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Nuclear Illusion and Individual Obligations

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Trudy Govier*
3207 Canmore Rd. NW, Calgary, Alberta


Until very recently the topic of nuclear armaments and the prospects of global nuclear war have been relatively inconspicuous in the work of philosophers. With some exceptions, these and related themes have not figured prominently in the academic writings of philosophers; nor have they occupied space commensurate with their importance in courses and anthologies on applied ethics. Helen Caldicott's widely circulated film, ‘If You Love This Planet,’ and Jonathan Schell's moving book, The Fate of the Earth, have brought the nuclear arms race and its problems to the attention of the wider public. This paper was written in the hope of influencing moral and political philosophers to pursue nuclear morality and related subjects in their philosophical writing and teaching.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 1983

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An earlier version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Women in Philosophy, London, Ontario, October 1982.


1 To say that these have not been prominent themes is not to say that they have not been dealt with at all. There is, of course, Bertrand Russell's early leadership. Douglas lackey has two prominent papers on the subject: ‘Ethics and Nuclear Deterrence’ in Rachels, James ed., Moral Problems (New York, NY: Harper & Row Pubs. Inc. 1979)Google Scholar and ‘Missiles and Morals: A Utilitarian look at Nuclear Deterrence,’ Philosophy and Public Affairs, 11 (1982) 189-231. See also Wells, DonaldHow Much Can the Just War Justify?,’ Journal of Philosophy, 66 (1969) 819-29CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and discussions in Christensen, W.N. and King-Farlow, John Faith and the Life of Reason (Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Publishing Co. 1972)Google Scholar.

2 Schell, Jonathan The Fate of the Earth (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 1982)Google Scholar. This also appeared in the early spring of 1982 in three parts in the New Yorker. Helen Caldicott's film ‘If You love This Planet’ was produced by the National Film Board of Canada in 1981.

3 This may be an understatement. Ruth Leger Sivard reports that ‘an uncontrolled buildup of nuclear weapons, at present equal to an explosive force of 3.5 tons of TNT for every person on earth’ exists, as of 1982. See her World Military and Social Expenditures (Leesburg, VA: World Priorities 1982). Ruth Leger Sivard, who previously worked for the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, is widely recognized as an expert source on military and social expenditures.

4 This estimate was given in Olaf Palme's United Nations report, submitted in the spring of 1982.

5 Defence production is not particularly labour-intensive and the people employed include a high proportion of very skilled engineers and scientists who are more mobile than most workers in the overall economy.

6 Schell deals with the matter in painful detail in Part I of The Fate of the Earth. So too do some physicians’ groups, most notably the Physicians for Social Responsibility. The approach has struck some people as offensive; however it does serve as a valuable antidote to talk of ‘winning’ or ‘prevailing in’ a nuclear war and to the facile thinking of some civil defence ‘experts.’

7 See Calder, Nigel Nuclear Nightmares (New York, NY: Penguin Books 1981)Google Scholar for descriptions of some relevant scenarios.

8 I argue this case in another paper, ‘Philosophy, Nuclear Deterrence, and the Real World,’ forthcoming in Ethics.

9 An excellent discussion of the desire of Roosevelt and Churchill to use atomic weapons for post-war diplomacy may be found in J.Sherwin, Martin A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance (St. Paul, MN: Vintage Books 1977)Google Scholar. Sherwin offers very thorough documentation to back up the contention that right from the early days of the Manhattan Project, political leaders' interest in the bomb was as much for its intended potential in the post-war world as for deterring the Germans from making nuclear attacks or threats. The matter of President Roosevelt being willing to sacrifice British and Canadian participation (at one point) in order to achieve an American monopoly on post-war power is discussed in detail on pages 71-85.

10 See Sherwin, A World Destroyed, chapter nine; also Herken, Gregg The Winning Weapon: The Atomic Bomb and the Cold War 1945-49 (New York, NY: Vintage Books 1982)Google Scholar chapter one; Jungk, Robert Brighter Than a Thousand Suns (New York, NY: Penguin Books 1982Google Scholar; first published in Germany in 1956).

11 The information given here about considerations of use of atomic weapons is taken from Ellsberg, DanielNuclear Weapons: Will We Use Them?', Current, 233 (1981) 3543Google Scholar, and from Barnet, RichardUltimate Terror,’ in Staff of Sojourners Magazine, A Matter of Faith (Washington, DC: Sojourners Press 1981)Google Scholar. The classification in terms of pseudo-deterrence is my own.

