You Can’t Hug your Children with Nuclear Arms (2011)

            Four years after the first nuclear weapon was detonated on Hiroshima, Leslie Alvin White commented on the imminent downfall of civilization and mankind. “A new source of energy has been harnessed and in awful form…The new nuclear technology threatens to destroy civilization itself or at least to cripple it to such an extent that it might require a century, a thousand, or ten thousand, years to regain its present status” (Moore and Sanders 118). He predicts this as a result of the ever increasing need of humans to attain more powerful forms of energy as society progresses. He is not the only critic of nuclear energy for human benefit; there are multiple theorists on the side of just war and pacifism who would agree. I have chosen to explore why such theorists, who are typically opposing in ideology, can agree that the manipulation of atomic energy for use in warfare is unjust and unethical.

            It should be no surprise that those who choose pacifism are choosing against nuclear war. This “anti-war-ism,” as Jenny Teichman defines it (Orend “War”), is not only against nuclear war, but all war in general. The Dalai Lama mentions nuclear war specifically in his 1989 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance, stating at least one negative effect: “Our crops and livestock are contaminated and our health and livelihood threatened when a nuclear accident happens miles away in another country.”

Many just war theorists, who focus on defining the morally acceptable aspects of war agree with the opinions toward nuclear warfare held by those supporting pacifism and non-violence. Even Michael Walzer, who has said that the type of weaponry used to kill soldiers is irrelevant, so long as they are killed (Orend Morality of War 119), debates the ethics pertaining to atomic bombs. “Nuclear weapons explode the theory of just war,” he says, arguing that their effects can never be justified. The use of nuclear weaponry violates multiple categories from the requirements of just war theory. In the area of jus ad bellum, or just cause to go to war in the first place (Orend “War”), nuclear weapons infringe on the areas of probability of success, and proportionality.

The probability of success is diminished when an entity resorts to the use of nuclear weapons, as demonstrated with the deterrent argument of mutually assured destruction (MAD). The idea of MAD is exactly what it sounds like: if opposing entities both possess nuclear weapons, and one chooses to use theirs, the other would respond identically, which would result in the annihilation of both (Robbins 194). This strategy has influenced an ongoing expansion of arsenals across the globe, because, as stated by Bernard T. Adeney’s book Just War, Political Realism, and Faith, “Deterrence is not static. It is a changing structure that is continually affected by complex decision-making and bargaining” (118). In order for mutually assured destruction to be a legitimate deterrent, as one group expands their weaponry, all others must follow suit, else their threat of coercion become humbled. Regardless of the allocative ratio of such weaponry, “to wage a nuclear war today,” according to the Dalai Lama, “would be a form of suicide.”

Proportionality is affected due to the ratio of destruction to original evils presented. The negative effects are suffered not only by the casualties who were originally targeted, but on the environment as well. “…In order to achieve some short-term benefit,” says the Dalai Lama, “we are destroying the very basis for our survival…by polluting the air or the oceans” (Nobel Lecture). Walzer claims atomic weapons use “will always run afoul of proportionality,” because they are so “unimaginably destructive, not just in terms of short-term obliteration but also long-term radiation poisoning and climate change” (Orend Morality of War 122).

More so than the violations of jus ad bellum, the utilization of nuclear arms negates nearly all criteria of jus in bello, otherwise stated as morality during wartime (Orend “War). First, they violate many international laws and treaties of restricted weapons. Next is the violation of discrimination, because the long-term effects of radiation on the environment and civilian population are unpredictable and uncontrollable. Proportionality is affected during wartime, as in jus ad bellum. There is also the rule against means Mala in Se, or the use of inherently “evil” weapons whose effects cannot be controlled. Finally, jus in bello restricts reprisals, which occur when an entity retaliates against an original ethical violation with one of its own. The mutually assured destruction that is characteristic of nuclear warfare is an example of such defilement (Orend “War”).

I found it to be of particular interest that a prominent source of support for the use of nuclear weapons came from those scientists who have been hired to design and manufacture them. In 1995, Hugh Gusterson, an anthropologist specializing in nuclear culture conducted research on nuclear weapons scientists of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. His intention was to find out how people were able to justify participating in the construction of weapons of mass destruction (Robbins 193). According to some of his research subjects, “working on nuclear weapons is more ethical than working on conventional weapons, since conventional weapons are more likely to be used. Nuclear weapons… are simply symbolic chips in a game, the goal of which is to avoid using them” (Robbins 194). Although I have to wonder if this is truly the position these scientists would choose had they not been receiving a government paycheck, or if it is an example of cornpone opinion.

The nuclear scientists’ justification is reminiscent to that of J. Bryan Hehir. He asserts that weapons of mass destruction’s only purpose is that of deterrence, and that “If conflict occurs this policy has failed and we move into a new realm of action, combat policy…the weapons exist to be not used; their purpose is to threaten, not to strike” (Adeney 116). Their counterargument to the injustice of nuclear arms lies in the intimidation factor presented by the assured destruction should the weapon be used, which stems from the concept of human intention. Adeney argues that even when not used, the threat of nuclear strike is unethical. “According to traditional moral theology,” he says, “it makes little difference that there is no intent to carry out the threat. The threat is still immoral… The value of the threat lies only in the degree to which it is believed” (Adeney 117).

 Henry Kissinger and James T. Johnson have suggested altering the weapons to be more discriminate. Kissinger for example, proposed that in small doses, nuclear weapons could be safer and thus more ethical. Orend argues against this idea, asserting that these low-yield bombs still leave the nuclear residue that skews proportionality in an indeterminate way, and would lose their power of intimidation (Orend Morality of War 122). James T. Johnson idea is that, “The less destructive, the more accurate and hence the more discriminating the weapon, the better,” and stresses that:

“…it is not the weapons of war in our time but the assumptions about war that are morally questionable. Weapons are but tools of human intentions, and the reason we now live in a world where entire populations are threatened by nuclear missiles is that we have come to regard such threats as appropriate” (Adeney 106).

Although Johnson succeeds in mentioning the indiscriminant effects of the radiation, he fails at maintaining an objective phenomenological perspective regarding justifications: “…When one is sure of one’s own justice and of the enemy’s injustice, one may temporarily and in specific cases go beyond the limits, even harming non-combatants” (Adeney 107). Is it not an evident characteristic of war to feel that your own side is just and your enemy unjust? Is there any point of developing a theory for just war if enemies will make exceptions against each other?

            It can be concluded that the rules of just war theory “clearly rule out a world destroying nuclear war” (Adeney 97). The physical employment of nuclear weaponry would result in explicit violations of both pacifism and just war criteria. The amount of destruction, and uncertainty of radiation effects provide a strong influence against their use. However, there is an increasing quantity due to several entities wishing to maintain their intimidation status. Thus, I conclude with a question posed by Adeney: “What… is a justifiable cause for going to war when both sides have the ability to devastate each other and a good part of the world in minutes?” (97).


Adeney, Bernard T. Just War, Political Realism, and Faith. [Philadelphia]: American       Theological Library Association, 1988. Print.

Moore, Henrietta, and Todd Sanders, ed. Anthropology in Theory:Issues in Epistemology.          Malden,Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.

“Nobel Lecture:Dalai Lama.” 11 Dec. 1989. Web. 4 Dec. 2011. <;.

Orend, Brian. The Morality of War. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2006. Print.

Orend, Brian, “War”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N.       Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

Robbins, Richard H. Cultural Anthro. Belmont, Calif: Wadsworth, 2012. Print.

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