Course Notes on ethical issues to do with Nuclear Weapons for students of the Edexcel syllabus

From the syllabus.

 a) The contribution of at least one religion to issues of war and peace, including the teaching of sacred text(s), the Just War Theory, including principles jus ad bellum, jus in bello and jus post bellum, reasons for and influences on the development of the theory, examples of wars, including contemporary conflicts that may be evaluated against the theory, special issues arising from nuclear war.

Deterrence – does it work?

Mutually assured destruction (MAD) is a military strategy according to which the full-scale use of nuclear weapons by two or more opposing sides would cause the complete destruction of both the attacker and the defender. It is based on the theory of deterrence. According to this theory, if a country has nuclear weapons this will deter other countries that also have nuclear weapons from attacking them.

  • MAD has arguably helped to preserve peace. It is more than 70 years since nuclear weapons were used.
  • MAD is arguably rational – if the weapons are used, everyone dies. No rational person would want this. MAD therefore ensures that nuclear annihilation will never happen.

            On the other hand…..

  • Since 1945, many countries have acquired or are seeking to acquire nuclear weapons e.g. Pakistan, India and Israel are nuclear powers and North Korea has also recently tested them. This is known as proliferation. Nuclear proliferation arguably increases the chances of their use.
  • Proliferation also increases the chances of mistakes/accidents taking place (e.g. through computer malfunctions), which could be devastating.
  • Terrorists may seek to develop or acquire and use them (though experts on terrorism think that there are currently practical difficulties that make this goal out of reach for organisations like ISIS at the present time).
  • If MAD fails, we may all die.

Church views on the use of nuclear weapons

Both the Church of England and the Catholic Church have officially stated that nuclear weapons are needed as a deterrent. Having said this, the Church of England believes that countries should work together to achieve ‘multilateral disarmament’. This is where countries that have nuclear weapons try to work together, initially to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear weapons, and in the longer term to get rid of them altogether. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church believes that nuclear weapons should only be kept as a deterrent and to prevent war. They should never be used to attack whole populations or whole cities. Additionally, the Catholic Church also believes that countries that have nuclear weapons should be working towards reducing them.

Another possibility (that pacifists would support) is unilateral disarmament. This is when a country decides to get rid of its nuclear weapons regardless of whether other countries do the same. One reason for this might be because the government decides that it is immoral to keep them in the first place.

The novelist Martin Amis once wrote this: ‘Many times the cinema has tried to imagine a nuclear attack upon a city. What the cinema cannot get, what we cannot get, is the simultaneity: everything becoming nothing, all at once.’ Fair enough. But the thrashcore band Electro Hippies arguably made a pretty good job of trying to do the same thing back in 1987 with their song ‘Mega Armageddon Death.’

Was it right to use atomic bombs against Japan at the end of WW2?

The usual argument given is that the atomic bombing of Japan prevented an even greater loss of life. One million dead was the minimum predicted casualty total for a land invasion. By contrast, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings killed about a quarter of that number. The Christian theologian and advocate of Situation Ethics Joseph Fletcher strongly implied in a book he wrote that this justified the bombings.

However, against this view it has been argued that the figure of one million dead was only an estimate that was produced to conveniently support the decision to drop the bombs. It has also been suggested that America wanted to impress potential future rivals like the Soviets and the Chinese with their new weapon. Philosophers like John Rawls who were opposed to the bombing have also argued that it was wrong because so many innocent civilians died as a result of the initial blasts and the long term effects of exposure to the radiation.

The use of nuclear weapons might also violate the Just War principle of proportionality. Note that this principle might also potentially still be violated even if very low-yield nuclear weapons were used exclusively on the battlefield (which gets around the issue of the indiscriminate loss of life caused by larger nuclear weapons in violation of the jus in bello principle of humanity/discrimination).

Those who believe that it might sometimes be right to use nuclear weapons think that only a supreme emergency can justify unleashing them (e.g. if an evil enemy is about to win a war and this is the only option left to avoid defeat). The aforementioned philosopher John Rawls supports their use in such circumstances. But he also argues that at the end of WW2, this was not the situation and so it was wrong to use them, for reasons already mentioned in the second paragraph.

One related issue is that of the nuclear pre-emptive strike. Suppose the evil enemy was on the brink of developing nuclear weapons or had developed them. Would it be right to launch a nuclear first strike against that enemy in order to prevent their deployment or use?

After the war was over, the Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe wrote a speech arguing that the decision by Oxford University to award President Truman an honorary degree was. Anscombe objected on the grounds that, as the person who ordered atomic bombs to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he was guilty of mass murder.

Finally, this is an impressive but rather chilling documentary on the history and risk of nuclear accidents.