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Is Nuclear Deterrence Ethical?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 January 2009

Leslie Stevenson
University od St Andrews


We are morally perplexed about nuclear weapons. Popular debate oscillates tediously between an apparently impractical idealism which would have nothing to do with the things, and a military and political realism which insists that we have to use such means to attain our legitimate ends. The choice, it too often seems, is between laying down our nuclear arms–thus avoiding the moral odium of resting our defence policies on threats to vaporize millions of civilians–but leaving ourselves open to domination by those who do not feel such scruples, and on the other hand, retaining such weapons as long as our potential enemies possess them, constantly maintaining parity with the other side–in other words, proceeding with the arms race. The respective proponents of principle and of prudence typically fail to understand how others can possibly neglect the considerations which loom so large in their own minds. Each has at bottom a deeply held ethical view–that certain means (deployment of nuclear weapons) may not be used for any end, or that certain ends (defending our freedom and national sovereignty) are so important that they justify the use of almost any means. The disagreement is so irreconcilable that it spills out from TV studios and newspaper editorial pages on to the streets and the missile bases, and into the courts and the prisons.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 1986

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1 The Church and the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons and Christian Conscience (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1982).

2 Message to the Second Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly Devoted to Disarmament (June 1982).

3 ‘Towards a Nuclear Morality’, The Times 17 November 1983.

4 The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response, United States Catholic Conference, Washington, DC, 1983. (Published in Britain by the Catholic Truth Society and SPCK, 1983.)

5 Some recent philosophical work on nuclear deterrence is the following: Kavka, G. S., ‘Some Paradoxes of Deterrence’, Journal of Philosophy 75 (1978), 285302;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Lackey, D. P., ‘Missiles and Morals: A Utilitarian Look at Nuclear Deterrence’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 11 (1982), 189231,Google Scholar with discussions by Hardin, Kavka, and Lackey in the following year, 12 (1983), 236–265; McMahan, J., British Nuclear Weapons: For and Against (London: Junction Books, 1981);Google Scholar Blake, N. and Pole, K. (eds), Dangers of Deterrence: Philosophers on Nuclear Strategy (London: Routledge 1983). Other work will be referred to below.Google Scholar

6 G. E. M. Anscombe forcefully contrasts the absolutism contained in what she calls ‘the Hebrew–Christian ethic’ with the consequentialism she finds in most twentieth-century English moral philosophy in ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’, Philosophy 33 (1958), reprinted in her Collected Philosophical Papers, Vol. Ill (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981).

7 I am attempting here to make fully explicit the case presented in Nuclear Weapons and Christian Conscience, W. Stein (ed.) (London: Merlin Press, 1961; 2nd edn 1965), especially in the papers therein by Anscombe, Markus, and Kenny.

8 See Anscombe, , ‘War and Murder’, in Stein's collection, reprinted in her Collected Papers, Vol. III (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981).Google Scholar

9 See Ford, J., ‘The Morality of Obliteration Bombing’, Theological Studies 5 (1944), reprinted in War and Morality, Wasserstrom, R. (ed.) (Belmont, California: Wadsworth 1970).Google Scholar

10 See Anscombe, op. cit.; Ford, op. cit.; and Anscombe's paper ‘The Justice of the Present War Examined’, first published in 1939, reprinted in her Collected Papers (op. cit. note 8).

11 As insisted by J. McMahan, op. cit., note 5, p. 121, and (in more detail) by Shaw, W. H., ‘Nuclear Deterrence and Deontology’, Ethics 94 (1984), 248260.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

12 In Ch. II §4 of The Ethics of War (London: Duckworth 1979), B. Paskins and M. Dockrill would seem to be agreeing with me on the substantive issue here.

13 Hockaday, A., ‘In Defence of Deterrence’, p. 85 in Ethics and Nuclear Deterrence, Goodwin, G. (ed.) (London: Croom Helm, 1982).Google Scholar

14 Shaw, op. cit. note 11, p. 255.

15 G. Kavka's, paper on paradoxes in deterrence (op. cit. note 5) raises deep philosophical problems about the intentionality involved in deterrence, which it would be worth at least another paper to consider.

16 This case is argued by Hare, J. E. and Joynt, C. B., Ethics and International Affairs (London: Macmillan, 1982), Ch. 5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

17 For example, by Hare and Joynt, op. cit., p. 111.

18 For some further consideration of first-strike possibilities, see Lackey, op. cit. note 5, and Measor, N., ‘Games Theory and the Nuclear Arms Race’, in Dangers of Deterrence, op. cit. note 5.Google Scholar

19 Op. cit. note 4.

20 See Nagel, T., ‘War and Massacre’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (1972), reprinted in his Mortal Questions (Cambridge University Press, 1979).Google Scholar

21 Op. cit., note 3.

22 Walzer, M.. Just and Unjust Wars (New York: Basic Books, 1977).Google Scholar

23 Thanks to Robin Waterston for advice on these probability calculations.

24 R. P. Thuco et al., ‘Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions’, and Ehrlich, R. P. et al. , ‘Long-term Biological Consequences of Nuclear War’, Science 222 (12 1983), 12831300.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed

25 Schell, J., The Fate of the Earth (London: Pan Books, 1982).Google Scholar