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Immoral Risks: A Deontological Critique of Nuclear Deterrence

  • Douglas P. Lackey (a1)

I. Beyond Utilitarianism

In the summer of 1982, I published an article called “Missiles and Morals,” in which I argued on utilitarian grounds that nuclear deterrence in its present form is not morally justifiable. The argument of “Missiles and Morals” compared the most likely sort of nuclear war to develop under nuclear deterrence (DET) with the most likely sort of nuclear war to develop under American unilateral nuclear disaramament (UND). For a variety of reasons, I claimed diat the number of casualties in a two-sided nuclear war developing under DET would be at least fifteen times greater than the number of casualties in a one-sided nuclear attack developing under UND. If one assumes that human lives lost or saved is the principal criterion by which nuclear weapons policies should be measured, it follows that DET is morally superior to UND on utilitarian grounds only if the chance of a two-sided nuclear war under DET is more than fifteen times less dian the chance of a one-sided nuclear attack under UND. Since I did not believe that the chance of nuclear war under deterrence is fifteen times less than the chance of nuclear war under unilateral nuclear disarmament, I inferred diat utilitaranism failed to justify DET. Indeed, on utilitarian grounds, DET stood condemned.

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1 Lackey, Douglas P., “Missiles and Morals: A Utilitarian Critique of Nuclear Deterrence,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol.11 (Summer 1982), pp. 182231.

2 For criticisms, see, for example, Hardin, RussellUnilateral and Bilateral Disarmament,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 12 (Summer 1983), pp.236254; and Kavka, GregoryDoubts About Unilateral Disarmament,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 12 (Summer 1983), pp.255260. The reprints include Narveson, Jan, Moral Issues (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1983) and Wasserstrom, Richard, Today's Moral Problems (New York: Macmillian, 1985). As given here, the consequences of DET and UND are stated entirely in terms of lives saved and lost. Though I consider these the primary effects to be considered in evaluating nuclear weapons policies, many are concerned with such effects as the increased chance of nuclear blackmail that might result from unilateral nuclear disarmament. These and many other consequences of nuclear weapons policies relevant to the utilitarian calculation are considered in “Missiles and Morals” and in Lackey, D., Moral Principles and Nuclear Weapons (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and AUanheld, 1984).

3 For an account of the nuclear winter hypothesis, see Turco, Richard P., Toon, Owen B., Ackerman, Thomas A., Pollack, James B., and Sagan, Carl, “Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions,” Science, vol. 222 (23 December 1983), pp.1283–92; Ehrlich, Paulet. al., “Long Term Biological Consequences of Nuclear War,” Science, vol. 222 (23 December 1983), pp. 12931900; Sagan, Carl, “Nuclear War and Climatic Catastrophe,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 62 (Winter 1983/1984), pp.257292; Covey, Curt, Schneider, Stephen, and Thompson, Stanley, “Global Atmospheric Effects of Massive Smoke Injections from a Nuclear War,” Nature, vol. 307 (1 March 1984), pp.2125; and Turco, Richard P., el. al.The Climatic Effects of Nuclear War,” Scientific American, vol. 251 (August 1984), pp.3343.

4 The “first wave” of writing about nuclear weapons policies was provoked by (a) the development of thermonuclear weapons, which convinced many unbelievers that nuclear weapons were fundamentally different in kind from nonnuclear weapons, (b) the public announcement of a policy of “massive retaliation” by John Foster Dulles in 1954 (that is, a policy of nonminimal, nonfinite nuclear deterrence), and (c) the development of new delivery systems which provided a variety of new strategic options. Exemplary moral writing about nuclear weapons in those years can be found in Russell, Bertrand, Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959) and Toynbee, Philip, The Fearful Choke (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1959). For examples of criticism with a distinctly nonutilitarian slant, see the essays by Anscombe, G.E.M. and others in Walter, Stein, ed., Nuclear Weapons: A Catholic Response (London: Merlin, 1961).

5 This is generally assumed by the authors in the Stein volume, cited above, and is especially evident in the appendix by Anthony Kenny in the hard-to-locate second edition of the Stein volume that was published in 1965.

6 One philosophical critic who does continue to press the critique of nuclear deterrence because of its “immoral threats” is Walzer, Michael, Just and Unjust Wars (New York: Basic Books, 1977, Chapter 17.

