Thursday, January 4, 2018

No one, no matter how good, should be able to end the world

The novelist Dennis Lehane wrote, "When two men pointed their guns at each other, a contract was established under the eyes of God, the only acceptable fulfillment of which was that one of you send the other home to him." Since weapons are made to be used, do they all imply a promise of injury: if not now, then later; if not by one hand, then by another? Do they define the kind of society and world we live in? If so, then it matters what kinds of weapons we make. Clubs, knives, guns, bombs, and nuclear devices alter the possibilities that are available to us. They can expand as well as constrain those possibilities. In a certain extreme case, they may even determine the end of history. James Carroll quoted his father as having said: "Man has never created a weapon and not used it. The nuclear war is inevitable."

Defensive violence is something people like to ethically justify, for obvious reasons. The scope of the violence involved in mounting an adequate defense depends on what weapons the enemy uses against you. The more severe the tools available, the more likely they will be used for offense and therefore will be considered justified in use for defense. "US Secretary of State Daniel Webster argued,” wrote Michael Elliott in 2002, speaking of the early 19th-century statesman, “that a nation could only justify such pre-emptive hostile action if there was an necessity ‘instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means and no moment for deliberation.’ Ever since, Webster's dictum has been regarded as a principle of international law." For us today, this continues to define how we expect any potential nuclear war to play out.

This is the limitation that the technology itself presents to us. It is about the weapons themselves as much as about our ethics in handling them. A tweet from the U.S. president indicating willingness to use nuclear weapons is "worrying," according to Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. "But," she adds,

"he’s just expressing what nuclear weapons are. Nuclear weapons are meant to indiscriminately kill as many people as possible. All nuclear-armed states have policies that say they are ready to do this to people, right now. Many people are very worried now with Donald Trump having access to these weapons, but if you have a problem with Trump having the weapons, it’s probably the weapons themselves that are the problem. No person is sane enough, stable enough or good enough to have the ability to end the world."

A good person would not want to end the world, no matter how irredeemable the world appeared to be, nor could destroying the world ever become a good act even were it to be performed by the most virtuous person alive. The capability should not exist. Therefore, the weapons should not exist.

Disarmament has always been an intractable, insoluble question. How to, and why indeed, abandon weapons that one's enemies are willing to use? The arms race has always gone in the direction of increasing destructive capability. As William F. Buckley, Jr. put it in 1963, "our fundamental belief [is] that nuclear weapons are, at this point in history, a blessing, not a curse. Without them, as Winston Churchill has pointed out, there would not today be a free man on the continent of Europe." Yet even President Harry S. Truman who dropped the atomic bomb on Japan acknowledged in 1966 that "if we do not abolish war on this earth then, surely, one day, war will abolish us from the earth.

What next? See the LinkedIn article "There is no button for peace."


Dennis Lehane. Live By Night. New York: William Morrow, 2012. p. 122.

James Carroll's father, quoted in Carroll's An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War that Came Between Us. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. p 86.

"Strike First, Explain Yourself Later," Michael Elliott, Time, July 1, 2002, p 29.

William F. Buckley, Jr. Quotations from Chairman Bill: The Best of Wm. F. Buckley, Jr. Compiled by David Franke. Pocket Book, 1971. p 221. from NR, June 18, 1963, p 483.

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