Nuclear war is immoral. Strategic nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction that target innocent people. They are evil.
In 1955, Albert Einstein and a group of prominent scholars drafted a manifesto calling for nuclear disarmament and the end of war in the nuclear era. They warned that nuclear weapons create a stark and dreadful choice: “Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?”
Since 1955 the world’s nuclear arsenals have grown. There are 15,000 nuclear weapons on Earth. Luckily, no nuclear weapon has been used since 1945, when 80,000 people were killed by one bomb in Nagasaki.
Unfortunately, we are forgetting the moral problem of nuclear war. We are closer to a nuclear war than we have been in decades. President Trump threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” with “fire and fury.” He recently described this as “the calm before the storm.” North Korea has nuclear and missile technology that could hit American targets. North Korea has threatened to “sink Japan” and reduce the U.S. to “ashes and darkness.”
Strategic nuclear weapons are terroristic weapons. They rain terror down upon innocent people.
One need not be Einstein to understand how dangerous and immoral this all is. The mainstream of moral thinking about war—the just-war theory—condemns weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.
Strategic nuclear weapons are terroristic weapons. They do not discriminate between soldiers and civilians. They rain terror down upon innocent people. And they leave contamination and devastation in their wake. They are fundamentally immoral.
Some Americans may claim that the people of North Korea are not innocent and so deserve to be killed. North Koreans may also claim that the people of the United States are evil and deserve to die. Such claims are obviously false and obscenely immoral, regardless of which side is making them.
A nuclear attack would deliberately kill children. Children have no responsibility for the evils that their governments perpetrate. The fact that a nation’s military leaders are aggressive and immoral does not excuse atrocity committed against innocent children.
Nuclear war remains evil, no matter which side starts the war. It would be wrong for either side to launch a nuclear first strike. It would also be wrong for either nation to retaliate against a nuclear first strike with a nuclear weapon, since doing so would deliberately kill children.
Evil is woven into the very logic of nuclear deterrence and retaliation. In a nuclear exchange, each side would be guilty of atrocity and war crime.
The moral morass of nuclear deterrence is built upon the ethical quicksand of intending retaliatory massacre. Deterrent strategy threatens atrocity in order to prevent it. But that is morally repugnant. A reprisal that targets innocent children is as evil as a first strike that targets children.
Evil is woven into the very logic of nuclear deterrence and retaliation.
Retaliatory strikes also risk futility. Killing millions in retaliation would accomplish little of positive good. Once millions have already been killed, what good does it do to kill millions more? We teach our children that “two wrongs do not make a right.” But the strategy of nuclear deterrence and retaliation is built upon that premise.
There is also the risk of escalation. Once a rogue nation such as North Korea faces existential defeat, what would prevent it from unleashing chemical and biological weapons against all of its perceived enemies?
Perhaps the most alarming problem has to do with breaking the nuclear taboo. Since 1945, no nation has used nuclear weapons in war. That taboo is a remarkable sign of global moral consensus. Until recently, no nation wanted to risk breaking it. But once the nuclear taboo is broken, we are on the brink of a slippery slope to Armageddon.
The winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize is the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. The prize recognized ICAN’s work on a recent international treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. ICAN released a statement this week saying, “Nuclear weapons threaten the very survival of humanity and our entire living planet.”
From Einstein to ICAN, the moral consensus is that nuclear war is evil. Let’s hope that sane, rational and moral leaders understand this. For the sake of our children and our souls we must never break the nuclear taboo.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala