The Morality of Deterrence

In the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Catholic Church especially Augustine and Aquinas, one finds awe-inspiring efforts to reconcile the demands of disciplined faith with the dictates of reason and the practical requirements of life. Whether or not one shares their faith, contact with these efforts enlarges the capacity for moral thought and judgment. As a result, the moral courage and honesty inspired by faith have contributed to moral enlightenment well beyond the circle of the faithful.

Undoubtedly the great Christian thinkers did not pursue qualities of intellectual excellence for, their own sake as more worldly scholars do. They must have realized that if the moral views they recommended were supported by inadequate analysis or inconsistent judgments, the result would be to weaken rather than confirm the faith, and to diminish its appeal to thoughtful non-believers. To avoid this, they insisted upon a clear statement of the Church’s moral position, supported by appropriate scriptural, ecclesiastical and secular ethical authorities. But they also took pains to think through the difficulties involved in their position, including the best possible arguments that those relying upon reason alone might raise against it. In this way they sought to assure that their reasoning either refuted or else took account of these arguments.

Even a lay reader only superficially acquainted with this ancient sophisticated and profound tradition of ethical discourse approaches with high expectations the second draft of the proposed Pastoral Letter on War, Armaments and Peace of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee on War and Peace. The invention of nuclear weapons has made it starkly clear that mankind walks, as the psalmist said, in the valley of the shadow of death. Guidance from those animated by faith should be particularly helpful in overcoming the fear of this shadow in order to deal unflinchingly with the moral dilemma it poses.

Unfortunately, rather than contributing to greater moral clarity about nuclear security issues, the Letter may exacerbate the prevailing moral confusion, Most lay readers are not in a position to fault the Letter’s presentation of Church doctrine since they have not meditated deeply upon relevant ecclesiastical documents. However, the deficiencies of its analysis of deterrence theory can be appreciated by anyone familiar with the theory’s basic principles. These deficiencies lead to moral judgments that fail to take account of the practical and moral problems deterrence theory aims to address. As a result, the Letter risks aggravating both the moral crisis and the nuclear danger.

The thoughts presented here are offered in the spirit of charity and concern for the common good recommended by Vatican II. The discussion begins with a brief exposition of the key moral arguments on nuclear war and deterrence developed in the Letter. This is followed by an analysis of some of the deficiencies of the Letter’s position and the moral dilemmas they raise. The essay concludes with an effort to develop a moral position on deterrence more consistent than that presently incorporated in the draft Pastoral Letter.



A. Basic Principles

The core of the Letter’s moral position begins with a discussion of “two legitimate modes of Christian witness on issues of war and peace” — non-violence and the just war position. The Letter points to “re-emergence of support for a pacifist position in the teaching of Vatican II.” But though it recognizes the need to take serious account of the non-violent approach, the Letter focuses primarily on describing the main principles of the just war theory and applying them to the present strategic situation. As the Letter presents it, Catholic just war tradition begins with St. Augustine’s view that, though war is a consequence of sin and disordered ambitions, use of lethal force is justifiable “to restrain evil and protect the innocent. The classic case which illustrated his view was the use of lethal force to prevent aggression against innocent victims.”

In the twentieth century, papal teaching has used the logic of Augustine and Aquinas to articulate a right of self-defense for states in a decentralized order. The essential position was stated by Vatican II: ‘As long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense once all peaceful efforts have failed.’1

The Letter proceeds to outline the familiar list of criteria that govern justifiable use of force, once the presumption against it has been overcome. These criteria require that war be declared by a competent public authority for the sake of the common good of the community. War must have a just cause, i.e. “to confront a ‘real and certain injury’.” It must be governed by a right intention, i.e., only one arising from a just cause. It must be employed only as a last resort “when all other means of redress have been pursued.” It must have a reasonable probability of success and the damage and costs occasioned by the war must be proportionate to the good expected by taking up arms. Finally war must be conducted by just means, i.e., means that discriminate between combatants and non-combatants, and that satisfy at each state the criterion of proportionality cited above.

B. The Morality of Nuclear War

The Letter’s judgment on nuclear war, both in terms of the just war principles just outlined, and more general theological arguments, is an emphatic condemnation. Nuclear war itself is described as a threat to the created order and to “the sovereignty of God over the world he has brought into being.” Thus, in addition to the enormous physical destruction it would cause, the Letter portrays it as an archetypically sinful act.2

In some respects this portrayal seems problematical. A detailed treatment of the problem would go beyond the practical intention of this essay. However, it is worth noting that the Letter itself later reminds us, in another context, that the Catholic tradition “places a high value on the role of ‘intention’ in moral action.”3 The Letter’s portrayal of the sinfulness of nuclear war makes no mention of intention. This suggests that no intention, however moral, would justify the physical destruction of the created order involved in a nuclear exchange. Readers may be moved to wonder, though, whether the physical world, or even conscious physical life, exhausts the possibilities of the created order. The voluntary fate embraced by the early Christian martyrs suggests that there must be a dimension to moral action, especially in the Christian tradition, that goes beyond calculations of physical danger and fear in order to take account of spiritual goods that are no less real for being intangible. Surely the hierarchy of spiritual values is a part of the created order. If the physical horrors of nuclear war were endured or risked for the sake of such values, would this intention have no relevance to the character of the choice that permitted such a war to occur?

