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Is Nuclear Deterrence Ethical?

  • Leslie Stevenson (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 January 2009

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.

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G. S. Kavka , ‘Some Paradoxes of Deterrence’, Journal of Philosophy 75 (1978), 285302;

J. Ford , ‘The Morality of Obliteration Bombing’, Theological Studies 5 (1944), reprinted in War and Morality, R. Wasserstrom (ed.) (Belmont, California: Wadsworth1970).

W. H. Shaw , ‘Nuclear Deterrence and Deontology’, Ethics 94 (1984), 248260.

J. E. Hare and C. B. Joynt , Ethics and International Affairs (London: Macmillan, 1982), Ch. 5.

R. P. Ehrlich , ‘Long-term Biological Consequences of Nuclear War’, Science 222 (121983), 12831300.

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  • ISSN: 0031-8191
  • EISSN: 1469-817X
  • URL: /core/journals/philosophy
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