Immoral threats?

Michael Walzer,  in Just and Unjust Wars, argues that nuclear deterrence is immoral because of the stance that it takes toward other people. He seems to concur with Paul Ramsey who says “whatever is wrong to do is wrong to threaten” (Walzer later appears to maybe hedge on this commitment though, the writing is not aimed at being argumentatively precise in that way). More specifically, nuclear deterrence is immoral because it requires that we take a stance of obliteration toward a large group of civilians.

I wrote a long post, but then deleted it, because I think it got confusing. The reason I disagree with this argument is pretty simple.

Threats are often wrong, and that is because they try to influence behavior in impermissible ways. If I threaten to kill you if you go outside tomorrow, I have acted wrongly even if I don’t intend to carry it out because I’ve scared you and possibly prevented you from leaving your house.

But Walzer thinks that threats are wrong because they involve a commitment to doing wrong, and I think he’s right that being committed to doing evil is evil. Imagine the murderer who schemes to get at his victim; his commitment to murder is wrong, even if he never carries out the deed.

Still though, the difference between deterrence and the murderer example is clear. The murderer commits to killing someone because he wants the other person to be dead. But in deterrence we commit to launching a nuclear response, not because we want civilians to die, but because we don’t want the other country to ever attack in the first place. The murderer commits to murder for its own sake, but deterrence commits a country to killing only as a means to avert war. Nothing would satisfy the murderer except his victim’s death, but our threats of nuclear reprisal would disappear if we could guarantee in some other way, that other countries would not attack (this is the idea behind the heavily debated “no first use” pledge that some nations have made.). Threats from these nations are clearly justified because, as I’ve argued, they are merely means of trying to achieve peace or at least detente. They have committed not to shoot first.)


1 Response to “Immoral threats?”

  1. May 28, 2010 at 11:27 am

    Super great read. Honestly..

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