Nuclear Ethics: Weapons Perspectives

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Ethical and political reflection on nuclear power was initially stimulated by the dangers of nuclear weapons. Even as the possibility of the atomic bomb began to be imagined in the 1930s, physicists became worried about its social, political, and ethical implications. By the time the first bomb was exploded in 1945, and even more as the nuclear arms race took hold in the 1950s, scientists, engineers, military professionals, politicians, and the attentive public became increasingly concerned about nuclear research and development, testing, and deterrence policy. As much as any other science and technology during the twentieth century, nuclear weapons have challenged ethical reflection. Although such weapons present major benefits—otherwise they would not have been invented, produced, and used—they also have built-in disadvantages that are not always easy to assess. As Albert Einstein remarked in 1946, the problem created by nuclear weapons is "not one of physics but of ethics."

Communities of Reflection

Nuclear weapons and ethics have been discussed in three overlapping communities of reflection. As the community of discovery and inventive origins for both nuclear science and weapons technology, scientists and engineers have played a major role in promoting ethical criticism. As the community that pioneered the use of nuclear weapons, the military has analyzed from its own perspective many ethical and political aspects of nuclear weapons. Finally, as the primary source of funding and ultimate beneficiary (and victim) of nuclear weapons, citizens and their democratic leaders have sought to place nuclear weapons in the broadest ethical context. Nuclear ethics and weapons issues may thus conveniently be considered in relation to the interacting discourses opened up by these three communities.

THE SCIENTIFIC-ENGINEERING COMMUNITY. In the 1930s scientists in Great Britain and the United States promoted nuclear weapons research because of the threat that Nazi Germany might develop such weapons. In 1945, when it became clear that Germany had not come close to developing the atomic bomb, some scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the bomb was being designed and fabricated, argued that such work was no longer justified. The majority view, however, was that work should go forward in order to demonstrate to the world the possibilities of such weapons, to complete a challenging technoscientific project, and perhaps in order to contribute to the continuing war effort against Japan.

After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a group of scientists and engineers involved with atomic bomb development took the initiative to promote public education about the awesome power of nuclear weapons and lobbied for their international control. This ethical work led to three institutional initiatives—the Federation of Atomic (later American) Scientists (founded 1945), the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (first published in 1945), and the International Pugwash movement (founded 1957)—each of which became critical of the subsequent nuclear arms race, especially in the form of atmospheric testing and later proliferation.

Generally speaking, scientists and engineers felt a strong moral responsibility to educate politicians and the public about both the benefits and dangers of nuclear weapons. Yet a divide developed within the technical community between those who maintained the benefits outweighed the dangers and those who argued the dangers outweighed benefits. In the early 1950s this came to a head in a dispute between J. Robert Oppenheimer, who opposed hydrogen bomb development, and Edward Teller, who supported it. For Oppenheimer, the atomic bomb was sufficiently powerful for any conceivable military purpose, whereas for Teller the threat that the Soviet Union might develop a hydrogen bomb was sufficient to justify its pursuit. Among scientists one of the basic disagreements was and has continued to be over when enough is enough, and what precisely scientific responsibility entails.

THE MILITARY COMMUNITY. Among those involved with the military both as professional soldiers and policy analysts, questions arose primarily in relation to strategic policies. In the military there was never any sense that German defeat should undermine the justification of nuclear weapons work. From an early date the military saw nuclear weapons as a means of exercising military power and set about formulating appropriate strategies to take advantage of its unique features. The major result was development of the concept of nuclear deterrence—a strategy that nevertheless gave rise to a number of important and well-explored ethical quandaries.

One quandary concerned whether nuclear weapons should be directed toward military or civilian targets. Although traditional just war theory argued against "countervalue" targeting of civilians, to limit nuclear weapons targeting to "counterforce" assets might, especially during a crisis, actually encourage an enemy toward a preemptive nuclear strike in order to try to avoid the loss of its nuclear capabilities. Counterforce targeting also tends to encourage a nuclear arms race for increasingly accurate weapons. The policy question then becomes: What is the most ethical way to target nuclear weapons?

Another quandary considers in what sense it is ethically permissible to threaten what it would not be ethically permissible to do. There is little disagreement that it would be ethically wrong to use nuclear weapons against a large civilian population in an enemy country, especially because the results would affect large numbers of people in other, neutral countries, and be likely to rebound even on the attacking country. But what if the best way to avoid the actual use of nuclear weapons is to threaten their use on civilian populations? What, then, is the most ethically defensible policy, especially in relation to a totalitarian country or a regime ruled by someone whose behavior may not be rational?

Finally, insofar as there are prima facie justifications for defending oneself against attack from nuclear weapons, to threaten a country with nuclear retaliation seems legitimate. But insofar as there are prima facie prohibitions against threatening innocent people, and given that nuclear weapons cannot but harm innocent people, to threaten the use of nuclear weapons seems equally illegitimate. Prima facie or deontological arguments thus both support and oppose the development and use of nuclear weapons.

