The Morality of Deterrence

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Nuclear Deterrence, Morality, and Realism, by John Finnis, Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., and Germain Grisez

Many say that a weapon cannot, in and of itself, be judged morally. The weapon is merely an object, incapable of action without human intervention. The morality is in the use – therefore what is to be judged is the purpose of the deployment. In other words, the weapon cannot be judged, however the use to which it is deployed can.

For a typical firearm, knife, or bow and arrow, I find this reasonable. However, what of a weapon that cannot be so specifically aimed? Whereas a firearm can be deployed in a manner such that it harms only the intended target, something like a nuclear bomb cannot – it kills innocent as well as guilty, indiscriminately. In other words, weapons of mass destruction, by their very design – when used as directed – will kill many besides the targets engaged in combat.

On this I am greatly influenced by Rothbard and his view:

This is why the old cliché no longer holds that it is not the arms but the will to use them that is significant in judging matters of war and peace. For it is precisely the characteristic of modern weapons that they cannot be used selectively, cannot be used in a libertarian manner.

While some will agree with the above sentiment, there is even a further step to explore: is it appropriate to have such weapons for use as a deterrent? In other words, while it is immoral to deploy such weapons (as these will kill combatants and non-combatants alike), is it proper to utilize such weapons as deterrent – as useful in stopping an attack before it starts due to the horrendous threat posed by the potential retaliation?

Rothbard comments on this as well:

Therefore, their very existence must be condemned, and nuclear disarmament becomes a good to be pursued for its own sake. And if we will indeed use our strategic intelligence, we will see that such disarmament is not only a good, but the highest political good that we can pursue in the modern world. For just as murder is a more heinous crime against another man than larceny, so mass murder – indeed murder so widespread as to threaten human civilization and human survival itself – is the worst crime that any man could possibly commit. And that crime is now imminent. And the forestalling of massive annihilation is far more important, in truth, than the demunicipalization of garbage disposal, as worthwhile as that may be. Or are libertarians going to wax properly indignant about price control or the income tax, and yet shrug their shoulders at or even positively advocate the ultimate crime of mass murder?

Under libertarian thinking and common morality, Rothbard finds no reason for the existence of such weapons –presumably include for the purpose of deterrence. (As is often the case, I am certain I have not read everything that Rothbard has written on this subject.) It is the issue of deterrence that I would like to explore, and for this reason I explore the above-mentioned book.

I had originally intended to write several posts on this subject, as I have with other books. I initially believed that the material to be covered would require such a detailed commentary.

I was wrong – the material covered is so thorough, so detailed, and so complete; I can only do it justice by outlining the topics covered, highlighting a few passages, and offering some relatively superficial commentary. The authors have done a remarkable job, and for me to try to capture the work in a meaningful way is impossible. If you want more detail, I can only suggest that you read the book! Every angle is covered by the authors.

The book was written during the Cold War – the Wall was still a reality. The references are in this context of the Cold War and the Soviet Union; however the issues are still relevant as the weapons are still with us. I make no attempt to clean up the Cold War references; my purpose is not to examine these weapons only in the context of a particular time. Even today, the weapons exist, and pose the same threat as they did during the Cold War. It seems to me the issues are the same as always.

The authors have background in law, philosophy and ethics respectively. The book brings together these disciplines when addressing the issues. References are to chapter.section from the book.

The authors consider the entire issue from the point of view of the West, and look at the root – what, exactly, is it that the West is intending to protect? They operate with a worldview that suggests it is right for political leaders to look after the security of the subject population. What is being protected and defended is a Western way of life different than that in the totalitarian Soviet Union.

This way of life has at its foundation certain Judeo-Christian principles. By implication, if the West does not live by these principles, the authors suggest that there is little reason to protect the population from an aggressor that also does not live by those same principles. In other words, from the point of view of the people, one ruler not ruling with common morality is not much different than the next.

What is deterrence?

One acts to deter when one threatens to do something which another wants one not to do, so the other will not do something one wants to prevent. (I.1)

The authors explore the language of deterrence used by political leaders of the west during the Cold War. The language spoken was the language of city-swapping – you destroy some of our cities, we will destroy an equal number of yours. The intent was to make the losses severe enough that there would be no net gain from any such nuclear attack. Further, in the event that all else failed and all was lost, the possibility of a final retribution – an unleashing of a total retaliatory strike – was left open. Mutually Assured Destruction.

The authors provide many quotes and examples of this political posture. They quote several leaders from France, Britain, and the United States all supportive of the possibility of city-swapping. City-swapping, of course, means death and destruction brought upon the civilian population. In the case of the United States, for several years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no statements were even necessary – actions spoke louder than words on the willingness to use nuclear weapons to kill non-combatants.

The authors go on to describe the destructive capability of the weapons on both sides – weapons hundreds of times more powerful than those deployed against Japan. Of such weapons, there are thousands on each side, all aimed against the other. If launched, as intended under the thinking of the time, it would be certain that the casualties would include countless tens of millions of non-combatants.