This question may have special relevance for those who believe in non-violence. They would sympathize with the Letter’s assertion that “preventing nuclear war is an absolute moral imperative.” But what are the implications of this imperative for those who seek a position of non-violence consistent with the practice of the Christian faith? Is nuclear war an evil so absolute that all other evils should be tolerated in order to avoid it? Or are there other absolute moral imperatives to be balanced against it? For instance, how is this imperative consistent with the Christian tradition which reveres those who have accepted death rather than deny the truth of the Risen Christ? Suppose that all Christians were told that unless they renounced Christ, denied God and agreed to give their children up to be educated on the basis of these denials, a nuclear war would be unleashed against their nations. Should they renounce the Faith and jeopardize the innocent souls of their offspring or accept nuclear war? Of course in today’s world such an ultimatum remains an absurd hypothesis, but a situation is not inconceivable in which demands resembling it in principle could be made with credible impunity. Consider what the threat of conventional invasion has forced upon the Poles.

Neglecting the spiritual dilemma posed by the threat of nuclear war, the Letter allows nuclear weapons’ potential for physical destruction to shape its application of the just war theory criteria. Given this potential, the Letter concludes that use of nuclear weapons would violate both the just means tests, discrimination and proportionality.4 It would inevitably mean the loss of innocent human lives, and cause damage out of all proportion to any good results intended by it.

Today the possibility of placing political and moral limits on nuclear war is so infinitesimal that the moral task is prevention. As a people we must refuse to legitimate the idea of nuclear war … we are sure of one moral imperative we should declare: a rejection of nuclear war.5

The rejection of nuclear war leads to several strictures against the use of nuclear weapons, again derived from the application of just war principles.6 First, the Letter rejects use of nuclear weapons or other “instruments of mass slaughter” against civilian targets, and declares that “No Christian can rightfully carry out orders or policies deliberately aimed at killing non-combatants.” Second, it doubts that there are any circumstances under which the first use of nuclear weapons, however limited in scope, can be morally justified. Third, it questions but does not reject outright the possibility of a limited nuclear war. Such rejection appears to be implicit, however, in its declared opposition “to a policy of attacking targets which lie so close to concentrations of population that destruction of the target would devastate nearby populations centers …. Retaliatory action which would take wholly innocent lives, lives of people in no way responsible for the actions of the government, must also be condemned.”7 With the possible exception of exchanges at sea or in outer space, most conceivable nuclear exchanges, even at the tactical level, would probably involve the deaths of non-combatants. If this is morally forbidden, limited nuclear war would also appear to be affected by the ban in most cases.

It is unclear from the Letter’s discussion whether the judgment about the impossibility of placing “political and moral limits” on the use of nuclear weapons, has to do with the intention of such use or its effects. If it is a judgment regarding intention, the Letter’s view would seem to imply that in every case the intention would be immoral. Does this mean that there are no grounds, including self-defense, that morally justify use of nuclear weapons? If so, a moral doctrine other than the just war position is required, since it permits resort to force on certain grounds. The Letter presents no such doctrine though it implies that the destructive potential of nuclear weapons requires one. It seems to adopt the view that nuclear weapons represent, in every case, such indiscriminate destructive force that their very existence embodies an objectively immoral intention. There would appear to be technical reasons for questioning this belief, given the wide variation in the size and destructiveness of nuclear weapons. But if the Letter does mean to assert that nuclear weapons are objectively immoral, it is difficult to reconcile this assertion with the conditional tolerance for the possession of nuclear weapons it later adopts. One could not countenance possession of an objectively immoral means even on condition that such possession contributes to a moral end, without adopting the fallacious moral principle that the end justifies the means. Unfortunately, in its discussion of the morality of deterrence, the Letter comes dangerously close to adopting this moral fallacy.

C. The Morality of Deterrence

The serious questions the Letter raises about the morality of the actual use of nuclear weapons does not translate automatically into a condemnation of deterrence. Deterrence does not involve the physical use of nuclear weapons to wage war. Rather it makes psychological use of the threat they pose in order to prevent war. Having established the prevention of nuclear war as an absolute moral imperative,8 the Letter cannot question the moral intention involved in this approach. Instead it raises serious questions about what it understands to be the method used to pursue that intention.

The moral questions about deterrence focus on five issues:

I) the possession of weapons of mass destruction;

2) the accompanying threat and or, intention to use them;

3) the declared, or at least not repudiated, willingness to use such weapons on civilians;

4) the moral significance of the prevention of use of nuclear weapons through a strategy which could not morally be implemented;

5) the continued escalation of the nuclear arms race with its diversion of resources from other needs.9

After examining, these questions in light of Catholic “just war” doctrine, the Letter reaches the conclusion that the methods involved in the strategy of deterrence which has guided U.S. policy through most of the nuclear era, are immoral.

