Weapons Research, Possible Harms, and The State’s Duties

It’s an undeniable fact that states engage in weapons research. I think many people are of the opinion that this is totally acceptable. Professor John Forge argues against that common belief in “ISIS & The Case Against Weapons Research”. I’ll be presenting one of my primary concerns with the argument momentarily, and you can see the full argument that I’m responding to here (I highly recommend reading the article before proceeding).

Here’s a very truncated version of Professor Forge’s argument:

  1. If weapons research leads to unjustified harms, it must be forbidden.
  2. If a war cannot be shown to be just, weapons research leads to unjustified harms.
  3. No one can show that a war is just in advance.
  4. Thus, weapons research must be forbidden.

I cannot find any internal flaws with the argument, but I worry that the author too narrowly restricts which moral principles ought to apply to a state’s armed activities. The main principle he discusses is the “no-harm” principle, which basically states that “it is wrong to harm others without justification” — and in this case, the justification we’re looking for is that harms prevented by weapons research (and armed interventions more generally) outweigh the harms caused. Though this is an important principle for states to adhere to, it seems like states also have a duty to guarantee the security of their citizens, especially when their country is being invaded. I’m curious to know what the author has to say about this conflict.

Eliding principles not discussed by the author, however, using the no-harm principle alone seems problematic. It seems fairly easy to invalidate it, at least in the context of the issue at hand. The argument would go thus:

  1. If permitting weapons research leads to unjustified harms, it must be forbidden.
  2. If forbidding weapons research leads to unjustified harms, it must be permitted.
  3. If some state x does not conduct weapons research and x is invaded, x’s citizens will be unjustifiably harmed.
  4. One cannot determine that a war is just, so weapons research leads to unjustified harms.
  5. Thus, weapons research must be forbidden and permitted.

This conclusion is clearly self-contradictory, and it leads us to deny the antecedents contained in premises #1 and #2. This would indicate that the no-harm principle is either invalid or, at the very least, can’t apply unqualifiedly to weapons research (and state military actions, more broadly).

The easy reply to this is that permitting weapons research leads to more unjustified harms or deaths in the long-run, as is the case with ISIS (seriously, read the original article), so the first premise ought to be retained while the second one should be jettisoned. Even granting the first half of the objection, however, does not eliminate the contradiction. As the author points out, war makes knowing things in advance very difficult. This means we can’t know in advance, with absolute certainty, that our weapons research will lead to more unjustified harms in the long-run than justified ones. However, in the case we’re imagining, it’s quite clear that if weapons research isn’t conducted, invasion will lead to extraordinary harms to their citizens. In other words, in the case we’re imagining, we know that not doing weapons research will lead to unjustified harms in the present. The contradiction remains, then.

All this being said, I’m largely sympathetic to Forge’s conclusion. I’m also aware that my thoughts here are presented all-too-briefly (which is done intentionally). That being said, I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on the matter — both on the matter of the original argument, and on the matter of my response.