The authors next look at the duty to deter.

The vast deterrent system is maintained by governments and citizens who regard it as a practical necessity. And there are good reasons for judging that deterrence is necessary to maintain peace and protect the independence of the Western democracies.

…we consider in turn what the goals of the deterrent actually are, whether they are morally legitimate, whether the values the deterrent protects are threatened, and why nuclear deterrence is probably the only practical way of meeting the threat. (III.1)

The authors clarify that even though such deterrence might be a practically necessary means to a legitimate goal, they leave for later the examination of the legitimacy of the means. In this chapter, the authors consider that the means is necessary:

…we conclude that no non-nuclear defence could adequately replace nuclear deterrence if the Western nations renounce it unilaterally. (III.5)

I am not convinced that there is no other means by which deterrence can be adequately achieved. There is evidence to at least question this: in support of the authors’ view, North Korea (with a nuclear capability), despite being on the radar as part of the evil axis, has not been invaded, while other so-called rogue nations such as Libya, Iraq, and others without the capability have been overrun. Conversely, Pakistan – a nuclear nation – is today a victim of undeclared war. Their nuclear weapons have not deterred this. Switzerland, and dozens of other nations not armed in this way, at the same time appear to be reasonably safe from harm.

In any case, even accepting the authors’ position that there is a practical benefit to deterrence that cannot be achieved any other way, does this justify the making of such threats?

We hold, therefore, that at present, and for the foreseeable future, the West’s moral responsibility to preserve its independence against Soviet power almost certainly cannot be fulfilled without the deterrent. It does not follow, however, that the deterrent is morally justified.

For even if one has a serious moral responsibility, one can be morally barred from using the only available means to fulfill it…. If one finds oneself in circumstances such that there is no moral way to discharge one’s positive duties, then one should not discharge them. (III.5)

Therefore, accepting the premise that government has such a responsibility, if the only means by which to discharge it is immoral, the responsibility should not be discharged. So the question is asked, is the means immoral?

Must not the deterrent be rejected because, though a necessary means for fulfilling a grave responsibility, it violates the stringent moral norm which excludes intentional killing of the innocent.

According to common morality, even a grave responsibility does not justify the means necessary to fulfill it if choosing that means is something one must never do. Duties must be carried out by every legitimate means, but may and must remain unfulfilled when it is impossible to fulfill them. (IV.1)

Such morality is captured in statements such as: the end does not justify the means; evil may not be done that good may come. Killing the innocent violates these moral sentiments.

It is always wrong to deliberately kill the innocent. (IV.1)

The authors conclude this based on traditional Judeo-Christian principles. The conclusion is certainly consistent with the non-aggression principle.

In this, I don’t mean to suggest that every individual in the West is or must attend either a synagogue or church. Nor do I suggest that those of a faith outside of these two (or of no faith, if such is possible) have no place in Western society. However, there are principles that undergird any society. Principles in the West can be traced back to a Biblical understanding of morals. If these principles aren’t respected in the means of defense, then what is the point? Certainly this doesn’t hinge on defending the right to vote!

The authors demonstrate that by applying this moral standard, at least two components of the deterrent must be excluded: that of city-swapping, and that of the final retaliation – mutually assured destruction.

The authors begin by examining intent – the intent of the individuals behind the threat and subsequent act.

What matters is the relationship between the moral agent’s will and the death brought about, and that relationship is specified by the agent’s intention. (IV.2)

The authors conclude that the death of innocent persons (or non-combatants) is precisely what is intended by those who make the threat – by innocent, those not involved in the combat and war-making business (including logistics support, manufacturing of arms, etc.).

…whoever chooses to make the deterrent threat intends, conditionally but really, what is threatened. If what is threatened includes the killing of innocent persons, the threat includes an intention prohibited by common morality. (IV.3)

…it is clear that many (at least) of the deaths intended in the threats of city swapping and final retaliation are not intended as the killing of combatants, and are thus intended as the killing of innocents…. Massive destruction of people including non-combatants is part of what Western leaders desire the Soviet leadership to fear and take steps to make it fear. (IV.5, emphasis in text)

As to final retaliation, the authors note that this is an option only deployed when the war is already lost. To this, the authors suggest there are no longer combatants – the war is over. In other words, all killed are non-combatants because there is no more cause for war-making.

The authors further examine other possibilities, for example: 1) that the door remains open for the actors to change their minds, or 2) it is all a bluff. The authors conclude that neither is realistic – too many people are involved.

In the case of actors changing their mind: even if the small handful of individuals who have the authority to unleash such weapons know in the back of their mind that they can change course, not all actors in the chain do. There is a pluralism of command, necessary to deter a decapitating strike. What of the lone submarine commander, as one such example?

