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Morality and the Future of Weapons of Mass Destruction


by John Langan, S.J., Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Professor of Catholic Social Thought, Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University

A paper to be presented at the CCADD International Meeting, Session 3


September 2000


I have worn glasses since I was in the first grade when it was discovered that I could not see what was written on the blackboard. So one of my abiding memories from childhood is the experience of sitting in the chair in the ophthalmologist's office after my eyes had been dilated. He would put an apparatus around my head and would have me look through various combinations of lenses, asking each time as he added or subtracted a new lens, "Better with? Better without?" I would try to give quick, clear, and what I hoped were accurate and consistent answers. I was never sure whether what we were looking for was a correct answer already known to the doctor or a right answer which was somehow to be discovered by me and surrendered to him.


When the question is put about whether it would be morally justifiable to build and maintain weapons of mass destruction in the future or in the post-Cold War present, I fall back on this childhood experience and reformulate the question in the simple terms of "Better with? Better without?" When the question is put this way, then the quick and clear answer is obvious. Surely it is: "Better without." If we are asked to choose between a world in which there are no weapons of mass destruction and a world in which there are significant numbers of such weapons, then it seems perfectly clear that the world without these monstrous devices which threaten us with new technological variations of incineration, poisoning, and pestilence is the better world.


But after reflection we begin to develop some doubts. For we are not asked to choose between worlds which have only one morally significant feature. We are not being offered an opportunity to return to something like a technological variant of the original position of John Rawls in which it would be reasonable for us to choose a set of arrangement which minimise the possibility of the worst outcomes for ourselves or our society. Rather, governments and citizens are confronted with a world in which power is exercised by various groups with different agendas and different levels of access to technological expertise and in which agreements about restraint and abstinence with regard to the use of force can be made and can be broken. Because we live in a world in which there are many centres of power, because there are different moral and political assessments of these weapons, and because we are creatures of time who can change our minds, there is not and there cannot be a unique point of decision about the development, use, and control of weapons of mass destruction. We may wish that it would be otherwise, that we could have an opportunity to utter a simple and definitive "No" to these troubling and potentially catastrophic inventions. This point, though it will strike many of you as simpliste, needs to be affirmed and remembered because it provides a key element in understanding the arguments and the reactions of nuclear abolitionists.


But as many experts stand ready to remind us, it is not possible to de-invent nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, though it is of course possible to stop inventing new variants of them. Even if all the existing weapons were to be deactivated and destroyed, we will live for the future of our civilisation with the knowledge of how to develop these weapons and with the possibility of calling them back to reality. They can return more easily and more quietly than the monster dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, since the technology for the production of various types of weapons of mass destruction and of delivery systems for them has been developed beyond the initial stages of research and testing, when the weapons and the relevant delivery systems were often clumsy and less than fully reliable and when the unprecedented nature of what was being done required enormous and risky investments of money and highly trained personnel.


The threat presented by weapons of mass destruction when these were developed during World War II and when they were deployed on a large scale during the Cold War did not, however, arise merely from the discoveries of science and the progress of technology. It was at the same time an expression of intense political conflict about the proper way to structure particular national societies and about the general shape of the international order. These conflicts were, as we know, felt broadly and deeply within large and complex societies (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Japan, China, the United States); they were perceived as involving threats to national survival and to the continued existence of the most powerful governments in the world; they had a large ideological component; and they threatened apocalyptic destruction on an unprecedented scale.


If we can imagine the second of these conflicts, the Cold War, without the destructive possibilities connected with weapons of mass destruction, we have to consider the serious likelihood that this political conflict would have found bellicose expression and that the destruction and loss of life produced by such a war would probably have been on the scale of World War I. Certainly, the crises around Berlin and Cuba in the years from 1958 to 1963 were sufficiently sharp that in the absence of nuclear threats the parties might well have resorted to conventional war. We should remember that the Cold War had already achieved a massive military expression in the huge defence establishments of the superpowers with corresponding budgets. If the system of nuclear deterrence created by the superpowers during the Cold War did indeed prevent the occurrence of a massive conventional conflict, then this must count as a major benefit to be set against the quite considerable costs and risks of the actual Cold War system of extended nuclear deterrence which had both passionate critics and committed defenders.


If we think back on the optical metaphor with which we began, it seems that the answer to the question "Better with? Better without?" when it is asked about the possession of nuclear weapons in a situation of deep and intense political conflict may well be "Better with."


Since 1989 we have emerged from the Cold War into a period in which these major ideological, political, and military conflicts have either disappeared or have been considerably transformed (as in the case of China). The continued existence of weapons of mass destruction in the absence of deep or intense political conflict creates little anxiety either in the general public or in political Úlites. No one worries greatly about the possibility that America, Britain, and France will use weapons of mass destruction against each other. Countries with shared political values, comparable economic and technological capabilities, and shared understandings about the requirements of international order are unlikely to be seriously divided or set at odds with each other simply by the development or the continued possession of distinct or separately controlled weapons systems. But what the history of Iraq during the last twenty years and the latest stage of the ongoing dispute between India and Pakistan make clear is that states which are in no position to aspire to global dominance are interested in acquiring and possibly using weapons of mass destruction in order to resolve regional conflicts on terms satisfactory to themselves.

