In this era of mass and almost instant communication, few people in the world have not seen the pictures of the total destruction wreaked on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by the first wartime use of atomic weapons. Many have also heard the theory of nuclear winter, and its story of the futility of the concept of a victorious nuclear conflict, proposed by astronomer Carl Sagan and his colleagues. Due to this, and a preponderance of other information available, most people believe that use of atomic or nuclear weaponry is immoral.
Taking the idea to the next step then, does it necessarily follow that mere possession of this weaponry is an immoral act?
To solve this problem that is uniquely of this era, perhaps, if one looks at the four great traditions of western ethical thought, and how the problem would be reasoned through from each, he can arrive at a solution to the dilemma.
The pursuit of virtue, the oldest of the traditions of thought, approaches the dilemma from the standpoint of justice, defined as the most important virtue.
Justice allows the pursuit of all other virtues by allowing for the stability and safety of the state, according to Plato, in The Republic. The military is not needed by someone pursuing a virtuous life, as the cause of justice will have its own place in the mind of each person of virtue. However, Plato, as well as Socrates and Aristotle, knew that not all men would pursue the life of virtue. The military, and its weapons, were seen as insuring a measure of safety for the state. In this ethical frame of reasoning, stockpiling nuclear weapons provides safety through the deterrence of war.
In the second of the great traditions, the Judeo-Christian ethic of obedience to God, one finds the benevolent pacifism espoused by Jesus. The people of the world are told to love one another as they would themselves. Also put forth is the concept of praying for, rather than fighting one’s enemies. Finally, Jesus tells that if a person is struck by someone, he should not retaliate, but turn the other cheek and forgive the striker. Even the concept of self-preservation is put aside here, as those who lose their lives on earth are promised even greater rewards in the life to come. Clearly, there is no room for the arsenals of nuclear weapons within this framework.In the Deontological tradition, crystallized in structure by Immanuel Kant, one finds attention to the reasoning process more critical than the effect of that process. Central to his work is the idea of a Categorical Imperative. It maintains that, in everything one does, the action should be such that it can be universally applied, both to self and others. To do anything that does not adhere to this principle, denies the dignity and respect due all other humans. Thus Kant has restated the Golden Rule given by Jesus of Nazareth. To keep nuclear arsenals goes against the tenet of the categorical Imperative. One would not wish the threat of nuclear holocaust looming over one’s own head, and therefore reasons that duty demands he not impose the threat on others.
The fourth framework of western thought, Utilitarianism, from Epicurus, to Jeremy Bentham, and finally John Stuart Mill, states that there are two prime stimuli, pain and pleasure. Mill expanded the concept of utility to include the ideas of quality of each stimulus, as well as quantity. Mill also clarified that the concept applied to community, and not only the individual. The Greatest Happiness Principle is his synonym for it. For an action to meet the test of uti1ity, it must provide the greatest good, for the most people, for the longest period of time. In the uti1itarian society, the government must, for the sake of the safety of its citizens, have a method of determent from harm.
The arsenal of nuclear weaponry in this society is not immoral.
In contrasting the views of the four traditions, there is a clear distinction between the traditions of the Bible and Deontological thought, and the ancient Greeks and Utilitarians.
In both the Bible and the writings of Kant, one finds no value given to the consequences of following these precepts. In the Bible, the reason given for obedience is the ultimate reward of heavenly attainment. In the writings of Kant, duty is more important than consequence. Life has no meaning if autonomy is not preserved.
In the writings of the ancient Greeks and the Utilitarians, the consequence of actions is the determining factor in ethical reasoning. The writers of both of these views tend to be much more pragmatic in thought than the Biblical authors or Kant. This pragmatism extends to the idea of self-preservation, hence the ethical viabi1ity of nuclear arsenals as deterrents.
Because eliminating the need for self-preservation, and the pragmatism that follows, in humans is impossible, it will always be impossible to use the ethics of the Bible or Immanuel Kant on a 1arge scale. The implementation of them on the small scale, as individuals, though, is greatly desirable. This leaves the ethics of ancient Greeks or the
Utilitarians to guide nations. In both of these cases, the arsenal of nuclear weaponry is a necessary evil to be reviled, but lived with.
Quote of the day:
This paperback is very interesting, but I find it will never replace a hardcover book – it makes a very poor doorstop. – Alfred Hitchcock