The moral judgment of this statement is that both the use of strategic nuclear weapons, and also the declared intent to use them involved in our deterrence policy, are both wrong.10

Later the Letter summarizes the arguments on which this judgment is based. Specifically these negative dimensions of deterrence include all of the following:

1) the intention to use strategic nuclear weapons which would violate the principles of discrimination and proportionality;

2) the human consequences if deterrence fails;

3) the political relationship which sustains deterrence, a relationship of radical distrust …;

4) the threats made or implied by deterrence give no assurance of any limits which would be maintained if deterrence fails; and

5) the diversion of vitally needed resources which are consumed by the arms race.11 But despite these problems the Letter reluctantly accepts the need for some regime of deterrence, though only as a temporary expedient until negotiations produce a more stable basis for peace by reducing and ultimately eliminating nuclear weapons. Such acceptance, however grudging, suggests that until agreement is reached negotiations by themselves cannot prevent nuclear war. The Letter declares that “a lack of unequivocal condemnation of deterrence is meant only to be an attempt to acknowledge the role of deterrence, but not to support its extension beyond the prevention of use of nuclear weapons.”12  Thus, though the Letter’s moral judgment rejects the methods of deterrence, its practical judgment, in effect, acknowledges that there is no immediate substitute for deterrence as a means to prevent nuclear war. Since it maintains that preventing nuclear war is an absolute moral imperative the Letter is forced to compromise its rejection of deterrence.

Many argue that the deterrent prevents the use of nuclear weapons as we noted above, this argument is not subject to conclusive proof or disproof. We are skeptical of it but not to the point where we can simply dismiss its implications. As clearly unsatisfactory as the deterrent posture of the United States is from a moral point of view, use of nuclear weapons by any of the nuclear powers would be a greater evil.13

The Letter is clearly left in the uncomfortable moral position of tolerating some things it comes close to condemning as wholly immoral in order to avoid something else it has come close to defining as absolutely evil. The Letter’s exaggerated, almost Manichean moral perspective leaves no place for imperfection, i.e. for something not evil though not wholly good. Yet imperfection is the inescapable condition of any human moral perspective.

We are reminded of this when we reflect on the practical aspects of the Letter’s position. Its conditional acceptance of deterrence depends in the first instance on the continuation of arms control negotiations. It does not take account of the fact that the feasibility of such negotiations depends upon the willingness of both sides to participate. It would be an ironic situation indeed in which an unscrupulous opponent could undermine our moral tolerance for nuclear weapons simply by refusing to engage in negotiations to control them. Moreover, it is well known to experienced diplomats that there are times when “warming up the plane” (i.e. threatening to break off talks) is a necessary and effective negotiating tactic. By insisting that there be constant negotiations, therefore, the Letter’s moral position could make their success less likely.

Stressing the absolute necessity to say no to nuclear war and building upon this moral judgment about deterrence, the Letter presents an array of specific recommendations aimed at fulfilling this necessity. These strictures and recommendations seem explicitly intended to resolve the moral questions about deterrence by elimination or reducing its objectionable aspects.

In particular the recommendations propose three criteria for morally assessing the elements of deterrence strategy: deterrence must not go beyond preventing use of nuclear weapons to encourage war fighting capability. “Sufficiency to deter is an adequate strategy.”

No quest for superiority is allowed. Any additional nuclear systems or changes in nuclear strategy must be evaluated in terms of whether they make arms control moves more or less likely.14

Considered in the abstract, the conclusions, strictures and recommendations presented in the Pastoral Letter may seem consistent with its declared moral purpose of helping to prevent nuclear war. But the Letter attempts to declare abstract, universal rules with regard to matters that cannot be judged apart from particular circumstances. Because these rules fail to take account of existing realities and are based upon a faulty understanding of deterrence theory, they actually involve the grave risk of turning nuclear war from a potential danger into an inescapable threat. Regarding sufficiency to deter, for instance, the Letter falls into a well known logical difficulty. Because deterrence is an essentially psychological and relational concept, the possibility cannot be excluded that to deter a given adversary under given psychological conditions nothing short of superiority will suffice. Under those conditions abstract moral precepts that prohibited any type of superiority would cause the very evil they were framed to prevent.


II: Morality vs. Deterrence

A. The Effect on Nuclear Stability

Given the primacy of spiritual values in the Christian tradition, one would expect the draft of the American Catholic Bishops proposed Pastoral Letter to be especially sensitive to the psychological dimensions of deterrence, as well as the incalculable moral consequences of permitting a situation in which nuclear blackmail could force us to surrender to immoral aggression, injustice, or tyranny. As the Letter itself states:

Moral perspective should be sensitive not only to the quantitative dimensions of a question, but to its psychological, human and religious characteristics as well.15

But though the Pastoral letter shows a keen awareness of the material dimensions of the problem of nuclear war and the arms race — the threat of enormous physical destruction, the diversion of material and human resources from urgent problems of hunger and poverty — it seems indifferent to the less tangible aspects of the moral dilemma. This indifference results in a failure to appreciate the complexity of the problem with which the contemporary theory of deterrence tries to deal, as well as the complexity of its response to that problem.

