And nothing else matters

Karl Popper said that if you want to refute someone’s position, you first help them to build up the strongest possible argument for what they believe. Once all the loose ends are tied up, all the grey areas clarified, and your opponent’s argument is as strong as it can possibly can be — only then do you attack it. What’s more, you have to attack it right at its strongest point; that way you can be satisfied that if you do find a refutation, you’ve found a substantial one and you both haven’t been wasting time dancing round the handbags of triviality.

There are many comfortable but ultimately weak arguments against replacing Trident; I propose that we put these on one side and look squarely at the best argument for keeping it.

An example of a comfortable but weak argument would be: money spent on Trident would be better spent on reducing global poverty. This may be true, but the Ministry of Defence isn’t going to vire its nuclear submarine budget over to DFID just like that. So I think we shouldn’t bother making this point.

To be pro-Trident doesn’t mean to be pro-war. The best argument for keeping Trident is that it prevents war by preserving the balance of threat. So it seems to me that this is a debate about the best way to pursue peace (hence the name: nuclearpeace).

Essentially, both sides in this debate believe in deterrence. To argue against the replacement of Trident is to argue that getting rid of it will, in the long run, be a greater deterrent. It has to be argued that disarmament will result in fewer conflicts across the future sweep of history. Can this possibly be true?


8 Responses to And nothing else matters

  1. Dedicated follower of fission says:

    I doubt that anyone seriously argues for the UK’s nuclear disarmament solely on the basis that the money could be ‘better spent’ elsewhere. Granted, certain anti-nuclear organisations have given in to the temptation to report the cost of replacing Trident in terms of the number of nursing posts the money won’t be funding, or the number of children that will slowly be turning feral in teacherless classrooms. But such a choice of currency is not, I’m sure, meant to constitute an argument for disarmament. (Although it is, to be sure, consciously and unhelpfully emotive.)

    Where anyone is arguing seriously that the Trident missile system should not be recommissioned *because* the money can be better spent elsewhere, surely they are predicating this on some more substantial claim: for instance, that there wouldn’t be a threat to deter if the UK wasn’t a nuclear state. It is this kind of claim that deserves attention and debate.

    So I suppose I agree- the core of this debate is the question of what constitutes the most effective long-term deterrent. Still we can’t ignore supposedly weak arguments; if there’s anything to them at all they’ll relate in some way to a claim about deterrence.


  2. Ali says:

    Mr Fission: Good point but I fear too optimistic. You’re suggesting that the claim: “the money could be better spent elsewhere” has two parts to it, as it were a spoken and unspoken part. The spoken part is that this cash would boost spending in provision of a socal service; the unspoken part is that it would be *better* spent doing anything but funding nuclear weapons because we would no longer present so much of a target for terrorist groups. I don’t think you can sneak this really substantial and controversial claim in as the “unspoken” part of the “money better spent” argument! – and I don’t think people are relying on this, though they might shift their argument to it under pressure.

    No, I think that we have to accept that at present, the main populist ways of debating Trident are: against it – that the money could be better spent, and for it – that the people at the Trident base in Faslane need to keep their jobs. Sic transit argumentam politicam in Britannia contemporaenus.

  3. jill says:

    It would be wrong to replace Trident even if it cost nothing.

  4. Ali says:

    Hi Jill!

    What do you think of this argument, which I’ve been thinking about a lot: imagine it was just before World War II, and we thought that by having something like Trident we could have scared Hitler off from trying to take over Europe. Then the evil of having something like Trident is outweighed by the greater evil that it prevents. So although it’s true that Trident is an evil thing to have, it is justified by the greater good. That’s the argument, anyway.

  5. Dedicated follower of fission says:

    I fear that ostentatiously nuke-waving in the general direction of Germany in an effort to deter Teutonic aggression may, Ali, have backfired. It would only have led to Hitler’s hastening the development of atomic weapons, holding off until he had the bomb, then proceeding to anschluss and invade as per the history books (only this time with that added frisson that the threat of mutually assured destruction tends to bring).

    Rarely do I dabble in the frivolous parlour game of counter-factual history, Ali, but – well – you started it.

    You must admit- threatening behaviour (aka nuclear ‘deterrence’) is ever unlikely to propagate peace.

  6. Ali says:

    Hmm – good point: so if I’m imagining nukes deterring mad dictators who don’t share our peace lovin’ values it’s important I don’t imagine them as TOO mad, else they would attack us anyway.

    So the deterrence argument has to be limited to: Trident deters people who are *fairly mad*: not so mad as they can’t understand what M.A.D. means, but not so reasonable as they could be persuaded not to nuke us. Sort of Middle-of-the-Road Dictators.

  7. Ali says:

    Actually, this point seems to me to be glib, now. One could just as easily argue that the madder the dictator, the more force will be the only thing to which they will listen. Though it is true that they will be less concerned about the effect on their people of massive destruction – cf. Hitler during the fall of Berlin.

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