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Is Nuclear Deterrence Moral?

Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism

by John Finnis, by Joseph M. Boyle Jr., by Germain Grisez
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 429 pp., £30.00


Common morality both requires the West to oppose the Soviets…and excludes the intent to kill innocents.”

This is the dilemma Finnis, Boyle, and Grisez explore in their impressive book. About the authors themselves one need only say that they are all three Roman Catholics, that they are professional philosophers—one of them, Finnis, is a notable student of jurisprudence—and that they stand outside the syndrome-thinking1 that dominates most debate by Christians and secularists over the morality of the nuclear deterrent and over most other moral issues that arise out of the consideration of public policy. While they are all of them in a loose sense attached to the Aristotelian tradition in moral philosophy, they are more strongly influenced by the moral principles of the Old and New Testaments—they are children of Moses and Paul; and they are also influenced by modes of argument and styles of thinking drawn from analytical philosophy in the English-speaking countries.

They address two audiences—though there is some overlapping: those Christians in the United States and Western Europe who are concerned with the moral issues raised by the prospect of nuclear warfare, and a more general public that has been weighing such issues for a long time now, certainly since the Sixties, though of course the basic moral perplexities in this field go back to the bombings of Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, and to the earlier area bombings of the German conurbations. What they give us is very dense and very closely argued. It is the most important contribution so far to the debate over the ethics of nuclear deterrence.

Their first premise is that what they frequently call “common morality”—this is just the morality of the Torah as it has been transmitted and articulated in the tradition of Christian moral commentary—both lays upon us a duty to protect those communities within which a tolerable life may be lived and calls upon us unconditionally to respect the lives of the innocent. They are able to show without much difficulty that the policy of deterrence pursued by the governments of the United States, the Soviet Union, France, and Britain rests upon the threat of “city swapping” (that is, Moscow is a hostage for New York or Paris or London, Leningrad for Marseilles, Kiev for Chicago, and so on) and of total retaliation in the event of full-scale nuclear warfare. That is, what is threatened in an extremity is the destruction of a large part of the population of the enemy country. There are sometimes attempts to conceal this part of the policy of deterrence. There was, for example, the blandishment employed by William Clark, then national security adviser, against the American Catholic bishops when they were considering the final draft of their statement on war, namely, that civilian populations are not targeted “as such.” Our authors have no difficulty in showing this to be a sophistry.

The question then is: If it would be wrong (as many would in the end come to think) to kill the innocent, and if what is conditionally threatened under the policy of deterrence is precisely this, is it immoral to threaten to do what it would be morally wrong to do? Couldn’t one escape the moral difficulty by using the threat as a mere bluff, having no intention to carry out the threat? Naturally, one wouldn’t tell the enemy one was bluffing, for this would make the deterrent ineffective; but couldn’t this be one’s real intention? Reasoning of this kind seems to have been behind the statement by the French bishops on November 8, 1983,2 for they seem to have maintained with equal force that to save Western civilization it is necessary to threaten the Soviet Union with mass destruction and that actually to destroy vast populations would be sinful and is altogether forbidden to Christians. Here they rely on the much-quoted statement by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council, in the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”:

Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.

Finnis and his colleagues make very short work of the bluff thesis. It is wrong to threaten to do what it would be wrong to do in the matter of the deterrent, simply because the logistics, so to speak, of the entire policy of deterrence involve the acquiescence of large numbers of people in the conditional willing of the destruction of the innocent. And for these people, the Polaris crews, for example, this can’t be bluff; they must really intend, if called upon by their superiors, to press the buttons or do whatever they are asked to do, no matter what their leaders may have been saying to themselves in the privacy of their oratories.

The question then becomes: Is it right to suppose that there are any human actions that are unconditionally forbidden, wrong without the possibility of qualification? Is it necessarily wrong to kill or to threaten to kill the innocent as a means to some good and approvable end, such as the preservation of the West from Soviet rule? Or is the threat to kill the innocent something that can be allowed (as Michael Walzer argued in Just and Unjust Wars3 ) in a situation of extremity? Or can we evade the dilemma by showing that the notion of things wrong in themselves, no matter what the envisaged consequences of observing such prohibitions, is incoherent? Must we in the end discard the notion of the absolutely forbidden, holding that the rules springing from such prohibitions have force only for the most part, but that the rules hold only because their consequences are commonly such as we should approve, and that they don’t hold where the consequences of sticking to the rules are manifestly abhorrent or absurd? This raises all the questions discussed by those philosophers—the utilitarians are the most celebrated example—who hold that in one way or another what counts morally in the weighing of an action is the range of consequences: those that are anticipated or (more oddly) those that the actions under consideration actually have. (This last view would have the drawback, if it is a drawback, that moral judgments would have to be made after the actions were performed.)