At the level of implementation, nuclear war strategy in the ballistic missile age is essentially offensive in nature. That is to say, there are now deployed no strategic weapons capable of providing a reliable general defense against the physical threat of a nuclear attack. This fact has become an integral part of the theoretical basis of deterrence, so much so that a major argument against defensive systems (such as ABM) has been that they have destabilizing implications for the situation of deterrence. The vulnerability on all sides to the physical threat of nuclear attack is thus virtually an axiom of deterrence theory. As the Letter itself points out “the presumption … that sovereignty implied an ability to protect a nation’s territory and population, is precisely the presumption denied by the nuclear capacities of both superpowers.”16

Given this problem how can statesmen hope to provide for the security of their people? The Letter implies that this problem is insoluble because of the physical threat from nuclear weapons. But human life has a psychological as well as a physical dimension, a fact Christians should be the last to forget, and which deterrence theory tries to exploit in the effort to prevent nuclear war. It attempts to build security upon the psychological balance implied in the general vulnerability of all to nuclear attack. The theoretical possibility of such a balance rests on certain crucial assumptions about human motivation and rationality. These assumptions are not unlike those involved in any serious ethical theory. Because they are so critically important to the logic of deterrence, its technical aspects, such as force structures and purposes, are ultimately less important than the effect the existence of such force is likely to have on the perceptions, intentions and will of an adversary, and on our own as well.

Nuclear forces, therefore, do not by themselves make up an effective deterrent. This requires, in addition, our adversary’s awareness that an attack on us would be tantamount to an act of self destruction on his part because of our ability and willingness to respond in kind. The underlying psychological premise of deterrence is analogous to the instinctive restraint that keeps most people from committing suicide or otherwise doing violence to themselves. The crucial factor is the perceived opposition of rational will and irrational impulse, an opposition that creates a moral certainty that a nuclear attack will be reflected in kind upon the perpetrator.

Thus, deterrence theory depends upon the assumption that an adversary’s decision to use nuclear weapons will be influenced by rational calculations of the risk involved given our ability to respond in kind and the will to do so. Accepting this view, if we were to adopt a moral perspective that undermined this capability or effectively precluded its use, we would increase the likelihood of nuclear weapons being used against us. We would place our adversary in the way of an increasingly irresistible temptation. In religious terms, our weakness would be an occasion for sin.

Of course, the exact fashion in which an adversary might take advantage of this weakness would depend on circumstances at the time. Perhaps rather than initiating a nuclear attack, he would engage in adventurous non-nuclear moves, increasing the frequency and intensity of conventional military conflicts. Or he might presume upon his nation’s superiority in nuclear armaments (or the perceived will to use them, which amounts to the same thing) in order to impress unreasonable or unjust political or economic demands, either directly on us or upon third parties.

It would be irrational to assume that an adversary who knew that we felt morally bound not to use nuclear weapons, and whom we were morally enjoined even from threatening with their use, would be deterred from blackmailing or attacking us, and intimidating others by our mere possession of such weapons. It would be irrational to expect even the limited effect of such possession to outlast changes in technology if an adversary knew that we felt morally bound to forego all concern with nuclear retaliatory capability regardless of technical advances which threatened existing systems. It would also be irrational to expect such an adversary to have much incentive for serious negotiations to reduce nuclear stockpiles, when our moral limitations clearly made his victory through intimidation or successful attack only a matter of time.

These statements about rationality are obviously empirical, i.e., they must be validated by experience. But fully to verify them empirically, we would have to risk the very experience we have formulated them to avoid, i.e. nuclear war. To avoid this, we must proceed inferentially, relying upon theoretical reasoning and circumstantial empirical evidence. We see the former in the vast speculative literature on deterrence psychology, including contemporary efforts to apply insights borrowed from game theory and systems analysis. For the latter we look to the political and social sciences, and whatever other sources of information we can find or develop that illuminate the psychology of the adversaries we actually face. For the United States today that obviously means primarily the Soviet Union.

Every empirical concept or judgment involved in deterrence theory derives such validity as it has from this complex combination of deductive and inferential reasoning, strengthened by the fact that nuclear war has indeed been avoided throughout the period that it has been the basis of America’s strategic doctrine. The pastoral letter takes superficial cognizance of this complexity when it observes that:

… because of the destructive nature of nuclear weapons, strategies have been developed which previous generations would have found unintelligible … each (side) is at the mercy of the other’s perception of what strategy is `rational’, what kind of damage is `acceptable’, how `convincing’ one side’s threat is to the other.17

We cannot, however, dispense with the necessity for rigorous thought about these concepts by putting quotation marks around them. If we are serious about preventing nuclear war we must either take seriously the theoretical framework that has been developed for safely reflecting upon our dangerous situation or come up with something better.

The Pastoral Letter does neither, but at least one of its suggestions implies something worse:

While we do not advocate a policy of unilateral disarmament, we believe the urgent need for control of the arms race requires a willingness to take some independent initiatives … to encourage a constructive Soviet response If an appropriate response is not forthcoming, the United States would no longer be bound by the steps taken … Certain risks are required today to help free the world from bondage to nuclear deterrence and the risk of nuclear war.18

Implicit in this suggestion are certain empirical judgments, e.g., that the Soviet Union is likely to respond favorably to unilateral moves, that such moves are easily reversible if it does not, that the risks involved in taking such steps are less than those involved in deterrence. These assumptions, like those involved in deterrence psychology, cannot be empirically verified without risk. Unlike the deterrence theorists, however, the Letter does not eschew risky experimentation in favor of a more complex but safer reasoning process. It suggests, instead, that the United States’ should conduct an experiment based upon these assumptions, regardless of the risk involved. As the Letter later suggests, this would require a leap of faith.

