Thou Shalt Not Do Nuclear Murder, Nor Intend To
Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism
By John Finnis, Joseph M. Boyle Jr., and Germain Grisez
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Pages: 429 pages
Review Author: James G. Hanink
Three decades have passed since Winston Churchill announced that in our nuclear times “safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation.” John Finnis, a constitutional lawyer, Joseph Boyle, a philosopher, and Germain Grisez, a theologian, take Churchill at his word. So has history.
But the authors insist that terror, however institutionalized, abandons the common morality which condemns violence, and the intent to use violence, against the innocent. The authors are acutely aware that Churchill is thought to have defined a new reality. Yet they argue that, “The reality here is two-fold; the menace of Soviet power if it were undeterred…and the threat to kill the innocent, with its underlying intent, and its guilt.” The moral reality is that we must cease to “participate in, defend, support, or approve the nuclear deterrent system.”
The authors do not suppose that their thesis is new. The English philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, a pro-Humanae Vitae Catholic, has held such a view since the 1950s. The Catholic Worker movement, on distinctly pacifist grounds, has long acted on such a conclusion. But Finnis, Boyle, and Grisez build an extraordinarily strong case for unilateral nuclear disarmament, and on Just War grounds; this study is unmatched in its political sobriety and moral clarity.
The analysis begins with the threats the deterrence policy makes. Verbal formulae differ, but the core threats do not: superpowers pledge to destroy the cities of their enemies in response to comparable strikes and to devastate whole societies in response to unlimited enemy attacks. The authors name the first of these threats “city swapping” and the second “final retaliation.” Both appear repeatedly in official documents.
Perhaps no one put the main point more clearly than did President Reagan in a 1985 Time interview: “The word comes that they’re [the missiles] on their way…they’re going to blow up how much of this country we can only guess at, and your only response can be to push the button before they get here so that even though you’re all going to die, they’re going to die too.”
While Reagan deplores this “uncivilized” policy, the policy stands.
Not all managers of deterrence are so candid. Some speak of not targeting populations “as such.” National Security Adviser William Clark advised the U.S. bishops that “for moral, political, and military reasons, the United States does not target the Soviet civilian population as such. There is no deliberately opaque meaning conveyed in the last two words.” Yet within two weeks of this disclaimer, then Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger told Congress that our deterrence must convince the Soviets that we can “deny them their objectives at whatever level of nuclear conflict they contemplate” and that such an exchange “could lead to the destruction of those political, military and economic assets that they value most highly….” Who or what we threaten to destroy is not limited to who or what we target “as such.”
Threats require people to carry them out. Presidents are fond of Truman’s line, “the buck stops here.” Eisenhower’s memoirs play a nuclear variation on the theme: “My intention was firm: to launch the Strategic Air Command immediately upon trustworthy evidence of a general attack against the West.” Each president has in attendance a special aide who bears the codes required to launch a nuclear attack. The Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) details just what nuclear options are available. Our threats are genuine: they rest on an effective arsenal, elaborate plans, and a readiness to execute.
While the authors give a sober account of the facts of deterrence, they are adamant in affirming the duty to defend democratic institutions. The West is not justice realized; indeed, our culture is badly flawed. Yet here we enjoy civil liberties and can attack public injustice. Most importantly, the “commitments of Western political orders are not radically incompatible with a just society, whereas a Leninist polity could become just only by ceasing to be what it fundamentally is.”
Without the nuclear deterrence, the authors believe that no effective defense remains. Democratic institutions could not long survive the inevitable shifts among power blocs. Perhaps their conclusion is too pessimistic. Perhaps they should calibrate their predictions in light of Gorbachev’s reforms. Still, glasnost and perestroika are currently only experiments, and Soviet persecution of religious dissidents is flagrant. In any case, the authors’ unilateralism does not depend on wishful thinking. And were one to propose a nonviolent resistance as strategically effective, one would have to posit a discipline the West manifestly lacks.
But how can it be that we have a duty to defend democracy and must nonetheless give up nuclear deterrence? The paradox is only apparent. For “even if one has a serious moral responsibility, one can be morally barred from using the only available means to fulfill it.” There is, for example, a duty to care for the sick. Yet we may not save persons in irreversible kidney failure by taking the organs of those who are not, even if there is no other remedy. Common morality insists that the ends cannot always justify the means. We must not defend democracy by a nuclear deterrent if it entails the intent to kill the innocent.
