The contents of this document are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CCADD.


For all CCADD members: The following review of Michael Quinlan’s book Thinking About Nuclear Weapons by the Chairman, Brian Wicker, appeared in The Tablet on March 28th 2009.  We have the Tablet’s kind permission to put it on the website.  In addition, Brian has added a further comment on Michael Quinlan’s book which he suggested may go on the website in the hope of further discussion by other CCADD members.



Thinking About Nuclear Weapons: Principles, Prospects, Problems


Michael Quinlan




With Sir Michael Quinlan’s untimely death on February 26th from spinal cancer, Britain has lost one of its cleverest public servants (and The Tablet one of its most loyal supporters).  So this book unexpectedly becomes his final bequest to the world.  It fulfils this role - for which it was never designed - with distinction and elegance.   Being the product of a top civil servant’s mind at full stretch, often given to teaching politicians unpalatable truths, it is concise, tough and clear, but not easy or comfortable reading  for anyone of whatever persuasion.  There is hardly a word wasted nor any unnecessary jargon.   Generals, diplomats, cardinals and anti-nuclear campaigners all need to study it with the same care that its author evidently gave to its composition.  We cannot afford not to understand what it is saying, even when we find it unacceptable.


The book’s key proposition is that nuclear weapons have made major armed conflict between advanced states virtually impossible, and that this fact is an inestimable benefit to humanity which must not be lost.  Michael Quinlan’s working life was given to ensuring that all sides recognised this fact, and acted accordingly.  That they seem to have done so for the last sixty years was a matter of great satisfaction to him.  What matters now, in the post-cold war world, is to make sure states go on doing so, while would-be proliferators learn the same lesson.  (His study of the India/Pakistan confrontation, and how it can best be managed, is one of the most useful bits of his book).


The whole work demands close attention.   Part II (‘Managing Nuclear Weapons’) covers such topics as instability, terrorism, proliferation, arms racing and arms control, as well as ‘alternative defence’ and other ‘escape routes‘.   All are subjected to brief but compelling analysis and need to be considered carefully both by policy-wonks and anti-nuclear campaigners.  There is also a clear-cut account of British nuclear policy over the decades since 1945 - a policy of which the author may be deemed the principal architect. 


Given the book’s key proposition, it may be wondered why chapter 12 is given over to analysing the requirements and difficulties of trying to abolish nuclear weapons entirely.  If they have prevented major war for so long and so effectively, why get rid of them?  Why even attempt to overcome the enormous practical difficulties involved?  The answer is not altogether straightforward.  That the post-cold war Vatican has consistently taught that it must be done may be part of the answer.  But perhaps the explanation has more to do with a certain unease Quinlan feels with his reply to the obvious ethical objections to nuclear deterrence as such.   In my opinion the chapter on ’The Ethics of Nuclear Weapons’ is the weakest in the book - just where it needs to be the strongest.


The author’s key contention here is that, while being willing to kill the innocent is an inextricable component of any coherent deterrent policy, such killing is excusable because it is only an unpurposed and unintended side effect of the action that would have to be done if deterrence failed.  (Quinlan is adamant that you can‘t have a deterrent without willingness to use the weapons if necessary.  And he is also clear that deterrence cannot be guaranteed to succeed).  He admits that here his argument is at ‘full stretch‘ - as is every counter-argument.   But in this book he does not attempt to show how his own key contention is true.  He has done so elsewhere, but never (to my knowledge) with the rigour he regularly gave to the problems associated with ensuring that deliberate counter-population attacks were not necessary for effective deterrence.  Shortly before his final illness he and I were in email dialogue on this issue but we had to agree to differ.  As a result he was not able to reply to the case I have made elsewhere (in an issue of New Blackfriars later this year) that it is a fallacy to suppose the willingness to kill the innocent, which is unavoidably involved in deterrence, is excusable on ‘double effect’ grounds.  This may seem an esoteric point, but in my opinion it is of crucial importance (and I think Quinlan would have agreed) because if I am right then the willingness that lies behind any nuclear deterrence policy is necessarily and stupendously unjust, infecting the whole stance of the deterrer before the world.


