Deterrence or Disarmament?: The Ethics of Nuclear Warfare

Corroral Missile in front of the Center Exchange. Photo via NYPL Digital Archives.

Corroral Missile in front of the Center Exchange, 1957.                                          Photo via NYPL Digital Archives.


By: Kayla Giampaolo

On July 16, 1945 at 5:29 a.m., a 30,000 foot mass of smoke rose in New Mexico’s desert: the first atomic bomb had just been successfully tested. At the time, most people were unaware that the course of warfare and ultimately the world was about to change irrevocably. Since that eerie summer morning, nine nations have developed the intelligence to create and possess nuclear weapons (Granoff, 2000, p. 1414). The United States is one of these nuclear superpowers, making the ethical issues associated with these weapons critical and relevant.

Is using a nuclear weapon morally permissible under some circumstances? Is it ethical to implement nuclear deterrence (threatening to use atomic weapons) as a self-defense strategy?

Most research across disciplines unanimously agrees that it is immoral to detonate an atomic weapon due to both short and long-term catastrophic effects. Therefore, this piece shall not focus on the actual use of nuclear weapons, but instead analyze the latter question. Using various philosophical concepts, it will explore the fundamental question as to whether any implementation of nuclear deterrence that involves a risk to civilians is morally acceptable. The models, though differing in origin and rationale, provide a unique lens from which to view this ethical dilemma.

Before analyzing various frameworks, it is first important to understand the concept of nuclear deterrence and why it is a pressing ethical issue. Deterrence is a psychological phenomenon. It involves convincing an aggressor not to attack by threatening it with harmful retaliation. A psychological dimension is involved because the success of deterrence is not due solely to the retaliators capability, but to how persuasive the message of the threat is. In other words, in order for deterrence to work, the opponent must perceive the retaliatory threat as legitimate and serious (Morgan, 1985, p. 125).

John Stuart Mills’ idea of utilitarianism provides an interesting framework from which this issue can be approached. Utilitarianism claims that, “the aim of action should be the largest possible balance of pleasure over pain or the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” Therefore, the fundamental basis of this principle is that agents, in this case military strategists, should strive to produce the greatest amount of long-term satisfaction or pleasure for people as possible.

One key component of this principle that is highly relevant to nuclear deterrence is uncertainty. When consequences of actions are not known for certain, one should choose whichever action has the greatest expected utility. This is known as the Expected Utility Principle (Oyshile, 2008, p.65).

The problem with this is that it is nearly impossible to calculate a quantitative outcome by comparing deterrence with disarmament. This is because it is hard to calculate the probability of what action the opponent is going to choose. If the opponent is convinced by the threat of retaliation, than nuclear deterrence is successful and maximum utility is achieved. But what if the aggressor is not persuaded by the principle and chooses to attack anyway? Here a problem arises. Is it better to retaliate as forewarned to save the most lives, or continue to be attacked and avoid an immoral act?

When attempting to apply this to nuclear warfare, it initially seemed impossible. Remember, the two options being compared are nuclear deterrence and unilateral disarmament. It seems here that the worst outcomes for both options are the extinction of all humans on earth. For example, in both cases the rival country could continue to attack or other nations that possess nuclear weapons could get involved. In its most extreme form it is plausible that severe nuclear warfare could end the world. Though, it should be noted that the probability of this occurring in the case of disarmament is extremely low.

Though both concepts discussed aim to base ethical decision-making on the best or greatest outcome, neither discusses the inherent goodness of nuclear deterrence itself. Here it is useful to incorporate yet another branch of philosophy: deontology. Deontology focuses on the rightness or wrongness of the action, not on the rightness or wrongness of the consequences (Johnson, 1998, p. 15). From this framework, one could argue that it is intrinsically wrong to put other human beings, especially innocent human beings, at risk. Therefore, since the strategy of nuclear deterrence puts innocent lives in both the opponent and retaliatory countries at risk, then it too is intrinsically wrong.

Though these arguments against nuclear deterrence make sense within each framework, one must also view the issue from a worldly and militaristic standpoint. As stated in the clip from the Carnegie Council titled, “Are Nuclear Weapons Useful?” nuclear technology cannot be “disinvented.” Even if a country possesses nuclear weapons, but is against using them, there is nothing preventing aggressor nations with the same technological capabilities from using them. If it became a reality that the United States was victim of a nuclear attack, would leaders refuse to retaliate or stand up for the country (through deterrence), just to sustain moral beliefs? Although in theory nuclear deterrence may be immoral, in its real world application it might be unavoidable in extreme circumstances.

Another option – perhaps with more real-world applicability – is bilateral disarmament, or agreement from both nations to retreat. On the brink of nuclear war, if bilateral disarmament were achieved, then nuclear deterrence and unilateral disarmament could be avoided, and it could be the responsibility of a neutral third party such as the United Nations to intervene if a situation like this were to actually occur. This would help to lessen any deceptive strategies on both sides.

Nuclear deterrence in itself can be viewed as an immoral act on the grounds that it is putting the lives of innocent civilians at stake. Further, disarmament can be seen as the moral alternative to deterrence because the worst possible outcome is less catastrophic than if deterrence proved unsuccessful and the retaliating country is forced to attack.

Though these conclusions all make sense theoretically, I personally question how applicable they are in real-world circumstances. And though that doesn’t mean that it has to be used, it does mean that other countries with less than altruistic motives are able to access it.

Though bilateral disarmament is probably the best solution, what if a nuclear threat arises against the United States where the opposing country refuses to disarm? Are military personnel expected to disarm knowing that the other country won’t? Or, are they expected to deter: a risk that if successful has the potential to save millions of lives? Decisions regarding nuclear weapons have enormous effects on the well-being of all humans. A wrong decision could lead to extinction. By continuing to view this issue from various perspectives and educating world leaders, the human race can hopefully come a bit closer to finding an answer for this difficult ethical issue.

Kayla Giampaolo is completing her M.A. in Ethics & Society at Fordham University.

Works Cited

Granoff, J. (2000). Nuclear weapons, ethics, morals, and law. Brigham Young University Law Review, 1413-1442.

Johnson, J.L. (1998). Nuclear deterrence. Eastern Oregon State College Review, 1-22.

Kavka, G.S. (1987). Moral paradoxes of nuclear deterrence. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Martin, J. (2015). Are nuclear weapons useful? Carnegie Council.

Morgan, P. (1985). Psychology and deterrence. Baltimore: John’s Hopkins University Press.

Oyshile, O.A. (2008). A critique of maximin principle in john rawls’ theory of justice. Humanity and Social Sciences Journal, 65-69.



One response to “Deterrence or Disarmament?: The Ethics of Nuclear Warfare

  1. Pingback: Deterrence or Disarmament?: The Ethics of Nuclear Warfare • SJS

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