THE POLITICAL COMMUNITY. The political community is divided into two groups: the established political community and the oppositional political community. Each form of the political community has sought to overcome the quandaries elaborated within the military community.

From the beginning the established political community, in alliance with the military community, sought ways to use nuclear weapons to pursue political ends (especially in relation to the nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union). For the United States especially, nuclear weapons allowed the country to counter a Soviet superiority in ground troops in Europe in a way that was politically tolerable (that is, without maintaining a large standing military and at a relatively low annual financial burden). The solution to the ethical quandaries was to promote technological fixes in the form of civil defense and/or the development of some kind of defensive missile system.

By contrast, the oppositional or alternative political community, in alliance with a vocal segment of the scientific community, argued for a political fix to the quandaries of nuclear deterrence. One such political fix comprised proposals for the internationalization of nuclear weapons control. An even more radical proposal argued for unilateral nuclear disarmament. In the middle, the alternative political community actually succeeded in 1963 in getting the major nuclear powers to sign the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty halting nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere. Later voluntary and reciprocal moratoriums were developed among some powers with regard to underground nuclear testing. But such U.S.–USSR agreements have had only marginal influences on many other countries. And oppositional efforts to limit nuclear proliferation have been problematic at best.

Further Issues

Disagreements among the three communities of reflection have carried over into a number of closely related issues. Among such issues are questions of the moral probity of civilian defense and defensive missile systems, the effectiveness of such systems (especially missile defense systems that rely on complex, automated responses to information that can itself be quite problematic), the problem of how to respond to worries in civilian populations affected by nuclear weapons industry sites, and the difficulties of nuclear waste disposal.

Three ethical issues that have received only marginal discussion may also deserve notice. First, there is a somewhat suppressed debate regarding whether many of the fears about nuclear weapons have been well founded. After all, since 1945 nuclear weapons have not been used except as features of deterrence strategies. Are worries about the dangers of nuclear weapons misplaced? Or have the expressions of fear had the salutary effect of helping to keep mistakes from being made? Second, some have suggested that the shift in nuclear testing to an increasing reliance on computer simulations may deprive nuclear scientists and engineers, not to mention soldiers and politicians, of a direct experience of the destructive powers of nuclear weapons that itself has also had a salutary effect on their handling and use. Third, with the advent of the possible use of nuclear devices by nonstate actors and terrorists, new questions arise about the responsibilities of those who have developed and are continuing to develop nuclear weapons.

Finally, it might be suggested that despite initial appearances, many of the issues with regard to nuclear weapons only present in especially dramatic form questions that relate to modern science and technology in general. Science and technology in general place in human hands enormous power for transforming the world, many of which entail quandaries similar to those associated with nuclear weapons. The pollution of the natural environment and the burning of fossil fuels, which seem necessary to pursue benefits for present generations, may have negative impacts on future generations in ways that mirror the deterrence targeting of enemy populations (which benefit the targeting populations at the potential expense of the targeted populations). Thus it can be argued that ethical reflection on nuclear weapons should not be isolated from ethical reflection on other technologies, or that the results of ethical reflection in regard to both nuclear and nonnuclear technologies should be compared and contrasted for the benefit of science, technology, and ethics as a whole.


SEE ALSO Baruch Plan;Just War;Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty;Military Ethics;Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty;Nuclear Waste.


Cohen, Avner, and Steven P. Lee, eds. (1986). Nuclear Weapons and the Future of Humanity: The Fundamental Questions. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld. The single best collection of articles on this topic.

Einstein, Albert. (1946). "The Real Problem Is in the Hearts of Men." New York Times Magazine, 23 June, 7 and 42–44. An interview with Michael Amrine.

Hashmi, Sohail H., and Steven P. Lee, eds. (2004). Ethics and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Religious and Secular Perspectives. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hollenbach, David. (1983). Nuclear Ethics: A Christian Moral Argument. New York: Paulist Press.

Jaspers, Karl. (1961 [1958]). The Future of Mankind, trans. E. B. Ashton. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. One of the first philosophical reflections on the need for "an essentially new way of thinking" if human beings are to survive the invention of nuclear weapons.

Kavka, Gregory S. (1987). Moral Paradoxes of Nuclear Deterrence. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. A tightly argued exploration of the major quandaries.

Lee, Steven P. (1993). Morality, Prudence, and Nuclear Weapons. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Nye, Joseph S., Jr. (1986). Nuclear Ethics. New York: Free Press. An important analysis of deterrence policy by a U.S. policy analyst.

Shrader-Frechette, Kristin S. (1983). Nuclear Power and Public Policy: The Social and Ethical Problems of Fission Technology, 2nd edition. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Reidel Publishing. The first and still influential philosophical assessment of nuclear power, which also makes some relations to the nuclear weapons–nuclear power connection.

Shrader-Frechette, Kristin S. (1993). Burying Uncertainty: Risk and the Case against Geological Disposal of Nuclear Waste. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. Although this book focuses on Yucca Mountain, Nevada, the arguments developed here are of quite general significance.

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