Despite this reservation, I recommend this book as a key text for any would-be policy maker, commentator or campaigner.  It is a concise but fitting tribute to a life devoted to trying to ensure that war need not and ought not to happen, and that the objective of any good defence policy is peace. 


Brian Wicker




Michael Quinlan on Nuclear Deterrence


This comment on Sir Michael Quinlan’s Thinking About Nuclear Weapons is written out of homage to one of the most intelligent and honest defenders of the strategy of nuclear deterrence.  His death is a sad blow to the integrity of policy-making in this field, even if, as I believe, the policy is wrong-headed.  For he very firmly believed that nuclear deterrence had played a key part in preventing the catastrophe of world war among advanced nation-states since 1945.  In this sense he thought it has been a positive effort towards peace-making, and he saw his life’s work as having been dedicated to this task.   I think it very likely that nuclear deterrence has been a major factor, perhaps a key factor, in preventing war since 1945.  My problem with it is the cost in terms of justice which is entailed in the search for peace by this route.


In Thinking About Nuclear Weapons Michael Quinlan claims that on ethical grounds there are only three possible stances to be taken on nuclear deterrence (Chapter 5, p. 49): 


1. ‘it is morally imperative always and conditionally to renounce the possession of nuclear weapons, regardless of circumstances and consequences’;


2. ‘the use of nuclear weapons must be always and unconditionally renounced, regardless of circumstances or consequences, but...the possession of them for deterrence - that is, with the aim of preventing war - can be morally tolerable if it is reasonably judged effective and necessary for that aim’;


3. Some use of nuclear weapons, in ways and on a scale the prospect of which could provide effective deterrence, might in extreme circumstances be morally tolerable, and …their possession for war-prevention can therefore be legitimate’.


He goes on: ‘there is, in inexorable logic, no fourth position available’.


I think that this logic is far from inexorable, even though I accept that positions 1 and 2 are flawed.  Position 2 should be rejected because it is strategically incoherent.  We can agree about that.  Position 1 is problematic if it implies that nuclear weapons ought to be rejected unconditionally even if they contribute in a major way to war prevention. Perhaps during the cold war they could have been, indeed by many people were, ‘tolerated’ for deterrence purposes as the least of several evils.   But the point is that today (in 2009) they do not contribute to war-prevention.   On the contrary, they probably contribute to making war more, not less likely, as the ‘gang of four’ have pointed out.


However, the fundamental trouble with Quinlan’s ‘inexorable logic’ lies in the systematically unclear use of the phrase ‘morally acceptable’ in position 3.   In what way does the word ‘morally’ clarify the word ‘tolerable‘?  Indeed, what does ‘morally’ mean in any of the three choices?  


To put the matter in a nutshell, the dilemma is this: does position 3 (which the author himself endorses) mean that the prospect of some use of nuclear weapons is a positively just prospect? or does it mean that, unjust though nuclear deterrence is, it is less unjust than the alternatives?  ‘Morally tolerable’ could mean either.  But they cannot both be true, and we have to choose between them.  Furthermore, the consequences of choosing one rather than the other are profound, for the choice involves two quite distinct conceptions of what ethics is about (as Elizabeth Anscombe pointed out decades ago in her essay on Modern Moral Philosophy of 1958).[1]  Hence it is a mistake to suppose that if you reject 1 and 2 you have to accept 3, for it is systematically unclear what 3 means.  We can put the matter thus:


either -  A) nuclear deterrence is ‘tolerable’ because the prospect of some use of nuclear weapons is in itself an exercise, in the strategic realm, of one or more of the virtues: e.g. of justice or prudence or charity (or all three).  If so it is a good thing, and ought not to be jettisoned unless some other prospect can be put in place to do the same job (i.e. preventing war) ‘better’ - for example more cheaply, or more reliably.  (‘better’ at this point is not a ‘moral’ term – whatever that is - but an economic or political one).


or - B) nuclear deterrence is intrinsically unjust (and imprudent and uncharitable), since the prospect of some use of nuclear weapons involves being willing intentionally to kill the innocent for the sake of keeping the peace.  Nevertheless it is less unjust (prudent, charitable) than the available alternatives, e.g. submitting to a new Hitler or Stalin (position 1) or adopting an incoherent and therefore ineffective strategy for keeping the peace (position 2).  In this sense it is ‘tolerable’ as the least of several unavoidable evils. 


