what circumstances, and with what decision-making procedures we do so.

An argument. U.S. adversaries will pursue all technological opportunities that serve their interests, and if the United States doesn’t pursue those opportunities as well, it will wind up being at a military disadvantage.


23 The full report can be found at http://www.synbioproject.org/process/assets/files/6334/synbio3.pdf.

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