Diplomatic dialogue usually sees the other as a potential or real adversary. We also need to see the other as potentially more than an adversary. Soviet behavior in some cases merits the adjective monstrous, but neither the Soviet people nor their leaders are monsters; they are human beings created in the image and likeness of God. To believe that we are condemned in the future only to what has been the past of U.S.-Soviet relations is to underestimate both our human potential for creative diplomacy and, God’s action in our midst which can open the way to changes we could barely imagine.19

The Letter questions the essentially adversarial relationship deterrence theory assumes, while suggesting that greater stress be placed on the mutuality of interest between the superpowers and the fact of interdependence among nations in today’s world. But the adversarial relationship implied in the Letter’s language involves a caricature of that assumed by deterrence theorists, and goes so far at one point as to suggest a view of Soviet policy as “directed by irrational leaders striving for world conquest at any costs.” In fact, far from denying a potential community of interest between adversaries, deterrence requires it. But the theory sees this community of interests as a not always rational, yet rationally comprehensible function of calculation and perception, not as a simple consequence of common humanity. Deterrence theory make no sense if we assumed that our adversaries are monsters. Rather we must assume that they are human beings, subject to the passions and wickedness, as well as the virtues of human beings, and subject, at least in extremis, to the influence of self- conscious reason, the uncommon prize and hallmark of mature humanity.

The Letter acknowledges that common humanity doesn’t prevent human beings from perpetrating monstrous deeds. Centuries of human experience more than amply bear out human nature’s potential for monstrous deeds. They also suggest the danger of relying too heavily upon considerations of common humanity in efforts to prevent such deeds. In this century alone, the fervor of ideology, the idolatrous adulation of leaders, the calculations of historical determinacy or cynical ambition have already destroyed human life in fact on a scale second only to that we contemplate in theory when thinking about nuclear war. The Letter notes the fact that the United States is the only nation ever to have employed a nuclear weapon in time of war. But does this fact say as much about the American character as the millions killed in time of peace by their own governments must say about the character of those regimes? Dare we act upon assumptions about human nature that ignore these lessons of contemporary history, and that assume away the ruthlessness that claims new victims daily?

Deterrence theory is a serious, if not entirely adequate attempt to take account of these grim realities while still pursuing the hope that conscious effort can avoid a nuclear cataclysm. The Letter fails to deal at all with this aspect of deterrence theory, while itself advancing a view of human nature that expects from men the mercy we can rely upon only with God. Moral reasoning that ignores or underestimates the ugly potential of human nature only serves to delude the hopeful will of those most susceptible to moral appeals, while leaving untrammeled the willful ambition of those who count more upon the brute force of History than the moral force of faith or reason as the ultimate arbiter of human conduct.

With similar implicit trust in its own judgment, the Letter never considers the effect its own moral position might have on the psychological basis of deterrence in today’s world. Even our brief discussion here suggests that adoption of this moral position by U. S. policy makers would encourage miscalculations by potential nuclear adversaries leading to increased conventional wars, more frequent tests of our will, and a greater temptation to nuclear blackmail, intimidation and even eventual use of nuclear weapons. By casting doubt upon our willingness to retaliate, without affecting the will of our adversary, the Letter’s moral position would severely destabilize the psychological balance essential to deterrence and would make physical use of nuclear weapons more likely.

Moreover, because of its stubborn indifference to the psychological aspects of deterrence, the Letter completely neglects the moral problem posed by the psychological use of nuclear weapons, i.e., blackmail and intimidation. If it is a moral imperative to prevent the use of nuclear weapons upon the body, is it any less imperative to prevent their existence from being exploited in order to terrorize the soul? Must we in the nuclear era entirely ignore

… the command of love understood as the need to restrain an enemy who would injure the innocent …20

Insofar as deterrence addresses this moral imperative by preventing nuclear blackmail, could it have moral advantages for the defense of innocent souls which must be weighed against the physical risks and costs it involves?

B. The Letter’s Moral Dilemma

The Letter asserts that the prevention of nuclear war is an absolute moral imperative. If in the immediate future there is no substitute for deterrence as a means to prevent nuclear war while arms control negotiations proceed, then present actions which undermine the effectiveness of deterrence violate this absolute moral imperative. But we have seen that the moral position stated in the Pastoral Letter has precisely the effect of undermining the psychological balance that is the key to successful nuclear deterrence. Indeed, if taken seriously, it would not only undermine but almost entirely vitiate the effective logic of deterrence. True there might always be some doubt about the strength of the declared moral intention never to use nuclear weapons, and therefore an implicit threat would remain. But the declared moral prohibition against ever making good on this threat would invite tests to determine the strength of our moral will. Paradoxically, under these circumstances the more credible our moral commitment seemed to an unscrupulous adversary, the greater would be the danger of a nuclear attack against us. Given our moral position our security would almost require displays of moral weakness. We would spend half our time indulging in risky unilateral initiatives aimed at convincing ourselves that this commitment was serious, and the other half seeking opportunities at the conventional level aimed at convincing our adversary that it was not. This, ironically, adopting the Letter’s moral position would increase the likelihood of confrontations and miscalculations at every level. In such confrontations vastly increased uncertainty about our true intentions regarding use of our deteriorating nuclear arsenal would enormously complicate the analytical task of our adversaries. When our neglect of our nuclear war fighting capabilities finally resulted in a sufficiently convincing quantitative or qualitative advantage for them, such complications would surely increase the temptation to simplify matters with a first strike against us.

