June 26, 2006

The morality surrounding Trident

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/programmes/thought/documents/t20060626.shtml

I heard, whilst prising myself from a rather deep sleep this morning, the words of Clifford Longley on Thought For The Day. He emphasised the need for a reasoned dialogue to begin about Trident and general nuclear issues.

Catholic bishops in Scotland have started the ball rolling with an outspoken rejection on moral grounds of the whole theory of nuclear weapons. They are just not compatible with God's commandment Thou shalt not kill, they argued, because possessing them entailed a conditional willingness to use them. That means an intention to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. It is immoral to sign up to such a policy, say the bishops. But if so, how do we defend ourselves from the ultimate threat, a nuclear 9/11 or 7/7? Isn't that a moral duty too?

How exactly do we follow through this moral argument? Is a nuclear weapon morally wrong because of the intention to kill? If so, what about an armed police officer? Yes, they will presumably use is as a last resort and only ever when provoked, but the possibility of injury or even death is still there. I've read many recent comments applauding the killing of Abu Musab al–Zarqawi, the leader of al–Qaeda in Iraq. Granted, he was a brutal murderer and in the opinion of many got what he deserved, but was his killing morally right?

In the hands of politicians, these decisions are going to be reduced to issues of national pride and/or the cost to the taxpayer, or even personality clashes between ministers. As a nation we have to lift our game. Sometimes politics really is too important to be left to the politicians.

How important is the moral debate when weighed up against the other considerations of cost and practicality?


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  1. Chris May

    Leaving aside the complicated moral question, there's a more fundamental problem with the first quote:

    It is immoral to sign up to such a policy, say the bishops. But if so, how do we defend ourselves from the ultimate threat, a nuclear 9/11 or 7/7?

    How does possessing nuclear weapons help us defend against a nuclear 7/7 ? What are we going to do, nuke Leeds? * Having our own nuclear capactity would make no difference to our vulnerability to attacks like 7/7 (or 9/11, I think).

    * that being where the bombers came from.

    26 Jun 2006, 15:14

  2. Their reasoning is patently stupid. If you extend that argument to it's full length, then there would be no military spending or weapons at all. I don't see why nuclear weapons are such a special case that they should be treated so very differently from conventional weaponry. They're just much bigger and more dangerous, at the end of the day they're big bombs and nothing more.

    bq.How does possessing nuclear weapons help us defend against a nuclear 7/7 ?

    It doesn't. But defence against nuclear terrorism is not the only issue with nuclear weaponry; there is also the question of rogue states (North Korea and Iran immediately spring to mind) where a nuclear capability, it could be argued, acts as an effective deterrent. The best (and indeed, pretty much only) way of dealing with nuclear terrorism is to ensure that terrorists never get their hands on a bomb. Prevention is the only way I can see of dealing with terrorism; since the threat of retaliation against people with no fear of death and a very twisted view of the world is patently not effective.

    26 Jun 2006, 16:30

  3. Oh, and also in the first quote:

    bq.Thou shalt not kill, they argued, because possessing them entailed a conditional willingness to use them. That means an intention to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians.

    Considering the only reason I can see we'd use nuclear weaponry is in retaliation for a nuclear attack, dosn't the bible saying of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth have any relevance?

    26 Jun 2006, 16:31

  4. Chris May

    [ I don't feel terribly strongly one way or the other about this; I'm really just trying to unpick the various threads of argument.]

    If you extend that argument to it's full length, then there would be no military spending or weapons at all

    If you extend the counter–argument (that the deaths of innocent civilians are morally acceptable in defence of national security) to it's full length, then you come to some fairly patently stupid conclusions too. My point being that reductio ad absurdum is often unhelpful when considering moral arguments; most viewpoints can be extended until they no longer make any sense.

    The argument that nuclear weapons are an effective deterrent against rogue states is interesting, but it's undermined slightly (IMO) by the observation that the best way to prevent nuclear terrorism is to prevent terrorists from getting their hands on a bomb. Since a rogue state is a fairly likely source of such a bomb, and since the 'deterrent' approach of the west leads countries like, say, Iran or N. Korea to become more committed to getting their own arsenal, aren't we creating an environment that's more conducive to nuclear terrorism by encouraging a strategy of deterrence ?

    26 Jun 2006, 17:23

  5. I guess that's the problem with moral absolutes – when taken to their logical conclusion they often become ridiculous.

