January 20, 2022

Remembering Archduke Ferdinand

Hi there,

Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated 100 years ago today in Sarajevo. Within weeks the world was at war. In another four years some ten million soldiers and seven million civilians would be dead. Wars are a great time for innovation in many areas, but not in bioethics. My impression is that the basic principle of bioethics in “the Great War” was “whatever it takes to win”.

Poison gas, for  instance, was banned by international conventions in 1899 and 1907. Yet it was used by all the belligerents. An English general put it nicely:

“It is a cowardly form of warfare which does not commend itself to me or other English soldiers. We cannot win this war unless we kill or incapacitate more of our enemies than they do of us, and if this can only be done by our copying the enemy in his choice of weapons, we must not refuse to do so.”

But perhaps we can learn something from World War I. Twenty-first Century bioethics has two main themes. One is autonomy and there’s precious little of that in the Great War. It was a time of massification and state dominance.

But the other is how to use technology without losing our humanity. In this respect, World War I is a cautionary tale. Before 1914 technology was esteemed as the path to peace and prosperity. It quickly became apparent that technology could become a death-dealing juggernaut which devoured men and spat them out. Science and scientists became tools for destruction.

I think that we need to be reminded of that today. The pre-War chemistry laboratories which produced so many useful products also produced phosgene and mustard gas. Our knowledge of cellular biology and genetics can be life-saving but also deeply inhumane. It’s good to learn from the past.


Michael Cook
World War I offers some lessons in bioethics.