The proposed Pastoral Letter would therefore leave us in the position of professing to say no to nuclear war by adopting a moral position which effectively undermines what it acknowledges, however skeptically, to be the only effective means of preventing nuclear war at the present time. Nuclear war is certainly evil. But if by successfully speaking out against it at the wrong time, or in the wrong way, or to the wrong people, we make its occurrence more likely, have we performed a moral duty? Or has the prideful hope of confirming our own righteousness made us, all unwitting, the accomplices of sin?

The Letter’s moral problem goes beyond violating what its own words proclaim to be an absolute moral imperative, i.e. the prevention of nuclear war. It also involves the moral risk of allowing evil to prevail over the innocent without the risk of war, while leaving them no moral hope of effective resistance.

Though the possibility of surrender is nowhere explicitly acknowledged and discussed in the Letter, if the psychological assumptions of deterrence are correct, surrender would eventually become the only morally consistent choice left to us by the Letter’s moral strictures and recommendations. In the face of blackmail, or of less subtle uses of military force, we could respond with tolerance, surrender or resistance. If we respond with tolerance, we would tempt increasingly intolerable actions or demands, until a point was reached at which our only choice would lie between surrender and futile resistance. Given a declared moral unwillingness to use nuclear weapons, such resistance, even if it were non-violent, might simply heighten the temptation for our adversary to initiate at least a demonstrative nuclear attack in order to convince us that resistance is pointless. With or without such a demonstration, surrender would ultimately become the only logical alternative to national martyrdom.

It is of course possible to argue that surrender would not lead to a situation more immoral than the present one. But because it does not face the consequences of its own arguments, the Letter fails even to consider the issue. Such considerations would, of course, require dealing with the present international situation in concrete terms that take account not only of armaments but of the divergent characters of the nations that today possess them. However, the Letter maintains a view that consciously abstracts from these differences.

The Church recognizes the depth and dimensions of the ideological differences that divide the human race, but the urgent practical need for cooperative efforts in the human interest overrules these differences. Hence Catholic teaching seeks to avoid exacerbating the ideological opposition and to focus upon the problems requiring common efforts across the ideological divide: keeping the peace and empowering the poor.21

The Letter seems indifferent to the possibility that ideological differences might have some bearing on the possibility of accomplishing these tasks, this despite the fact that elsewhere it recognizes that

The teaching and practice of social, economic, political, moral, religious and other rights and freedoms basic to equity for all people are indispensable to developing a mind-set which leads to a desire to settle disputes without recourse to force of arms.22

It is at least possible that regimes professing certain ideologies tend more than others to suppress the rights and freedoms here recognized as conducive to peace. It is at least possible therefore that such regimes are more likely than others to succumb to the temptation to resort to nuclear force should the opportunity to do so with relative safety arise. This possibility should seem even more urgent in the light of Pope John Paul’s observation that

… Peace cannot be built by the power of rulers alone…. Rulers must be supported and enlightened by a public opinion that encourages them or, where necessary, expresses disapproval.23

What are the implications for peace of regimes that stifle and suppress public opinion, of rulers who recognize no law but the successful use or abuse of power? The Letter nowhere even raises such questions, and nowhere considers the moral implications of a situation in which such nations could dictate without opposition the terms of the world’s capitulation.

As noted above24, it is conceivable that such capitulation would involve less evil than nuclear war. But the moral choice we face today is not between oppressive global tyranny and nuclear war, but between views that enervate our will to resist unjust ambitions, aggression and blackmail and those that allow us to maintain the psychological conditions for deterring them. If we have the moral right to defend ourselves against armed and violent injustice, deterrence should rather be accepted as an imperfect good than hypocritically tolerated as an evil means adopted in the pursuit of an absolute moral end.


III. An Alternative Moral View

The position of the draft Pastoral Letter represents a rejection of deterrence on moral grounds, compromised by an uneasy tolerance for deterrence as a necessary evil. This compromised position simply repeats in another more dangerous form the moral inconsistence between end and means the Letter portrays as one of the chief objections to deterrence. The Letter appreciates the moral paradox involved in deterrence, i.e., developing threats one could not morally implement. But without in any way addressing this paradox it suggests adding contradictions such as condemning nuclear war in a way that makes it more likely to happen, supporting arms control negotiations from a position that makes their successes less likely and in general opposing the evil of nuclear war in a way that may contribute inevitably to the prevalence of evil in other forms. Is it possible to develop a moral view of nuclear security issues that is consistent with the spirit of Catholic moral doctrine, but more internally consistent than that found in the Letter?