    Let's ignore that for a moment, though. Siggy, you hit the nail on the head. Should a murder, or any other crime for that matter, be regarded differently as a result of its context? Zarqawi was killed and many rejoiced. Does mass murder justify the elimination of the perpetrator? Sharon Beshenivsky's death had the nation up in arms and many calling for the death penalty for the murderers of police officers, thus presumably elevating the lives of the police above those of any other person in this country. Is this justified?

    Chris, I do agree with the sentiment of your final paragraph. However, the eternal problem in these situations is that no–one wants to be the first to back down.

    26 Jun 2006, 17:59

  6. If you extend the counter–argument (that the deaths of innocent civilians are morally acceptable in defence of national security) to it's full length, then you come to some fairly patently stupid conclusions too. My point being that reductio ad absurdum is often unhelpful when considering moral arguments; most viewpoints can be extended until they no longer make any sense.

    Exactly. Which is why I firmly believe that morality has no place in discussions of this type of nature; we should instead apprach the problem purely on rational and analytical grounds. My point was that the moral argument was ridiculous and could be proved to be so simply by extending it, which you also proved by extending it the other way.

    As you point out Sarah, moral absolutes usually fall apart under logical scrutiny, and so I think you have to treat things like murders etc on a case by case basis, as there is no absolute. Circumstances massively affect each case and the moral rights and wrongs in my opinion. I have mixed feelings regarding the idea of death penalties for police killers – whilst I Can see from one angle that they hold special positions as enforcers of law and order, and therefore there is perhaps more that can be attributed to the criminal mind in question with regards to their view of law enforcement officers, I struggle with there somehow being more worth to a policeman's life than that of any other. I personally think that if we re–introduce it on a case–by–case basis, it should be applicable to all murders and not just those of officers.

    Chris, I don't necessarily follow your logic of rogue states being more commited to getting nuclear weapons if we have them. Surely given the western stance of being heavily anti–nuclear proliferation any further than it already is, this is sending out a very strong message to others not to develop nuclear weapons?

    26 Jun 2006, 22:45

  7. Chris May

    Surely given the western stance of being heavily anti–nuclear proliferation any further than it already is

    The trouble here is that the western stance on non–proliferation may well be perceived as rather hypocritical; a state that's happy to spend £25 billion on upgrading their own nuclear capability isn't really in a very strong position to start telling other states not to do the same. Yes, according to the letter of the law we probably won't increase the total number of weapons as part of the trident replacement program, but the perception will be that the UK's message is 'do as I say, not as I do'. Not unreasonable, then, for Iran to feel that it can legitimately invest in it's own nuclear weapons program.

    27 Jun 2006, 11:18

  8. Leighton Joskey

    Exactly. Which is why I firmly believe that morality has no place in discussions of this type of nature; we should instead apprach the problem purely on rational and analytical grounds.

    But surely the analysis of this ultimately ends with personal opinion, informed by personal morality. You cite cost and practicality as if they can be put into some equation and the answer given in simple binary form, without acknowledging different people will want to use different equations. I can't see how morality can possibly be removed from the debate or why it would be advantageous to do so.

    27 Jun 2006, 12:11

  9. Hamid Sirhan

    I think what's forgetten here is that this is Britain. Who are we going to be defending ourselves against? We have nuclear weapons and the capability to deliver them pretty much anywhere. It's highly unlikely that we'll face a serious nuclear threat from another country and if we do, it will no doubt involve America, which will essentially give us a form of nuclear protection. We have no real reason for a nuclear deterrent at the moment and so have no real reason to expand it. It's simply handing money to military contractors. I'd be much happier if these funds were injected into improving the NHS, or reinforcing our police service or cleaning our streets instead of being ploughed into a project that's the equivalent of a secretary buying a porsche.

    27 Jun 2006, 12:13

  10. Visiting Atheist

    I think Iran's desire for nuclear weapons might well be as a deterrent to the US. No one else can really presently challenge the US's ability to bomb any nation back to the stone age using just conventional weapons. If you remember, back in 1991 at the end of Desert Storm, the Saddam Hussein government was seen to be fatally weakened by its internal opponents and so there was an uprising. If Iran is attacked by the Americans, the greatest danger to the regime is from its internal opponents – the US has nowhere near sufficient numbers of troops that it can deploy onto the ground to invade and then control the country. Nuclear weapons protect the Iranian regime from its own political opponents by preventing any weakening of its position by external forces. It also has the effect of increasing nationalistic fervour against the perceived foreign aggressor, which is always a good platform on which to build popular support for any regime.

