Is Nuclear Deterrence Moral?

Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism

by John Finnis and Joseph M. Boyle Jr. and 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…

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