If I am right, the problem with position 3) is that nuclear deterrence entails being willing intentionally to kill the innocent in order to prevent war.  Now Michael Quinlan claimed that this is not so, because any killing of the innocent the deterrer has to be willing to undertake will be only a ‘side effect’ of what has to be done in using his nuclear weapon.  This is why (he thought) nuclear deterrence is ‘tolerable’, though what exactly he means by ‘morally’ at this point is systematically unclear, and this vitiates his claim that position 3 is ‘in inexorable logic’ the only alternative to positions 1 and 2.  (Thinking About Nuclear Weapons p. 48).  However his thesis involves a fallacious use of the concept of ‘double effect’.  (On this see my article Double Effect in a forthcoming issue of New Blackfriars)  


If I am right nuclear deterrence cannot be a positively just strategy.  This is why, as the Vatican has said constantly since the end of the cold war, the elimination of nuclear weapons is an obligation in the post-cold war world.   Fortunately, this point is being slowly accepted by some among the nuclear powers, including President Obama in the United States.[2]  Unfortunately, some actions by the nuclear powers, such as the British decision to rearm itself with newer nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future, are at odds with this obligation.


Of course, nuclear deterrence could be thought ‘morally’ tolerable by an ethical consequentialist or utilitarian.  But then almost any strategy could be tolerable under such an ethical theory, since the consequences of any alternative could plausibly be thought worse.  But I am assuming here that consequentialism, and also its utilitarian ancestor, are both unacceptable because both are incoherent.  And Michael Quinlan, as a Catholic believer, certainly rejected consequentialism as a theory of ethics.  He clearly thought that some things, such as the intentional killing of the innocent, were illicit tout court.  Why then did he suppose that nuclear deterrence, which he insisted could not be disconnected from possible use of nuclear weapons, was still ‘morally’ tolerable?


I suspect he borrowed his words from Pope John Paul II.  For in a speech to the United Nations in 1982 the Pope had said the following: ‘in current conditions “deterrence” based on balance not as an end in itself but as a step toward a progressive disarmament, may still be judged morally acceptable.’ 


Michael Quinlan frequently quoted this statement in his own discussions of the matter.  But the fact that the Pope talked about nuclear deterrence, in the conditions of the cold war in 1982, as ‘morally acceptable’ does not in itself make the term ‘morally’ any clearer.  However, we can surely interpret his meaning in the light of what he went on to say:


   ‘Nonetheless, in order to ensure peace, it is indispensable not to be satisfied with this minimum, which is always susceptible to the real danger of explosion’.


It is clear that the Pope did not think nuclear deterrence to be an exercise of the virtue of justice or prudence, for if he had it would not be necessary to say that we cannot be satisfied with this ‘minimum’.  It seems fairly clear that he thought nuclear deterrence to be, at best, only the lesser of evils ‘always susceptible to the real danger of explosion’.[3]  And I take it that Michael Quinlan thought the same.  The fact that he considered that the decision by the UK to continue with a nuclear deterrence policy after 2020, by planning to buy new submarines and warheads, may be unnecessary and in need of careful scrutiny at every stage, shows that he was uncomfortable with this ‘lesser of evils’ case for British policy, and that it might be better to get rid of the UK deterrent in the light of post-cold war circumstances.


Brian Wicker



[1] G.E.M.Anscombe, Modern Moral Philosophy in Human Life, Action and Ethics: Essays  by G.E.M. Anscombe edited by Mary Geach and Luke Gormally, Imprint Academic, 2005 pp. 169-194.  See also in the same book, pp. 207-226, Action, Intention and Double Effect.

[2] (See Michael Quinlan, Abolishing Nuclear Armouries:  Policy or Pipedream? in Survival Vol. 49 No. 4 Winter 2007-8 and Adelphi Paper 396, on Abolishing Nuclear Weapons by George Perkovich and James M. Acton, IISS 2008). 

[3] On all this see my pamphlet Nuclear deterrence: What Does the Church Teach?  Catholic Truth Society, 1985, pp. 22-26.