A. Total Non-Violence

Would a totally non-violent position be more consistent? It is clear that the non-violent tradition in the church would oppose all use of nuclear weapons under any conditions. In a sense the existence of these weapons simply confirms and reinforces one of the initial insights of the non-violent position, namely that Christians should not cross the line of using force since the hope to use it selectively is an illusion.25

The non-violent position would seem at odds even with the implicit threat of violence implied in the mere possession of nuclear weapons. It would seem to require that we scrap our nuclear arsenal and rely upon non-violent methods to preserve peace and resist injustice.

This position would escape from one of the inconsistencies of the present draft Pastoral Letter (tolerating the continued possession of nuclear weapons, while condemning as immoral all strategies that involve either their use or the threat to use them) but it would simply aggravate all the rest. Given present world conditions, and especially the actual character of the nations that would be left in possession of nuclear weapons, unilateral disarmament would mean surrender, and surrender would have incalculable moral consequences, not only for political freedom, but for religious practices as well.

B. Defensive Non-Violence

However, the possibilities of the non-violent position are, at least hypothetically, not limited to unilateral surrender. If it were possible to defend against nuclear weapons or their physical effects by means that did not involve the destruction of life, the moral requirements of non-violence would be satisfied. Theoretically, an effective system of anti-ballistic missile defenses would meet this requirement. We noted above that such a system is considered incompatible with the assumptions of deterrence theory, but a non-violent approach would in any case have to be based upon a rejection of those assumptions, in favor of premises that admitted the possibility of a non-violent national psychology.

Of course, such a theoretical rejection could not overcome the fact that at present a sufficiently reliable anti-ballistic missile defense system is not available. But it would not be inconsistent for advocates of non-violence to demand that resources be allocated for the research and development needed to remedy this deficiency, and that additional serious efforts be undertaken to develop measures to protect the population from the effects of the weapons such a defense system failed to destroy. The survivalist position may be heresy to deterrence theorists, but it envisages the possibility of a system of nuclear security based on destroying weapons rather than life. It might permit a non-violent nuclear posture that did not involve either surrender to evil or an immoral form of willful martyrdom. Pressure to develop such a defensive posture might also create added incentives for agreement on nuclear arms reductions, as negotiators took more seriously the possibility that technological advances in anti-ballistic missile technology would render existing offensive systems obsolete.

C. Deterrence with Non-Violence as the Goal

Given the present state of technology, the possibility of developing reliable anti-missile defenses doesn’t offer an answer to our immediate problems. Even if we adopted such an approach as our goal, we would still have the problem of how to achieve nuclear security on a moral basis while effective means of defense are being developed. Moreover, deterrence advocates might argue that, while a breakthrough in defense technology would offer greater security in the long term, the prospect of obsolescence for existing offensive systems could increase the danger that our adversaries would launch a first strike before they lost whatever advantages they believe they derive from the offensive balance.

From a practical viewpoint, the latter problem is not insoluble. We would simply have to make sure that the nuclear balance during the interim period offered no convincingly reliable advantages to our adversaries. Theoretically and morally, however, efforts in this regard would involve continued adherence to the deterrence posture until a technical breakthrough made the non-violent defensive approach practical. Catholic just war theory might offer the moral half-way house we require to justify this expedient. But, given the questions raised in the draft Pastoral Letter, how can we morally justify even interim adherence to deterrence without undermining its effectiveness?

We may not all agree with the implication of some of the Letter’s arguments that nuclear war is the greatest of all possible evils. Yet most people (and surely most Americans) would agree that any use of nuclear weapons, and especially a general nuclear exchange, poses a moral danger to humanity at least as great as the physical destruction it would entail. Few of us can be certain that our consciences could countenance such use under any circumstances, and no one would welcome the necessity for such a fateful and agonizing moral decision. But no such decision is actually implied by deterrence, and it could only arise given its failure. The moral problem, as the Letter rightly points out, lies in the questions: May a nation threaten what it may never do? May it possess what it may never use?

As we consider these questions, we could do worse than look for guidance from the thinker whose writings are the acknowledged wellspring of the Catholic just war tradition, Augustine of Hippo. At one point in his discussion of war, there is a passage in which he deals directly with the dilemma we are pondering. It is worth quoting at some length.

If our foolish opponents are surprised at the difference between the precepts given by God to the ministers of the Old Testament, at a time when the grace of the New was still undisclosed, and those given to the preachers of the New Testament, now that the obscurity of the Old is removed, they will find Christ himself saying one thing at one time, and another at another. ‘When I sent you,’ he says, ‘without scrip, or purse, or shoes, did ye lack anything?’ And they said, `Nothing.’ Then he saith he to them, ‘But now, he that hath a scrip, let him take it and also a purse; and he that hath not a sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.’ …If it is said that there was a symbolical meaning in the command to take a scrip and purse, and to buy a sword, why may there not be a symbolical meaning in the fact, that one and the same God commanded the prophets in old times to make war, and forbade the apostles? And we find in the passage that we have quoted from the Gospel, that the words spoken by the Lord were carried into effect by his disciples … now that He speaks of buying a sword, they say, ‘Lo, here are two swords,’ and he replied, ‘It is enough.’ Hence we find Peter with a weapon when he cut off the assailant’s ear, on which occasion his spontaneous boldness was checked because he had not been told to use it. Doubtless, it was mysterious that the Lord should require them to carry weapons, and forbid the use of them. But it was his part to give the suitable precepts, and it was their part to obey without reserve.26