If we go back to our initial metaphor and the naive question about lenses, it seems that the answer to the question when it is asked about international political conflict rather than about nuclear weapons is "Better without." It is the presence of such conflict, whether it be expressed in ideological, religious, ethnic, historical, economic, or Realpolitik terms, that is the source of danger, that drives nations to invent or reinvent weapons systems, and that makes the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction such a dangerous and disturbing possibility. From this point it does not follow that we ought not to be concerned about regulating or eliminating various types of weapons. What does follow, I submit, is that efforts at eliminating various types of weapons are unlikely to yield significant or reliable results unless the fundamental issues making for conflict are being dealt with; they may not be resolved, but they must be contained. In fact, the long series of arms control negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union provided numerous occasions for evaluating the overall relationship between the two superpowers and for working to improve it.


What makes the initial question about nuclear weapons naive and misleading is that it directs our attention and concern to the means of conflict rather than to its sources and goals and that it invites us to assess the means in a de-contextualized way. This small "thought experiment" is seductive because it combines a simple and important truth which appeals to both our moral sentiments and our concern for our survival with a utopian denial of the complicating factors which made the development of weapons of mass destruction seem necessary, rational, and even in some respects beneficial.


But suppose for a moment that we ask the initial question not about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in the world taken in isolation nor about the presence of intense political conflict considered by itself but about the conjunction of the two things taken together. Here again we find that the "Better without" answer seems clearly right. If one recognises that the intense political conflict which motivated and perhaps justified reliance on weapons of mass destruction, specifically nuclear weapons, during the Cold War period, has come to an end, then it seems that an abolitionist stance with regard to these weapons would enable us to achieve a world in which we would be without both weapons of mass destruction and without intense political conflict.


This way of specifying the initial question enables us to see two points which are worth retaining. The first is that the perception of intense political conflict in the international arena and the sense of the need for weapons of mass destruction are likely to rise and fall together. Of course, the relaxation of tensions is not the only reason why support for a policy of nuclear deterrence declines. In times of intensified conflict and heightened tension, the opponents of any policy relying on nuclear weapons have usually become more vocal. The second point is that public discussion and moral reflection in the North Atlantic world are only too likely to be dominated by the assumption that the only kind of intense political conflict which is worth worrying about is one which involves or threatens us directly. The end of the Cold War did indeed eliminate the major threat to the core countries of the Western alliance and ended a period of intense political conflict between communists and their adversaries. Even though it closed the grandest and potentially most destructive instance of intense political conflict in the second half of the twentieth century, the end of the Cold War clearly did not mean the end of intense political conflict around the world. In fact, the end of the Cold War freed the parties in various lesser conflicts to move these conflicts to higher levels of intensity and to make them more violent. The fate of the former Yugoslavia can serve as a savagely memorable example. In the aftermath of the now departed and unlamented intercontinental conflict which was the Cold War, the world continues to be troubled by intense political conflicts which are commonly and often dismissively described by metropolitan commentators and analysts as regional but which are often interpreted by those who participate in them as involving issues of power and justice which are deeply felt, which are of far more than local significance and which may well justify reliance on weapons of mass destruction.


As the present age of ethnic and religious conflict makes abundantly clear, intense and potentially violent political conflict has a much wider scope than the current distribution of weapons of mass destruction. In only a small number of these conflicts (Iraq-Iran, India-Pakistan, et al.) will there be a movement from intense political conflict to taking up the possibilities presented by the possession and possible use of weapons of mass destruction. In many other conflicts (Bosnia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone), there seems to be a readiness to engage in mass murder without using weapons of mass destruction. Weapons of mass destruction are inappropriate when the hostile populations are closely intermingled or when the economic and technological structure of the hostile groups is so underdeveloped that there is no sustainable capacity for implementing strategies that rely on the threat or the use of these weapons. We then have cases in which we have the reality of intense and violent political conflict and minimal likelihood of reliance on weapons of mass destruction; we are "with" the first and "without" the second.

If we compare these two types of situations, we can see two important points. The first is the difference which industrial and economic development makes to the problem. In the present order of things, it is newly industrialising countries which do not have a strong stake in the status quo, which have serious political grievances which may ripen into intense conflicts, and which have, along with industrialisation, acquired the capacity for procuring and using weapons of mass destruction that present the most serious possibility for catastrophic use of weapons of mass destruction. We should note that there are also countries which, while not becoming seriously industrialised themselves, have the revenues to purchase the weapons, the delivery systems, and the personnel to present serious threats both to their neighbours and to the international order. The second is a sobering reminder that catastrophic evils can be accomplished with unsophisticated technologies and that efforts to restrain and resolve intense political conflicts will continue to have both wider applicability and greater urgency as well as logical priority in comparison with efforts to eliminate certain types of weapons.