Here in their analysis the authors turn from the facts of deterrence and its political context to developing the claim that common morality inescapably rules out nuclear deterrence. A crucial series of questions guides the inquiry: (1) What is the source of the norm against killing the innocent? (2) Why is even the intention to do so wrong? (3) What is the status of a conditional intention? (4) Who are the innocent?
The source of the norm against killing the innocent is the Jewish-Christian tradition. Scripture teaches “Do no murder” (Exod. 20:13). No human authority can justify the deliberate killing of the innocent. Despite the fading of biblical traditions, common morality maintains this norm, albeit without a clear foundation nowadays.
Suppose, however, that we “do no [nuclear] murder.” Why is even the intent to, say, “city swap” — under conditions that may never be met — gravely wrong? Because what we intend shapes who we are. An act has both an external and an internal dimension: the one shapes the world, the other shapes the agent. To intend to kill the innocent, if certain conditions are met, is already to take on the character of a murderer. Thus common morality accepts a “wrongful-intentions principle.” The authors state it well: “one may not intend what one may not do.“
But does this principle apply to the sort of intention the deterrent involves? This intention is variously conditioned. The intent to use nuclear weapons is contingent on external events, events one might suppose will not happen, and the intent bears on acts one would not want to perform. Indeed, one forms the intent at issue to prevent those conditions from being realized. Isn’t the point of the deterrent to make sure that nuclear weapons are not used?
No such litany of qualifiers changes the moral verdict. A bank robber, the authors observe, who takes a hostage forms the conditional intention of killing that hostage — should the guards attack, which the robber supposes they will not. Nor does the robber want to kill the hostage. He issues his threat solely to prevent the conditions for acting on it from being met. The same structure can be found in a range of terrorist acts, including those with noble ends.
Who is innocent in an age of total war? Here common morality refers to those who do not directly contribute to wrongful aggression. But when nuclear strikes shift from a counter-force to a counter-value strategy — i.e., when cities are destroyed just to demoralize or retaliate — then even combatants are destroyed simply as innocent persons.
In substance, the authors’ common morality case against nuclear deterrence is before us, clear and uncompromising. Yet several issues remain. Let us first attend to three of the most critical specific issues.
If common morality rejects the deterrent, how is it that the Catholic Church, in which authors are communicants, has not unequivocally rejected it? Here the authors refer to John Paul II’s 1982 statement to the U.N. that deterrence “may still be judged morally acceptable.” They note, however, that the Pope “does not identify and find morally acceptable the intention to city swap or execute the threat of final retaliation.” Either deed would violate the teaching of Vatican II: “Every act of war directed indiscriminately to the destruction of whole cities or wide regions with their population is a crime against God and man.” In addition, Catholic moral theology affirms the wrongful intention principle. Thus the U.S. bishops’ peace pastoral asserts that “it is not morally acceptable to intend to kill the innocent as part of a strategy of deterring nuclear war.”
A second question is whether the deterrence must involve the intent to kill the innocent. Mightn’t we simply form no fixed intention about how we will act if attacked? Isn’t there a difference between merely possessing such weapons and intending to use them? Mightn’t our leaders be bluffing?
All this is only rationalization. Public policy statements make it clear that we do have the conditional intention to kill the innocent. Apart from that, deterrence is a “social act.” It requires the military preparations of tens of thousands of people and the political support of many more. Such preparation and support invite a fixed intention, go far beyond mere possession, and preclude any bluff not limited to a select few.
A last specific question is whether there might not be a way to reconstitute the deterrence so that it does not entail an intent to kill the innocent. Two strategies merit review.
Could we construct a foolproof defensive system, such as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) is sometimes imagined to be? Apart from its destabilizing effect — since the enemy fears that once in place nothing prevents us from launching a deadly first strike — there seems to be no answer to the charge that SDI can never be more than (very) imperfectly adequate.
The other strategy is a policy of threatening only military forces so that noncombatant deaths are true side effects. This strategy, though, cannot be effective. Once a nuclear exchange begins, deterrence of attacks against populations requires a threat to reply in kind. And even at the counter-force level, nuclear exchange means using weaponry far more lethal than that used against Hiroshima. “Official U.S. estimates,” the authors note, “are that a major U.S. attack on the Soviet Union, targeting only Soviet nuclear forces, other military targets, and economic targets, would promptly kill between 20 and 40 percent of the entire population (i.e., between 55 and 110 million people).” Adjusted statistics will include the toll of radioactive fallout.