This passage suggests that the perplexing moral dilemma posed by nuclear weapons is not so new that reflection upon Christ’s example leaves us without a means of addressing it. It suggests that our evaluation of the moral implications of possessing nuclear weapons must include evaluation of the intention involved in such possession. It also suggests that if moral judgment dictates the necessity for the possession of arms, it does so fully recognizing the possibility of their use. Surely Christ foresaw the possibility of Peter’s use of the sword. Augustine’s remark upon Christ’s rebuke of Peter draws attention to the requirement that any use of the sword be at God’s command, i.e., consistent with his moral imperatives.

The moral imperative identified by the Pastoral Letter, with which we would all agree, is the prevention of nuclear war. But because the Letter shrinks from declaring and maintaining incredible form the threat implied by the possession of nuclear weapons, it threatens to vitiate deterrence and thereby effectively destroy our ability to obey that imperative under present circumstances. For deterrence to be credible, the declared intention to use nuclear weapons appears to be necessary. For that intention to be credible, maintenance of a believable retaliatory capability appears to be equally necessary. If Augustine is correct, it is paradoxical but not morally indefensible to accept these necessities, even in the face of the possibility that actual use of nuclear weapons could never be morally sanctioned.

This suggests that a morally acceptable and internally consistent position on nuclear security could be developed by allowing the principles of the non-violent position to determine the choice of our long-term goal while accepting the fact that immediate adoption of a position of strict non-violence would have incalculably dangerous moral and material consequences. We could therefore fall back upon Catholic just war theory as the basis for a moral viewpoint that guards against, these consequences while the long term goal is being pursued. Such a position might be based upon the following principles:

1. Condemning nuclear war and adopting as a long term goal elimination of the moral and physical threat posed by nuclear weapons.

2. Pursuing this goal through arms reduction negotiations or efforts to develop a reliable system of defense against nuclear attack, or both.

3. Supporting efforts to make sure that the strategic nuclear balance offers no advantages from a first strike while negotiations are proceeding or a reliable defense against nuclear attack is being developed.

4. Accepting the necessity to rely on deterrence while the long term goal is being pursued and adopting a moral position on deterrence which accepts the possession, maintenance of and declared intention to use, in accordance with just war strictures, an effective force of nuclear weapons insofar as this is part of a strategy offering a reasonable moral certainty that such possession, maintenance of and declared intention to use such nuclear weapons makes their actual use unlikely.

This position does not attempt to use the just war doctrine to justify nuclear war itself. It accepts the inescapable uncertainty about whether or not a pure conscience could, in any given circumstances, consider physical use of nuclear weapons to be morally acceptable. But it distinguishes between the physical and the psychological use of nuclear weapons, and recognizes that deterrence does not require the physical use of nuclear weapons, but only the declared intention to resist injustice by proportionate means. It rejects the view that the existence of nuclear weapons requires humanity to tolerate or surrender to immorality in order to avoid a great, but still only potential, evil. For as there are suitable precepts that permit us to resist evil now, though by imperfect means, so we may have faith that, should the moment of fateful choice be forced upon us, God will show us the way to obey with reserve.


1.2nd Draft of A Proposed Pastoral Letter on War Armaments and Peace by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee on War and Peace, (hereafter referred to as Letter ) pp. 311-312. References are to page and column numbers in the text as it appeared in Origins 12, 20 (Oct. 28, 1982.)

2. Ibid., p. 312, col. 3.

3. Ibid., p. 316, col. 2.

4. Ibid., p. 314, col. 2.

5. Ibid., p. 313, col. 2.

6. Ibid., pp. 314-315.

7. Ibid., p. 314, col. 3.

8. Ibid., p. 320, col. 1.

9. Ibid., p. 316, col. 1.

10. Ibid., p. 316, col. 3.

11. Ibid., p. 317, col. 1.

12. Ibid., p. 317, col. 3.

13. Ibid., p. 317, col. 2.

14. Loc. cit.

15. Ibid., p. 315, col. 2.

16. Ibid., p. 313, col. 3.

17. Loc. cit.

18. Ibid., p. 318, col. 2.

19. Ibid., p. 321, col. 2.

20. Ibid., p. 311, col. 3.

21. Ibid., pp. 320-321.

22. Ibid., p. 319, col. 2.

23. Ibid., p. 314, col. 1.

24. cf. above, p. 16, para. 3.

25. Letter, p. 314, col. 1.

26. Contra Faustum, as given in translation in The Political Writings of St. Augustine, Henry Paolucci ed. (Henry Regnery Co. 1962), pp. 68-169.


  • Alan L. Keyes

    Alan L. Keyes is a member of the Foreign Policy Planning Council staff of the State Department. The views and conclusions presented in this article are solely those of the author, and should not be interpreted as representing an official view of the U. S. Department of State or the Reagan Administration.

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