Moral & Ethical Issues of the Invention of Gunpowder

Cannons rendered medieval fortresses obsolete as defense mechanisms.
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Gunpowder was discovered in China during the Song dynasty when alchemists were trying to create a formula for eternal life, and is one of the most important technological developments in human history. The ethical and moral dilemmas related to gunpowder's use and manufacture are the same as ethical issues we face today with new technology, namely do the material and monetary benefits of this invention outweigh whatever human cost might arise?

1 Volatile Substance

From the very beginning, gunpowder was a dangerous and unpredictable substance. A Chinese text from the ninth century describes how gunpowder burned the faces of its creators and even burned down their house. More recently, an explosion in a fireworks factory in the Netherlands in May of 2000 killed over 20 people and 300 people were lost in the wreckage of the building. Is the use or purchase of a substance morally right when its very manufacture has killed and harmed the people who made it?

2 Making War "Safer"?

In the 17th century, it was widely believed gunpowder made war less bloody and horrific, an idea that might seem strange until one considers that in contemporary society we hold similar beliefs about drones and precision-guided munitions. Gunpowder allowed war to change from largely hand-to-hand combat to remote warfare, supposedly allowing soldiers to stay safe behind friendly lines using gunpowder-propelled arrows and cannons instead of themselves to attack the enemy. Is technology that makes warfare more efficient and easier justifiable when it might save soldiers' lives?

3 Might Makes Right

The introduction of gunpowder into Europe in the 13th century fundamentally changed not only European warfare, but also European politics. Cannons, which the Europeans improved on from the Chinese version, completely dismantled the medieval fortifications of city-states, rendering them defenseless. In their place, the modern nation arose, and large groups of people fought for their nation as opposed to their city or town. While "might makes right" was likely always a factor in warfare, with the introduction of gunpowder, cannon and infantry, the human cost of war, both civilian and soldier, grew farther removed from those who declared and benefited from said warfare. One might question whether that influenced the moral justification of warfare.

4 Quality of Life

Gunpowder had positive effects, too. With fire- and naval-power, European nations were able to explore other nations, build colonies, expand trade and generate the wealth and technology that led to the Industrial Revolution. McGill University Professor of Asian Studies Robin Yates believes that without gunpowder and the use of propulsion, there would be no rockets, no moon landing, no internal combustion engines and no cars or trains. At least partly due to the introduction of gunpowder, standards of living are better today than they were in the Middle Ages. Do the beneficial repercussions of gunpowder outweigh the deaths that have resulted from its manufacture and use? It's a topic for debate.

Natasha Brandstatter is an art historian and writer. She has a MA in art history and you can find her academic articles published in "Western Passages," "History Colorado" and "Dutch Utopia." She is also a contributor to Book Riot and Food Riot, a media critic with the Pueblo PULP and a regular contributor to Femnista.