    Most terror organisations need some sort of base within a half friendly country to operate from. Would any government (however unstable or deranged we might perceive them to be in the West) permit such an organisation to prepare a nuclear warhead for use against a western target? The US overthrew the Taleban regime 'just' for destroying a couple of skyscrapers. Would a 'rogue' state permit its territory to be used to prepare a really serious atrocity knowing that invasion might be the least of its worries?

    But, going back to the Trident argument, what can we possibly use it for now? What do we need thirty odd (if the reports in the media on the numbers of warheads at sea at any one time are correct) weapons for? Presently it is difficult to conceive of a situation arising in the next thirty years where the existence of the nation is that threatened. Europe should not presently fragment politically or economically, and old enemies are more concerned with their own internal stability to worry about foreign adventures. Now could be a fantastic opportunity to significantly reduce our nuclear arsenal in order to lead by example.

    The independent nuclear umbrella was perceived as a means of almost guaranteeing national security at a time when being in the nuclear club was a sign of continuing great power status. In the 1950s, the UK still considered itself a great power and had the armed forces to back up that assertion. The problem was that the conscript forces were expensive and their raison d'etre was under pressure from the US who were against the continued existence of colonial possessions. Nuclear weapons offered the cost effective opportunity to slash the armed forces and withdraw into NATO. And it kept that all important 'Great Power' sign on the door of the nation.

    If we let the nuclear deterrent go now, it will be seen as an admission that we are no longer in that club. Our permanent seat on the UN Security Council – already under pressure from other First World nations who want their turn at it – will be at an end. Our national ego may well collapse: imagine the protest from the media – 'Government allows nation to be relegated into second division'. It is not only foreign regimes who see nuclear weapons as a means of political survival.

    27 Jun 2006, 12:23

  11. James

    Opponents of Trident assert that there is no threat that could possibly require a nuclear response, hence this is all a waste of time and money.

    I'm inclined to agree, except of course threats tend to arise when they're least expected. If in 1970 someone had said Britain should keep its aircraft carriers in case of a war in the South Atlantic a decade hence, they'd have had their head examined. Similarly, no one in 1980 suggested that the Western ally Saddam Hussein would be invading Kuwait within a decade, necessitating a substantial conventional response. Still less as the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 did anyone think there'd be a war in Europe within a decade, which would only be solved by American airpower. Even following the World Trade Centre attack in 1993, the Kenyan embassy bombings in the late '90s and the suicide attack on the USS Cole, no–one had an inkling that 9/11 was in the offing. It was, as Rumsfeld memorably said, an "unknown–unknown".

    Mercifully, none of those merited a nuclear response. It is hard to think that anything might. It is true that we could rely on the American nuclear deterrent, but while they supplied some vital assistance in the Falklands, they didn't actually send their own troops, even though the threat of it would have been enough to force an Argentine withdrawal (though it was during the Cold War, when different factors applied). Nor did they help during Suez, forcing Britain and France to back down in the face of a Russian nuclear threat (though Suez was yet another misguided Middle Eastern adventure).

    I have read that Bin Laden backed off ordering planes to fly into a nuclear installation on 9/11 because even he feared what the American response would be. That may or may not be so, but there remains some chance, however low, of Britain's nuclear capability warding off some threat. Whether it is worth it I don't know. Unilateral disarmament won't prompt anyone else to follow suit; the genie is out of the bottle.

    27 Jun 2006, 12:38

  12. Leighton, I agree that we can't remove morality from such discussions completely. Although taking moral absolutes to their conclusions often results in absurdity, I think most would agree with the intentions behind them: in this case that murder should be avoided. It's difficult to decide how objectivity and subjectivity can meet and mix when considering subjects like these.

