The Ethical and Legal Significance of Super Soldiers

April 13 -
 15, 2023

Co-sponsored By: The Annenberg Public Policy Center & the University of Massachusetts Lowell


The Conference

With technological innovations from both private and governmental sectors, the prospect of enhanced warfighters is increasingly plausible. Hypothetical enhanced warfighters, or ”super soldiers,” would represent a unique class of soldiers assigned to execute high-risk, high-skill missions requiring superhuman strength, sensory nodes, or intelligence.

The idea of super soldiers is ancient and global. Pharmacologically enhanced soldiers in premodern times fought valiantly under the influence of opium, hashish, mushrooms, and coca. These super soldiers were fearless, sleepless, brutal, and prone to manipulation. Their wars were won or lost on the backs of drugs—a tradition that continued well into the 20th century where American soldiers deployed in Vietnam consumed massive amounts of heroin. Recent fictional portrayals of super soldiers, such as Marvel’s Falcon and the Winter Soldier and The Terminal List, offer sobering takes on the imminent realities of super soldiering. The dark realities of black-market pharmaceutical enhancements raise the specter of dual-use challenges: If civilians are enhanced and soldiers aren’t, how can soldiers be expected to protect civilians from each other? What existing legal precedents exist to classify super soldiers themselves as unconventional weapons?

Our conference proposes to make headway towards answering these and other questions about super soldiers. Our approach is both applied and interdisciplinary, drawing upon premier scholarship on the ethical, legal, and social significance of super soldiers, as well as current and near-future technological innovations designed to make super soldiers possible. Our conference sessions will address the following issues:

• What are super soldiers?
• How do different cultures view human military enhancements?
• Which enhancement technologies are imminent, or at least feasible?
• How should super soldier research be conducted?
• When, and for what purposes, is it permissible to use super soldiers?
• What ethical, legal, and practical complications attend the dis-enhancement of soldiers?
• How can society best provide long-term care for super soldiers?

This conference is dedicated to the enduring memory of the late Major Ian Fishback (1979-2021).


Thursday, April 13

2:00 – 4:00 pm Arrivals

4:00 – 5:30 pm

Public Keynote Panel

Stay tuned for additional details!

6:00 – 9:00 pm Conference Dinner

Friday, April 14

9:00 – 9:30 am Registration and Breakfast

9:30 – 10:45 am
Welcome and Session I(Closed)

What Are Super Soldiers?

This session will explore foundational and conceptual questions about the nature of super soldiers, what counts as a “super soldier,” whether super soldiers already exist, and pivotal ethical questions about the existence of super soldiers. Does the common conception of “super soldier” require a distinction between medical interventions and non-medical enhancement interventions? Can human enhancements be environmental as opposed to organism-specific? Do super soldiers possess a special kind of moral status, such as weaker rights to protective intervention, given their mitigated vulnerability? Are disabled soldiers still “super soldiers” if their capacities count as enhanced relative to their previous, disabled states, but not enhanced relative to a typical, non-disabled human state?

10:45 –11:15 am Break

11:15 – 12:30 pm
Session II(Closed)

Cross-Cultural Views of Enhancement

This session will consider how super soldiers are understood within and across cultures, why some cultures encourage while others discourage the creation of super soldiers, and how super soldiers fit within different societies. What is the purpose of super soldiers in different cultures, and how are super soldiers viewed as integrating (or not integrating) within specific societies? Does the loss of typical human functioning, or the presence of enhanced human functioning, violate cultural norms of the human body as a sacred space, a context of choice, etc.? How might culturally influential religions view and respond to enhanced warfighters, particularly ones whose cognitions are effectively blended with AI?

12:30 – 1:30 pm Lunch

1:30 – 2:45 pm
Session III(Closed)

Current and Future Enhancement Technologies

This session will review current and near-future enhancement technologies; evaluate their potential uses, risks, and benefits; and discuss current, civilian enhancement research. These technologies range from brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) to futuristic brain chips that integrate AI into human cognition to pharmacological interventions that dull physical pain or block traumatic memories. What enhancement technologies are feasible, and which are merely fanciful? Are there important limitations to human enhancement that are unlikely to be overcome? Should enhancement technologies be developed only by the state, or also by private contractors and companies? How can the U.S. military anticipate and prepare for the development and implementation of enhancement technologies by unfriendly states or, perhaps worse, non-state actors?

2:45 – 3:15 pm Break

3:15 – 4:45 pm
Session IV(Closed)

Researching Super Soldiers

This session will confront ethical questions about the research and development of super soldiers, including questions about consent and coercion, inegalitarian worries about social stratification of humans vs. super-humans, and immoral risks. Is informed consent possible or especially difficult to acquire for enhancements that significantly transform human subjects? Should researchers be concerned about a kneejerk tendency among warfighters to accept uncritically enhancements that will better protect themselves or members of their unit, squad, etc.? Given extensive racial biases in research subject selection and military recruitment, should additional barriers exist to prevent disproportionately non-white recruitment?

5:00 – 8:00 pm Cocktails and Dinner

Saturday, April 15

9:00 – 9:30 am Breakfast

9:30 – 10:45 am
Session V (Closed)

Deploying Super Soldiers

This session will focus on ethical concerns surrounding the use of super soldiers in policing, war, and civil unrest. If super soldiers are capable of inflicting extreme harm on third parties, does this expand their potential liability or the potential liability of those who deploy or design them? Is it ever permissible to utilize super soldiers for domestic policing? What safeguards should be created to ensure super soldiers never become rogue actors, and how might these safeguards be permissibly designed and enforced? Might it be permissible to execute enemy prisoners of war if, as super soldiers, they pose extreme dangers of violent escape?

10:45 – 11:15 am Break

11:15 – 12:30 pm
Session VI(Closed)


This session will probe the ethics of dis-enhancing super soldiers into “mere” soldiers or civilians. The removal of enhanced senses, intelligence, physical prowess, and pain insensitivity are ethically fraught. Should we view warfighter enhancements as the property of warfighters? For enhanced capacities removed from warfighters post bellum, if the loss of those capacities adversely impacts dis-enhanced warfighters, can they qualify for disability status and benefits? Does the state, perhaps through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, possess an obligation to reinstitute these enhancements for therapeutic or autonomy-based reasons?

12:30 – 1:30 pm Lunch

1:30 – 2:45 pm
Session VII (Closed)

Long-Term Care for Super Soldiers

This session will outline our ethical obligations to veteran super soldiers, including society’s obligation to be prepared to care for super soldiers prior to creating them. While the same obligation holds for super soldiers, the complex and untested nature of many enhancements complicates our ability to anticipate their long-term effects and, thus, the long-term care of super soldiers. Is the state obligated to help retired super soldiers cloak their special abilities to enable social reintegration? If super soldiers employ their special abilities in other lines of work, is the military liable for enhancements that malfunction outside their intended sphere of use? What is the statute of limitations on this liability? When super soldiers die, should the state have dominating/veto power over how their bodies—in particular, parts of their bodies containing classified military technology—are disposed of?

2:45 – 3:15 pm Break

3:15 – 3:45 pm Closing Remarks

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