In the case of this being a bluff – it isn’t a bluff to everyone. For many on the sending end and for all on the potential receiving end, the threat is real. Therefore, they will act as if it is real, and in a highly volatile situation one of these actors outside of those who are bluffing might choose to act (or react) as he was trained to do.

Given the callous disregard for life shown by those states with the preponderance of nuclear weapons, on what rational basis could one conclude that the mass killing of non-combatants is a bluff?

The proposal embodied in the deterrent policy is not some secret known only to a few well-informed officials. The content of the proposal is evident. For it is a public proposal, understood and taken seriously by citizens just as it is by adversaries…. Reflections on the content of this public proposal, and on the social act which defines it, shows that readiness to inflict unacceptable losses necessarily involves the conditional intent to kill the innocent. (V.7)

The authors go on to examine if the nuclear deterrent must threaten innocents – in other words, can the deterrent exist without threatening innocents. They look at this through the possibility of “war-winning” and alternatively of “victory denying.” The authors believe that inherent in the deterrent is a threat to innocent individuals:

…the route to a morally legitimate deterrent consisting in such a capability is barred by insurmountable obstacles – technological, strategic, political, and moral. (VI.4)

Some suggest that any action taken (including a nuclear deterrent) in legitimate self-defense must be morally acceptable – even if the action is immoral. In reply, the authors offer a statement that is clearly consistent with the non-aggression principle:

…the use of deadly military force against those not involved in the unjust use of force cannot be justified, since the use of deadly force is justified only to counter force unjustly used. (VII.3)

Having reviewed arguments based on morality, the authors turn to arguments based on consequences – arguments both for and against deterrent. Which option brings about the greater good or lesser evil? In other words, is the evil of nuclear deterrence necessary because the consequences of being overrun are even worse?

This is defended by some on the basis that nothing bad has happened yet – the strategy has not been deployed. It may be wrong to make good on the threat, but there is no wrong in making the threat. Of course, the authors have addressed this issue earlier in the book – that the leadership might have a change of mind at the last minute, or know that they are operating under a bluff. Neither is likely possible.

Others offer that the probability of deploying the deterrent option is so minimal that to consider the moral question is almost irrelevant. The authors offer analysis that suggests the probability is not as minimal as one might like; in any case there are known events in the past that have come dangerously close to putting the entire process in motion.

Add to this the facts of nuclear devastation. Many studies have been done, and the devastation is not minimal. It is widespread, it is uncontrollable, and it is lingering.

The authors look at the alternative: dead is better than red. This is simply not so, as it certainly cannot be true for every individual potential casualty of a nuclear holocaust. Citing Lackey:

If I may hark back to those charming debates of the 1950s, it has always seemed to me that red is better than dead because the red can choose to be dead but the dead cannot choose to be anything at all.

Alternatively, some who propose consequentialist arguments offer that unilateral disarmament would reduce the likelihood of nuclear war, while not increasing the likelihood of Soviet domination. Again, referring to examples cited earlier of real-life situations today, this point is at least plausible.

For the authors, ultimately the question is a moral one – not based on consequences:

Anyone who accepts the norms (often called precepts) of common morality should judge the nuclear deterrent immoral…. (X.1)

The book ends with the authors examining disarmament, individual responsibilities, and finally a chapter entitled “Concluding Christian Thoughts.”

To learn what the deterrent actually is: that is the first responsibility of moralists and religious leaders who wish to talk about the deterrent. Not to talk in ignorance of the facts; not to substitute wishes for facts; above all, not to pretend that it is something other than it is, or, worse, connive with government officials to obtain fresh descriptions of the deterrent threat, so that an unqualified moral condemnation of it can be avoided. (XIV.6)

The deterrent consists of the threat, deployable on command, of the destruction of life on earth. Countless billions of people today, who – regardless of the political tyranny under which they suffer – choose “red” (or today’s equivalent of any less-than-free state) as opposed to “dead” are given no choice but “dead” if the threat is made good. Future generations will be recipients of untold misery. The reality of the deterrent cannot be avoided. It must be faced for what it is – after which one might continue to argue that this reality of threatening nuclear holocaust and the risks and consequences that come with this threat is better than that which is being deterred.

So: anyone who discerns the immorality of the deterrent should at once repent. Having repented, responsible citizens will try to help their nations escape from the slavery of the balance of terror. (XIV.6)

Perhaps the language of repentance will turn some off. However, the non-aggression principle and Christian morality dovetail nicely on this issue. The conclusion is the same using either set of principles as the foundation, I believe: even for purposes of deterrence, such weapons of mass destruction are inherently immoral – not in use, but in existence.

For this, I return again to Rothbard, as previously cited:

This is why the old cliché no longer holds that it is not the arms but the will to use them that is significant in judging matters of war and peace. For it is precisely the characteristic of modern weapons that they cannot be used selectively, cannot be used in a libertarian manner.

If one equates the libertarian term “non-aggression principle” and the authors’ use of the term “common morality” (reasonable, given the context), these three authors come to the same conclusion.

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