A Damned Argument

On appealing to 'historical necessity' in order to justify moral paralysis


Faith Philosophy

Reflecting on the West’s strategy of nuclear deterrence, Winston Churchill expressed the hope that “safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation.” Can such a hope be reasonable?

Some argue that however odious it is, nuclear deterrence, in light of world realities, is our least-harmful course of action. We might call such reasoning “the historical necessity argument.” This argument seems to assume that we find ourselves in a moral blind alley. No matter what we do, we must act wrongly. Either we disarm or we maintain the status quo. But if we disarm, we invite military and political suicide. So it is that our safety must be the sturdy child of terror. (And don’t call us terrorists!)

Here, though, we need to distinguish between an absolute and a conditional moral blind alley. Just what counts as an absolute moral blind alley? It is a moral paradox: even though there is no past wrong for which we are responsible, yet now there is some wrong which we must commit. In contrast, a conditional moral blind alley is one in which our own past wrongs have brought us to a sorry dilemma and in which we must now accept some evil or other.

If there are, in fact, absolute moral blind alleys, then there are historical necessities as well. Today the excuse that “the devil made me do it” has become a joke. But the excuse, however devilishly disguised, that “history makes it necessary” passes as a sober reflection. So, are there any absolute moral blind alleys? No, not unless the entire moral enterprise is incoherent. Not unless the work of virtue collapses into existential absurdity.

Let’s return to the particular case at hand: the policy of nuclear deterrence. We have come to stockpile nuclear weapons, and continue to develop their lethal power, at enormous expense. We proceed, step by step, sometimes publicly and sometimes secretly. Few suggest that it can be licit to use such weapons of mass destruction. Yet all the while we act is if it is licit to threaten to use these same weapons. And at every step of the way we act against the basic good of life. Thus, the seeming blind alley in which we find ourselves is conditional, not absolute.

History is not some entity over and above the story of human beings acting in God’s creation. History neither judges nor acts; it is, rather, human beings who judge and act, whether for the good or against it. Hence, if there is human freedom, then there is no historical necessity. To appeal to it in order to justify our own moral paralysis is damnable.

What then are we to make of Churchill’s hope? Isn’t it the very hope that for the most part we have made our own? Thomas Aquinas teaches that at the natural level hope is not a virtue. And why? Simply because we often hope for something that is not good. Hoping that a policy of terrorism will prove a reliable ally is such a hope.

Elizabeth Anscombe, the eminent Catholic thinker who challenged Truman and Churchill alike, would have us rather examine our consciences with regard to faith. She wrote that those who think that we must be prepared to use weapons of mass destruction must also be prepared to say to God, “We could not obey your commandments, for we did not believe your promises.”


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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