12 For an overview of some different interpretations of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the reader may contrast the comments of Edgar M. Bottome with those of the Harvard Nuclear Study Group. Bottome, in The Balance of Terror (Boston, MA: Beacon Press Inc. 1971)Google Scholar says, on p. 93, that the Soviet move to place missiles in Cuba could have been seen as a Soviet attempt to partially compensate for the American missiles in Turkey and the overwhelming U.S. nuclear superiority at that time. He says, ‘Either the Kennedy Administration misunderstood the reality of the balance of terror, or more likely, the Presidenrs reaction was based more on domestic political considerations than on the military reality of the existing status of the arms race.’ The Harvard group, on the other hand, offers this overall comment: ‘The American government managed the 1962 crisis with skill and restraint — offering a compromise to the Soviets and giving them sufficient time to call back their missile-laden ships, for example — and the missiles were withdrawn from Cuba. The President carefully supervised American military actions to ensure that his orders were not misunderstood' (The Harvard Nuclear Study Group, Living With Nuclear Weapons [New York: Bantam New Age Books 1983)16-71). An extremely negative account of Kennedy's handling of the Cuban situation may be found in Wills, Gary’ two papers, entitled ‘The Kennedy Imprisonment,’ Atlantic, 249 (1982) 2739Google Scholar and 52-66.

13 Compare the discussion by Gary Wills in ‘The Kennedy Imprisonment.'

14 I am taking it that'X has prevented Y’ entails Without X, Y would have occurred,' which is an implicitly counterfactual proposition.

15 A good discussion of the role of western atomic secrecy in fomenting distrust within the wartime alliance and in the immediate post-war period may be found in Herken, The Winning Weapon and Sherwin, A World Destroyed.

16 Taken from a U.S. army field manual entitled Tactical Nuclear Weapons. Quoted by Fred Kaplan in ‘Russian and American Intentions,’ Atlantic, 250 (1982) 47-50.

17 Taken from a U.S. army manual entitled Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Reconaissance and Decontamination Operations; also cited by Fred Kaplan in 'Russian and American Intentions.'

18 MacNamara, R.S. Bundy, McGeorge Kennan, George and Smith, Gerard 'Nuclear Weapons and the Atlantic Alliance,’ Foreign Affairs, 60 (1982) 753768Google Scholar

19 Pierre Trudeau, address to the United Nations Special Session on Disarmament in June, 1982

20 Hersey, John Hiroshima (New York, NY: Bantam Books 1981; 52nd edition) 67Google Scholar; first published in 1946. Hersey went to Hiroshima and based his book on interviews with survivors of the bombing.

21 See the discussion by Kavka, Gregory in ‘Some Paradoxes of Deterrence; in Narveson, Jan ed., Moral Issues (New York, NY: Oxford University Press 1983)Google Scholar.

22 The grizzly details are amply described in Schell's The Fate of the Earth. Precise predictions are obviously not possible, due to possible variations in numbers of weapons used, reliability of weapons, performance of weapons over a North South route, weather conditions, and pertinent gaps in scientific knowledge.

23 For some discussion of the bishops’ debate, see R.G. Hoyt, The Bishops and the Bomb,’ Christianity and Crisis, August 9, 1982; Novak, MichaelNuclear Morality,' America, 147 (1982) 58Google Scholar; O'Hare, J.A.One Man's Primer on Nuclear Morality,' America, 147 (1982) 912Google Scholar; Winters, Francis X.Catholic Debate and Division on Deterrence,’ America, 147 (1982) 127-31Google Scholar. Also relevant is Wink, WalterFaith and Nuclear Paralysis,’ Christian Century, 99 (1982) 234-7Google Scholar.

24 Schell, The Fate of the Earth, Part Ill. This part of the book has been strongly criticized.

25 This comment applies to my own paper, What Should We Do About Future People?', American Philosophical Quarterly, 16 (1979) 105-13. An indication as to Just how complex these problems have become may be gleaned from Parfit, DerekFuture Generations: Further Problems,’ Philosophy and Public Affairs, 11 (1982) 113-72Google Scholar.

26 Schell dwells on these questions in a manner quite metaphysical in Part II of his book. They have also been addressed by John Leslie in ‘Why Not Let Life Become Extinct?', a paper presented at the Canadian Philosophical Association meetings in Montreal, June 1980. See also Leslie, John Value and Existence (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield 1979)Google Scholar.

27 See Lifton, R.J. and Falk, Richard Indefensible Weapons (Toronto: CBC Publications 1982)Google Scholar. Lifton's discussion of psychological effects of nuclear weapons comprises Part I of this work.

28 This view has been defended by Szabados, Béla in ‘Self-Deception,’ Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 4 (1974) 41·9CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 Moral perspectives on nuclear issues, and potential for political action to alter the status quo, vary considerably depending upon whether one is a citizen within a super-power or a citizen within an allied country. The difference in perspective is often blurred by uses of ‘we’ which fail to make it clear whether the point of view taken is that of the U.S., of Canada, or of any country within the NATO alliance.

30 Baier, AnnetteSecular Faith,’ Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 10 (1980) 131148CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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