We must also explore a more far-reaching response to the unilateralist argument from common morality. This response suggests that the common morality is all very well for life’s ordinary affairs, but sometimes we must put aside everyday rules: moral directives are only prima facie in character. Ordinarily it is wrong to intend to do what is wrong. But deterrence is licit, since without it we would have to abandon democracy. Even innocent life loses its immunity when to threaten it is the lesser of two evils.
Such reasoning is familiar. It is, in philosophical terms, an expression of ethical consequentialism. Consequentialists hold that an act is morally right if and only if no other act open to the agent has better consequences. The injunctions of common morality are merely rules of thumb, and only an absolutist would claim more. If we can produce better consequences by violating the principle, “Do not kill (or threaten to kilbpthe innocent,” we must do so. How could it be reasonable not to act for the best?
A key point to note is that the consequentialist does not dispute the authors’ analysis of what deterrence entails. He simply counters that keeping the deterrent is the lesser of two evils, and so our best option.
An initial problem with the siren song of consequentialism is that it can be sung with contradictory lyrics. Consider the inverse consequentialist argument:
It is irrational (they say) to maintain the nuclear deterrent. Sooner or later nuclear accidents must occur. Apart from accidents, our maintaining an ever more elaborate deterrent means that others must do the same. The result will be an exponential proliferation. We need fear not only accidents but, more importantly, the nearly inevitable use of nuclear weapons. Yet such an exchange will almost surely escalate. The consequences? They are at the limit of our imagination. Among them is the phenomenon of nuclear winter. The survival of man is at stake. In the nuclear embers, we will experience only the democracy of death. Democratic polities are surely more likely to survive Soviet domination. The duty to preserve our institutions is only a prima facie one. We must keep our heads and choose the lesser of two evils. Our best chance is to abandon the deterrent.
One consequentialist argument concludes “Better dead than Red,” while its opposite says “Better Red than dead.” The point is that consequentialism typically fails to give a cogent account of acting “for the best.”
Consequentialism is also defective in supposing that the choice to bring about certain results, together with those results, is commensurable with the choice to bring about any other set of results, together with those results. The point is abstract, but a single example illustrates the matter. A couple exert great pressure on their teenage daughter to have an abortion. They reason: “The fetus will be lost, but what kind of life would it have anyway? And our daughter can finish school. If later she wants a child, she will be ready. It’s for the best.” Here there can only be the pretense of an objective commensuration of the choice to abort and the choice to have the baby, together with the respective “worlds” that they bring about.
It will not suffice simply to work for mutual disarmament. Disarmament is, of course, incumbent on both the West and the Soviet Union. But we must honor the demands of morality even if the Soviets do not. Instead, we must advocate immediate renunciation of the nuclear deterrence. The right question is, “How soon must we end the social act of threatening to kill the innocent?” The only answer is, “At once.”
Some play special roles in this social act: elected officials, military personnel, technicians who would execute the nuclear threat. The principle for such persons “is not to choose or do anything which itself adopts, participates in, or supports the public act or any subordinate acts by which it is constituted or sustained.” Elected officials ought to oppose bills designed to maintain the deterrent. Military personnel ought to reject order to maintain the deterrent.
Citizens at large must follow the same general principle. At the political level we ought not support “any national policy or act which, even if “morally good in itself…presupposes that balance of power” which the deterrent gives. Nonetheless, the authors contend that citizens may vote for candidates who support the deterrent and pay taxes even when a part of such taxes supports the deterrent.
On the other hand, public disobedience that accepts legal sanctions is a justifiable protest. A strength of the insistence that civil disobedience not shift to revolutionary gestures is that activities whose point cannot be achieved are irrational. A “revolution” against the deterrent — or against the apparatus of institutionalized abortion — cannot under present circumstances gain its end.
Less persuasive, though, is the authors’ ready acceptance of voting, in part on the grounds that if one did not vote for any candidate who supports the deterrent one would be left with no one for whom to vote. Might not we show a far deeper respect for democracy if we reject any candidate who violates, as our agent, the norm against the intended killing of the innocent?
To their credit Finnis, Boyle, and Grisez have done the clear thinking necessary to answer consequentialist rationales for the nuclear deterrent. And it is striking that they conclude their work with a profession of orthodox Christian faith. According to this faith, we need not stand in ultimate terror of any of the consequences of this world’s powers and principalities. Here and now we are free to live for the fullest measure of God’s love: a coming to share in Christ’s resurrection as adopted sons and daughters of the Father.
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