7 The swing from denunciations of the “countervalue” form of deterrence to applause for the “counterforce” variety is exhibited in the difference between Ramsey's, Paul War and the Christian Conscience (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1961) and The Just War (New York: Scribner's, 1968).

8 The most forceful attack on the “wrongful intentions principle” is Kavka, Gregory, “Some Paradoxes of Deterrence,” Journal ofPhilosophy, vol. 75 (June 1978).

9 This conclusion is drawn by several authors; see, for example, Shaw, William H., “Nuclear Deterrence and Deontology,” Ethics, vol. 94 (January 1984).

10 Some of the ambiguities and complexities in the notion of conditional intentions concerning nuclear weapons are discussed in Lackey, Douglas P., “The Intentions of Deterrence,” Avner, Cohen and Steven, Lee, ed., Nuclear Weapons and the Future of Humanity (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Allanheld, 1985).

11 “First use” refers to any first use of nuclear weapons, tactical or strategic. “First strike” refers to a first use of strategic nuclear weapons. A first strike need not be a first use need not be a first strike.

12 For criticisms of extended deterrence, see Bundy, McGeorgeet. at., “NATO and the Atlantic Alliance,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 60 (Spring 1982), pp.753768; and McNamara, Robert S., “The Military Role of Nuclear Weapons: Perceptions and Misperceptions,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 61 (Summer 1983), pp.5980. Notice that if finite deterrence is permissible, extended deterrence need not be permissible. Thus, the failure of the arguments against finite deterrence given in this article would provide no justification for extended deterrence.

13 Nozick, Robert, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), Chapter 4.

14 On the strategic side, see Brodie, Bernard, “The Development of Nuclear Strategy,” International Security, vol. 3 (Spring 1978), pp.6583.

15 There is another way to make the comparison. Suppose that a nuclear winter will take 200,000,000 lives outside the United States, and that there are 20,000 driver-inflicted fatalities in the United States each year. Then, automobile driving will inflict in 10,000 years the number of deaths that a nuclear winter will inflict in one year. Can anyone honestly believe that something like the present system of superpower deterrence, given the usual swings between rationality and irrationality exhibited in the history of nations, can last more than 10,000 years without producing a catastrophe?

16 The nations practicing deterrence are China (one billion), the U.S.S.R. (272 million), the U.S. (234 million), the United Kingdom (56 million) and France (54 million), for a total of 1.617 billion, or 33% of the world's population of 4.889 billion people. I exclude India, which exploded a nuclear device in 1974 but which probably has no nuclear weapons and certainly has no delivery capability.

17 George Fletcher has argued that fair risk infliction is essentially reciprocal risk infliction, and that risk infliction is unfair if the victim of die risk cannot reciprocate (“Fairness and Utility in Tort Law,” Harvard Law Review, vol. 85 (January 1972), pp.537–73). Not only can non-nuclear nations not reciprocate the risks of deterrence presently inflicted on them, the nuclear nations are making every effort to keep the nonnuclear nations from reciprocating in the future. For an argument that lack of willingness to share nuclear weapons violates the Categorical Imperative, see Lackey, Douglas P., “Ethics and Nuclear Deterrence,” James, Rachels, ed., Moral Problems (New York: Harper and Row, 1975).

18 For evidence about attitudes among NATO allies, consider that the independent development of strategic nuclear forces by Great Britain and France, and the de-coupling of French strategic forces from NATO in 1966, indicates that these nations do not base their security expectations on the American deterrent; on the contrary, the reigning strategic fear in these countries is that the superpowers will initiate nuclear war over British or French territory, even when Britain and France are not committed to the conflict. As of this writing (April 1985), increasing public and official opposition exists to the placement of NATO cruise missiles in Belgium and the Netherlands; in Greece, the administration is actively considering leaving the Alliance, and the easy placement of missiles in Italy is more a result of political disorganization than a sign of popular support. Of course, in Germany, a substantial, vocal minority opposes placement.

19 Enthoven, Alain and Smith, Wayne, How Much Is Enough? (New York: Harper and Row, 1971).

20 In various places in the late 1970s, members of the Committee on the Present Danger claimed that the United States had set self-imposed limits on missile accuracy in the early 1970s, allegedly because increased accuracy was thought by those in power to be destabilizing. I have not been able to verify the existence of these self-imposed limits, and I tend to doubt that the United States ever set out deliberately to build less accurate missiles than it possibly could. If indeed the United States had built less-than-maximally accurate missiles, I am confident that the reasons for the choice were economic and not derived from any strategic doctrine. My reason for this confidence is that the United States has never formally adopted a strategic doctrine from which such decisions could be deduced.