Those of you who read papers like this with philosophical lenses will have noticed that thus far I have been talking the language of good, better, and evil (understood as the negation of good). We have been thinking about more or less desirable situations and outcomes. So far I have not employed the language of right and wrong. the language which we most commonly use in articulating about our moral judgements about what is or is not to be done in a given situation. We have not moved directly to answer such questions as "Is it right or wrong for nations to possess nuclear weapons in the future?" My hesitation in moving in this direction is based on two theoretical considerations. The first is a view which I take from Thomas Aquinas and from modern utilitarians that our thinking in practical matters begin with the notion of good and not with the notion of right. The second is that I think it is quite difficult to arrive at universally true affirmations about what is right and wrong in general and that this difficulty is compounded when we are dealing with the complex and imperfectly understood issues of international politics and military affairs. But more pragmatic considerations also affect my approach. For my experience has been that policy makers and policy advocates and the public in general are primarily interested in bringing about good situations and favourable outcomes but that they are often uninterested in describing these in the most general terms. So it may be helpful for a philosopher to attempt to articulate these situations and to encourage reflective judgements about what is good, what is better, and what is evil. I am further concerned about the short distance that commonly obtains between the making of judgements about right and wrong and the issuance of moral condemnations. In our everyday life, this may be, on balance, a good thing; for it adds to the urgency and the impact of moral concerns. But in a world of diverse and often hostile cultures and sharply conflicting interests, a world in which self-righteousness is only too likely to overwhelm compassion, and a world in which arms of all sorts are numerous and too readily available, a lengthening of this distance is to be welcomed.


The following positions would, I think, be helpful in assessing various regimes and policies that might be proposed with regard to weapons of mass destruction for the twenty-first century.

1) A world without weapons of mass destruction is better than a world with such weapons, if we ignore the likelihood and the level of political conflict.

2) A world without weapons of mass destruction may actually be a more dangerous place if such a world is marked by intense political conflicts.

3) The experience of the Cold War has shown that possession of weapons of mass destruction even on a large scale does not lead necessarily to their use.

4) The general experience of technologically advanced societies shows that continued possession of weapons of mass destruction is not risk-free, that these risks are likely to be greater as less sophisticated societies acquire such weapons, and that wanting to reduce or eliminate the risk of accidental use is reasonable.

5) The remote capability for the development of weapons of mass destruction cannot be eliminated and will in fact spread as more countries acquire modern technologies; therefore any regime for the long-term future must provide for adequate responses to the possibilities of proliferation and recidivism.

6) The proximate capability for the production and deployment of weapons of mass destruction will only be renounced by states when they are reasonably sure that they can obtain adequate protection of their basic interests in other ways (e.g., by alliances, treaties) or when the acquisition of these capabilities brings with it unacceptable costs (threats, risks of pre-emption, sanctions, expenditures).

7) The actual use of weapons of mass destruction has to be regarded as a bad outcome and as something which constitutes a serious basis for criticism of a policy which made it necessary. It also counts against the international regime under which it occurred. Even if it were to be justified in certain circumstances as a lesser evil or as outweighed by the necessity to protect higher values, such use is not to be considered a good thing.

8) It is highly desirable that intense political conflicts be resolved on terms acceptable to the contending parties before the acquisition of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction becomes an attractive option.


If one finds this set of propositions plausible and coherent, then one can, I think, use them as a basis for assessing arguments and proposals for future policy with regard to weapons of mass destruction.



The question of coherence is not a trivial one, for reflection on this set of affirmations makes it plain that some considerations (1, 4, 7) point in one direction (e.g., the speedy and comprehensive abolition of weapons of mass destruction) and some point in the opposite direction (2, 3, 5, 6). But I submit that this is what we should expect when we are trying to reconcile goods or values such as national sovereignty and the limitation of violent conflict which are distinct both in terms of logical analysis and in terms of practical choice.


In addition to the test presented by this set of affirmation there are other practically important and morally relevant questions to be raised about possible regimes for the future of weapons of mass destruction.

First, what is the primary objective of such a regime? Is it to prevent the acquisition or re-acquisition of weapons of mass destruction? or is to prevent the use of such weapons? does it

aim at the complete or substantial elimination of such weapons?

Second, what is or are the crucial means for achieving these objectives? persuasion? confidence-building measures? sanctions against offenders? deterrence (which presupposes a continuing possession and capability for use in the hands of some competent authority)? or defensive measures in response to possible use?

Third, is the regime to be unitary (in which the key resources and decision-making power is held by some world body or perhaps even by a single state) or is to be pluralistic (in which case it may not be so different from current ideas about multilateral arms control agreements)'?


At this point, you may think that these are the questions that should have come at the beginning of the paper rather than at the end. They certainly point to the necessity of a further paper and of further reflection, which others can probably carry out better than I. They will, I trust, provoke further discussion. But philosophers have a way of going back beyond beginnings as ordinary folk conceive them and of mulling over questions which most of our discussions and projects take for granted. At the same time these last questions may constitute a merciful end, which is also a new beginning.