Moral challenge

I’ve just been reading a publication from Justice and Peace Scotland entitled Nuclear Weapons. Replacing Trident- A Scottish Catholic Response. Unsurprisingly, it takes a strong moral stance against Trident renewal. Now I’ve been studiously avoiding the moral arguments around the Trident issue since (a) I don’t want to be aligned with the ‘x is just plain wrong’ crowd and (b) (a) is pretty much guaranteed given my supreme lack of skill in the moral-reasoning field. Against my better judgement, though, I’m going to step into the fray (then hopefully extricate myself without a scratch following some fancy logical footwork)….

So, let’s say that there is a strong moral argument for renewing the UK’s nuclear capabilities. Now given that *any* state – I propose – will be able to use a similar argument to defend their holding or developing nuclear weapons, would it then not be immoral to deny them the opportunity to do so. It would certainly be hypocritical.

So I suppose I’m saying that holding a nuclear deterrent cannot be justified on moral grounds unless one is happy to defend the right of all nations to retain a nuclear arsenal.

(Oh no. I knew this would happen. I’m not dancing merrily out of the moral fray, I’m foppishly throwing down a gauntlet.)

You sir! You! You in the pro-Trident Lobby. You, sir, are an immoral pragmatist or a defender of unfettered nuclear proliferation. And I’ll see you at the end of my rapier if you say otherwise…

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7 Responses to Moral challenge

  1. Ali says:

    There’s not meant to be a moral argument *for* nuclear weapons, only a pragmatic one: that the evil they deter is greater than the evil of keeping them. So I think your argument as it stands misses the point — but it looks to me that your conclusion works: that the pragmatic argument can be repeated by every country, generating an argument that everyone should have nuclear weapons. But this then increases the risk that there will be an accident or an accidental war, so this conclusion must be resisted! So there must be something wrong with the pragmatic argument.

  2. kca77 says:

    OK, so the corollary to my assertion is that if there’s no moral argument *for* nuclear weapons then it’s pretty pointless arguing *against* them on moral grounds. (Which is something I needed to prove to myself so that I could excuse my avoiding the moral debate.)

    As for the pragmatic argument- it’s only as strong as the foundations of fear on which it’s built. Choose not to believe that the UK’s ever likely to be targeted by a rational state-leader with a penchant for world-domination and some hefty WMD and the argument crumbles. Choose to believe it and choose a world where every Anthony, George and Mahmoud has their finger on the button.

  3. Ali says:

    The point about the “foudnations of fear” is a red herring – one might dispassionately judge that the UK is sufficiently likely to come under threat in the future that a deterrent is needed; the psychological state one is in doesn’t affect the argument at all. Someone might relish the idea of being attacked by nuclear weapons but reluctantly accept that a deterrent is needed.

    So I don’t think it’s because the pragmatic argument is based on fear that there is something wrong with it – I don’t know what’s wrong with it yet… if anything! What’s worse, the pragmatic argument can be beefed up by adding that it’s the responsibility of nuclear weapons possessor to prevent other people getting nukes, in order to prevent that slide to accidental MAD. Which is pretty much recent nuclear poicy, right?

    I think that what might be wrong with it is that it is unaspirational, and overestimates the actual deterrent effect. As we already discussed, the nukes only deter quite middle of the road dictators, who might be deterrable through other means – this weakens the pragmatic argument, and then the counterargument – that disarmament might help us get out of the general warlike state of the world – looks relatively stronger.

  4. kca77 says:

    Granted, Ali, my ‘foundations of fear’ comment might have been a little flippant but it’s not a red-herring.

    Psychology is an inherent part of the deterrence argument. A threat is not a threat if it doesn’t induce fear. Moreover, it is fear of a possible future threat that provides the foundation for the Trident-renewal argument. As Ben notes in a later post, relating to a very clear and intelligent pro-deterrent argument from Dr Julian Lewis MP:

    “Part of [the argument’s] power lies in the historical detail and speculation which makes the reader feel the fear that militates in favour of a deterrent.”

    On your other point, I absolutely agree that one of the problems with the pragmatic argument for nuclear weapons is that it is lacking in aspiration. An anti-Trident campaigner may fear a future threat as much as Dr Lewis evidently does, however they are likely to argue that such a threat can be mitigated through responsible, coherent and peaceful behaviour on the world stage between now and the decommissioning of the UK’s nuclear weapons system. Such a standpoint is indeed aspirational; the pro-Trident lobby – dare I suggest it – *fear* that such an approach would still leave the UK at enough of a risk of attack to warrant holding a nuclear deterrent.

    Fear, I’m afraid, is very much at the heart of this debate.

  5. art-non-deco says:

    I think positing the nuclear capability as pragmatism vs moral justification needs a bit of looking into. The debate arose post facto. After the five powers had already acquired the capability.
    The logic of deterrence lost its validity in the interim period of disappearance of Soviet Russia and rise of muslim fundamentalism and ‘rogue’ states.
    And now, looking at the methodology of terrorism it is all the more doubtful how far the nuclear capability is going to be a deterrent. When a small group of five or six motivated ideologues is bent upon creating spectacular impact by killing innocents, having nuclear power or not becomes irrelevant. E.g. terrorists can strike American targets, british targets or Indonesian targets and Spanish targets.
    Perceived threat from whom needs to be questioned. To me, nuclear warfare is a hangover from the traditional war mind-set. If not in practice [luckily, so far] , in acquisition of the capacity.
    We need to ask who benefits with this industry for one, and from this debate, for two. Both point to the capitalist-industrial neo-liberal structures that run the western democracies [and those of India]. And the same are deeply entrenched in making China the next superpower and supporting Israel.
    I am not taking any ‘elft’ view but engaging people in the debate serves the purpose of diverting attention from the huge resources that go into this industry.Fear, as you say, comes handy – for this industry.

    [sorry this has become too long]

  6. Ali says:

    Really interesting post – you suggest that even engaging in the debate might be the wrong thing to do. I am well into the diea of exploring the arguments, but I can well imagine that there is some kind of logic of fear that comes into play whenever we start thinking about it — perhaps, a human inability to assess probabilities properly — that will always give ground to the pro-Trident camp. The anti-Trident people will always seem a bit naive, no matter how impassioned they get — perhaps it’s like arguing against someone playing the lottery. You say: don’t waste your pound, and I reply “hang on – what’s this pound mean to me when there is such a huge price that I might… just… win!”

    Do you know anything about the links between civilian and military nuclear power. I am pro-civilian nuclear power, I think — unless there is some kind of necessary connection with nuclear weapons.

  7. Wow that was strange. I just wrote an really long comment but after I
    clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.
    Regardless, just wanted to say great blog!

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