    To quote from Yes, Prime Minister on Trident (interesting that we're having the xact same discussion more than 20 years later):

    – They know if they launched an attack. I'd press the button.
    – You would?
    – At the last resort, yes, I certainly would.
    – And what is the last resort? … If they try anything, it will be salami tactics.
    – Salami tactics?
    – Slice by slice. One small piece at a time. So will you press the button if they invade West Berlin? Riots in West Berlin, buildings in flames. East German fire brigade crosses the border to help. Would you press the button…? The East German police come with them. Then some troops, more troops just for riot control, they say. And then the East German troops are replaced by Russian troops. Button…? Then the Russian troops don't go. They are invited to stay to support civilian administration. The civilian administration closes roads and Tempelhof Airport. The Russian army accidentally on purpose cross the West German frontier. Suppose the Russians have invaded West Germany, Belgium, Holland, France? Suppose their tanks and troops have reached the English Channel and are poised to invade? Is that the last resort?
    – We'd only fight a nuclear war to defend ourselves. That would be committing suicide!
    – So what is the last resort? Piccadilly? Watford Gap service station? The Reform Club? Maybe the nuclear deterrent makes no sense.
    – Yes, it does. If the Russians or Americans have the bomb, so must the other side.

    27 Jun 2006, 14:51

  13. Visiting Atheist

    That was an excellent episode of Yes, Prime Minister but I think that the script writers also had a tub to thump on the subject. At the time, there did seem some sort of danger that the continent might sink under the weight of nuclear arsenals. The Americans were deploying nuclear tipped cruise to Greenham Common and other places around Europe. Pershing intermediate range missiles were being deployed in West Germany countering the Soviet SS–20. The American president, Ronald Reagan, was talking about the Evil Empire and the American military was, at last, beginning to shake off its post–Vietnam depression.

    When Reagan and Gorbachev got together at Reykjavík in late 1986 and signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty which removed all the SS–20s and Pershings and Cruise in one fell swoop, I think we all sighed with relief. Having said that, the talks were perceived as a failure. Reagan had suggested getting rid of all the ballistic missiles to Gorbachev's surprise and subsequent agreement, but 'selling' it to their own sides proved a stumbling block. Still, from a high point of who knows what I seem to recall reading that present weapon stockpiles are substantially lower now than in the mid 80s… the time of the war scare…

    Everyone has heard of the Cuban Missile crisis, but what about Able Archer? In 1983, NATO held a continent–wide exercise called Able Archer 83 to test its readiness to come to a nuclear war footing. Unfortunately, one of the scenarios that Soviet Intelligence routinely watched for was a surprise attack under the cover of a peace time exercise. Able Archer seemed just a little too realistic for them and they issued a genuine war alert to all of their nuclear capable units… which brought the NATO exercise to an end.

    My point? My point is that the one thing that kept the peace through the Cold War was crisis management on both sides. At no point in that period did the governments of either side do anything that would ever threaten the core homeland of the other. Sure, there were flashpoints in Europe and elsewhere but never of sufficient gravity that there would ever be a reason for either side to have no resort other than to reach for the nuclear codes.

    In fact, the salami slice strategy proposed by the Yes, Prime Minister script writers was always a non–starter in the real world. I will agree that the psychology is sound in that there would never be sufficient escalation at any point to give a reason for getting the nukes out but as a strategy for defeating the West it would not have worked due to the time element involved and the greater industrial capabilities of the West over a long war. Indeed in the 1970s, there was some fear that Western conventional capability had deteriorated to the point in which there was a very real fear that a Soviet invasion from a standing start (as opposed to a prolonged period of pre–conflict mobilisation) might actually be a real danger. That West Germany might be over run and a ceasefire declared before NATO had got its collective act together. Therefore, the decision was made to upgrade the battlefield nuclear arsenal and we are back to Pershing, Cruise and the SS–20s…

    27 Jun 2006, 16:20

  14. GodsLawyer

    I don't think the interpretation of 'thou shalt not kill' into 'thou shalt roll over and allow thyself to be killed' is a reasonable interpretation.

    Morover the ten commandments as a guideline for a society are fine and may well help to manage the world (as, incidentally would most of the moral guidelines of the other major religeons (in this I include the psychobabble industry by the way!) if everyone adhered to it.

    As it is we have to have a certain amount of 'thou shalt do everything possible in the world without using killing as the method, but thou shalt be prepared to kill and later ask for fogiveness when to not kill would be to threaten the possibility of living up to all of the commandments becuse of political, financial and social instability'.

    Trident may not be the best way, but a moral society who asks these questions and who makes the use of weapons relatively hard is better than letting anyone who wants to use them use them because we are too afraid of the responsibilty of hodlign the weapons.

    Lets not forget that the catholic church is confused. The ten commandments don't say 'strike of thy hand because you MIGHT use it to kill someone' it says 'thou shalt not kill' there is no preclusion to holding even a super death ray that could vaporise the whole planet, carefully god has left this loophole in.

    29 Jun 2006, 10:25


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