21 Fried, Charles, An Anatomy Of Value (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970),

22 I reject as frivolous the suggestion that the American contribution to the “risk pool” consists in its decision since 1945 not to wage preventive war with opposing superpowers. True, the United States contemplated preventive war with the Soviet Union in 1948 and 1954, and with China in 1964, but in all three cases the dominant reasons for deciding not to launch preventive wars were military, not moral. Even if the reasons had been moral, to argue that the United States has contributed to international safety by not launching preventive wars is like saying that a driver makes a positive contribution to public safety by not driving drunk. But not driving drunk is a moral duty, and one cannot claim special credit for doing what one is required to do. (For the preventive war of 1948, suggested by Bertrand Russell and others, see Lackey, D., “Russell's Contribution to the Study of Nuclear Weapons Policy,” Russell, vol. 5 (Spring 1985); for 1954, see Rosenberg, David Alan, “The Origins of Overkill,” International Security, vol. 6 (Spring 1983), pp.371; for 1964, see Ellsberg, Daniel, “A Call to Mutiny,” E.P., Thomson, ed., Protest and Survive (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1981.

23 To see the equivalence of a 100 percent chance of one death and a one percent chance of 100 deaths, suppose that you are in a group of 100 people confronted by a sadistic dictator who presents the group with the following options: (a) everyone's name will be put in a hat; one name will be drawn out, and that person will be executed; or (b) the numbers 0 to 99 will be written on slips of paper and put in a hat, and if the number 54 is drawn all 100 people in the group will be executed. From the prudential standpoint, there is little to choose between (a) and (b). Each gives you a one percent chance of being killed. For discussions of actual versus statistical lives, see Fried, “An Anatomy of Value,” pp.207–210; and Schelling, Thomas, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” T., Schelling, ed., Choice and Consequence, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974), pp.113146.

24 Good sources for early American nuclear war-fighting plans are Brown, Anthony Cave, Dropshot: the [1949] United States Plan for War with the Soviet Union in 1957 (New York: Dial Press, 1978); Rosenberg, David Alan, “A Smoking Radiating Ruin at the End of Two Hours, International Security, vol. 4 (Winter 1981), pp.338; Rosenberg, , “The Origins of Overkill;” and Ball, Desmond, Targeting for Strategic Deterrence (London: Institute for Strategic Studies, 1983).

25 See, for example, Montmarquet, James A., “On Doing Good: the Right way and the Wrong Way,” Journal of Philosophy, vol. 79 (August 1982), p. 170.

26 See, for example, the article “Double Effect, Principle of” by F.J. O'Connell in the New Catholic Encyclopedia; and Mangan, J.T., “An Historical Analysis of the Principle of Double EffectTheological Studies, vol. 10 (1949).

27 For McNamara's position, see Halperin, Morton, “The No-Cities Strategy.” New Republic, (8 October 1962), and Kaufman, W.W., The McNamara Strategy (New York: Harper and Row, 1964). For Schlesinger's position, see Desmond Ball, Targeting for Strategic Deterrence. For targeting policy in the Reagan era, see letter by (then) National Security Advisor William Clark to the National Council of Catholic Bishops, reprinted in Origins, vol. 8 (October 1982).

28 I take it that treating the distinction between killing and failing to save from death as morally relevant is an essential part of the deontological moral point of view, just as refusing to recognize the moral relevance of the distinction is an essential part of utilitarian morality. The complexities of this problem are canvassed in the articles collected in Bonnie, Steinbock, ed., Killing and Letting Die (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1981.

29 Thomson, Judith, “Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem,” TheMonist, vol. 59 (April 1975).

30 Perhaps another reason why people are more sympathetic to what they take to be risk deflection than they are to what they take to be risk creation, is that they assume that risk creation brings more evil into the world than risk deflection. But this assumption is false since, if risk deflection is permissible at all, it should be just as permissible to shift the risk from a group of two to a group of five as to shift it from a group of five to a group of two.

31 Interestingly, one of the few arguments against erecting the shield must be conceded by those who believe that deterrence is obligatory. If the United States retained an offensive nuclear capacity, then it would be wrong to erect the shield because it would deprive the Soviet Union of its deterrent capacity and prevent the Soviet leaders from doing what (according to the argument) is morally required.

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