The examination of consequentialism in its various forms by our authors is painstaking and thorough. They even show that if we concede some forms of consequentialism to be true, there is still a strong case against the deterrent.

Some preliminary remarks are perhaps called for. It used to be maintained with great vigor by Protestant controversialists that it was a distinctive mark of Catholic moral theory that morally evil things might be done for the sake of a good end. This doctrine was believed to be a special mark of Jesuit moral theology. The Protestant world was, on the contrary, always portrayed as heroically refusing to do evil that good might come, or at least as refusing to countenance it as reputable. This is mythology and not history; but the main contrast was steadily maintained and was a strong element in the muscular version of Protestantism propagated by such writers as Charles Kingsley, who depicted Catholics as subtle in evil, tricky and dishonest, equivocators, capable of all forms of deceit.

A very curious change has come over the West. Protestants, and others who may not be Christians but seem to stand within the Protestant succession, are now defenders of the doctrine, once execrated, that the end justifies the means, that evil may be done that good may come; and Roman Catholics—though not all of them—seem to be among the few surviving groups who want to say that there are certain things that may never be done no matter what the benefits envisaged. Some modern Protestant moral theologians have argued that “love” is all that matters, and that adultery, the killing of the unborn, and the killing of the aged and imbecile, may all be done in the service of “love.” Of course, the picture is complicated. Not all Protestant theologians are consequentialists, and there is among Catholic moral theologians, especially in the United States, a scattering of those who are prepared to use consequentialist arguments in what they take to be hard cases. And there are similar divisions within Judaism.

But what is wrong with consequentialism? Why is it absolutely out of the question that an innocent human being should be slain for the sake of the city when the city is in its extremity? Why is it always wrong to commit an act of idolatry? Why do we have to take adultery as always wrong? Surely, and this is the Lutheran tradition from Luther himself (who allowed bigamy for reasons of state) to Max Weber (so much for the Catholic/Protestant contrast of the controversial literature), the world is a rough place full of ambivalent courses and conflicting moral claims, and one who gives himself to the service of his fellows, especially in the life of politics, may be called upon to sacrifice his personal purity or integrity for the sake of the collective. That you can’t touch pitch (the life of politics) without being defiled is as much a part of proverbial moral wisdom as the saying that you shouldn’t use bad means to secure a good end. Sensible men, therefore, may well steer their way from situation to situation without allowing their consciences to grow too tender, sometimes recoiling from the use of bad means to a good end, sometimes seeing nothing to be done but to sin strongly in the service of the nation.

Perhaps I should add that the argument about consequentialism doesn’t hang upon the plausibility of the examples here given. I give them as illustrations of the kind of thing one might have in mind. The only case Finnis and his colleagues discuss at length is that of the intentional killing of the innocent. (The “innocent,” it should be emphasized, are those who are not fighting a war and who would be doing what they are doing even if no war were in prospect—housewives, children, civilian doctors and nurses, workers on the land, workers in industries that have nothing to do with military activity, the old, and so on; in fact, the greater part of any population. Even soldiers cease to be legitimate objects of attack and are in a sense innocent the moment they formally surrender to their opponents.)

For the greater part of the book Finnis and his colleagues take what they call common morality for granted, common morality being understood as including the prohibition of the killing of the innocent. Even those who argue that the demands of common morality may be disregarded in an extremity—the writer most often cited is Michael Walzer—agree that actions intentionally bringing about the death of the innocent are morally evil and that the suspension of the moral prohibition is tied uniquely to a situation of dire extremity. A situation of extremity is one in which a totalitarian regime threatens the very existence of liberal civilization, with what makes it valuable, notably the existence of the constitutional rule of law and of all that goes with it. Walzer argues that this was the case with the Nazi assault on Britain in the 1940s and discusses the issue in connection with the area bombing of Germany. The same case could be argued if the Soviet bloc seemed to be in a position to dominate, militarily and politically, the Western countries.

  1. 1

    By syndrome-thinking I mean something like this: those who oppose, and those who defend, nuclear deterrence tend to hold clusters of other views that seem somehow to go with their moral position. Critics of deterrence may oppose capital punishment, be in favor of abortion on demand, and defend “animal rights”; those in favor of nuclear deterrence may be supporters of free enterprise, capital punishment, no gun controls, and so on. I believe that what glues such views together in a cluster is not logical implication but an ideological compulsion that rests upon extralogical grounds.

  2. 2

    On this and other related issues see my “Nuclear Catholicism,” The New York Review, December 22, 1983.

  3. 3

    See my review of Walzer’s book in The New York Review, December 8, 1977.

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