William Gay, “Nuclear Warfare and Morality,” Global Studies Encyclopedia, eds. I.I. Mazour, A.N. Chumakov, and W.C. Gay (Moscow:  Raduga, 2003), pp. 3740377.



Nuclear Warfare and Morality


William Gay

UNC Charlotte


In each decade of the nuclear age, philosophers have provided critical reflections on the nature, use, and consequences of nuclear weapons. Frequently, these reflections have addressed the morality of producing, testing, deploying, and using nuclear weapons.  Already, these philosophical reflections have passed through four phases and are now entering a fifth phase.  The first phase stretches from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima to the above-ground nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll.  From the initial use of atomic weapons in 1945 to the testing of the hydrogen bomb in 1952, the United States held a virtual monopoly.  (The Soviet Union tested its first atomic weapon in 1949, and the United States progressed not only to the development of the hydrogen bomb, but also to a miniaturization of nuclear weapons that spawned even more tactical nuclear weapons than the eventual strategic arsenals of the superpowers.)  During the 1950s and 1960s, the second phase shifts to a focus on the above-ground testing of the hydrogen bomb, as well as the post-war tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. The third phase addresses increasing shifts during the 1970s and 1980s to counterforce weapons and nuclear war fighting strategies. The fourth phase responds to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and to the problems of nuclear proliferation and nuclear deterrence in the post-Cold War world, culminating with a critique of the renewal of Star Wars in 2001 under the guise of ballistic missile defense.  The first decade of the twenty-first century ushers in not only the purported “war against terrorism” by the United States, but also a broader and deeper philosophical response to the interconnections among violence, terrorism, and war.


General Background

Before proceeding to a discussion of each of these phases of philosophical response, three points need to be made about nuclear weapons and nuclear war.  First, nuclear weapons undercut the traditional distinction between military combatants and civilian noncombatants.  The strategy of nuclear deterrence is based on the claim that nuclear war is prevented by making the cost of nuclear war prohibitively high.  The doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, popularly known by its acronym MAD, is the primary symbol of this dangerous calculus.  Of course, as is well known by nuclear planners and government officials, if deterrence fails noncombatants will be the primary victims and just war principles of proportionality and discrimination will be blown apart along with the destruction of civilian populations.  Second, because of radioactive fallout, the use of nuclear weapons entails the precipitation of ecological warfare.  The results of the use of nuclear weapons cannot be contained within the territorial boundaries of the fighting nations and will adversely affect not only innocent lives around the globe but also the fragile ecosystem of the entire planet.  Third, nuclear war is a contingent event; it is neither necessary nor impossible.  Hence, neither resignation to nor denial of nuclear war is logical.  Our actions are relevant to the probability of nuclear war.  Hence, to paraphrase Immanuel Kant, since hope of avoiding nuclear war is possible, we have a moral responsibility to work against its occurrence.

Our knowledge about nuclear war is based on three primary sources:  1) studies of actual nuclear weapons tests (including the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki); 2) projections on limited and full-scale nuclear war, which normally extrapolate casualties and damage to military and industrial bases, 3) computer simulations and speculative models on possible catastrophic consequences.  In considering the possible consequences of nuclear war, a couple of points should be stressed.  First, a substantial amount of our reasoning about nuclear war is conjectural.  Of course, what we do know empirically indicates that nuclear war is fundamentally distinct in character from conventional war, particularly in its effects on survivors and the environment.  Finally, the magnitude of the effects of the use of nuclear weapons makes comparisons of low to high scenarios of damage less significant than the comprehension that even limited nuclear war will have consequences significantly more severe than the most severe effects of most conventional wars.


The Nature of Nuclear Weapons

Conventional and nuclear weapons differ in a variety of important ways.  Although in a sense even a club or a spear is a conventional weapon, the term “conventional weapon,” when used in the technical military sense, refers to a device that can cause an explosion.  Both conventional and nuclear weapons are alike in that they explode by rapidly releasing large amounts of energy.  Moreover, they are alike in that each produces heat (increased temperature) and blast (shock wave).  Their distinction hinges on the manner in which energy is released.  Whereas conventional weapons rely on chemical reactions in which the atoms in the explosive material are simply rearranged, nuclear weapons rely on the formation of different nuclei by means of subatomic reactions in which protons and neutrons are redistributed.  Nuclear weapons release much more energy from much less mass than is the case with conventional weapons, because the forces within nuclei are tremendously greater than those between atoms.  Fission of one pound of uranium or plutonium releases about the same explosive energy as the explosion of 8,000 tons of TNT.

In order for nuclear reactions to result in an explosion, the conversion of matter into energy needs to be self-sustaining.  The two types of nuclear weapons are based on the two ways in which such chain reactions can be obtained, i.e., the “fission” (splitting) of the heaviest atomic nuclei (specifically uranium-235 and plutonium-239) and “fusion” (joining) of the lightest atomic nuclei (specifically hydrogen isotopes).  This second way is by means of thermonuclear processes (that is, ones of very high heat) and the resulting energy is even greater than that obtained from fission. The complete fusion of one pound of the hydrogen isotope deuterium would release about the same explosive energy as the explosion of 26,000 tons of TNT.

The other characteristic of nuclear weapons, which makes them so qualitatively distinct, is radiation.  The familiar mushroom cloud symbolizes the post-blast lethality of nuclear weapons.  Contaminated debris is sucked up into the atmosphere after a surface blast and falls back to earth as fallout.  Whether exposure is to direct radiation near the blast site or to fallout downwind from a surface blast, new factors enter into the effects of war.  Beyond the initial phenomenon of radiation sickness (which can be lethal), radiation causes long-range carcinogenic and mutagenic damage.  Because cancer takes ten, twenty--even forty--years to run its course, the carcinogenic effects of any nuclear detonation last nearly half a century.  Mutagenic effects are even more far reaching, since the prospect of genetic mutations in offspring may not appear for generations (because of factors involving dominant and recessive genes).  Until the close of World War II neither combatants nor non-combatants had previously faced war in which the effects could literally be passed on biologically to their descendants.  Moreover, these carcinogenic and mutagenic effects, because of the world-wide distribution of fallout, spill over into parts of the world totally non-involved in the conflict.

Despite these potential problems, nuclear weapons of different types have been designed on the assumption that capability for distinct uses is militarily significant.  The terms “strategic” and “tactical” nuclear weapons refer to these distinct military uses and can be correlated with delivery systems and targeting.  Strategic weapons refer to nuclear warheads or bombs delivered by intercontinental missiles, intercontinental bombers, or submarines, and strategic weapons are normally of a substantial size (in the megaton range).  Until recent developments in the increased accuracy and decreased size of such systems, the assumption was that targeting distinctions could not be respected (i.e., between military and civilian attacks).  Because of these developments, a military distinction is now made between strategic counterforce and strategic countervalue weapons.  Tactical weapons refer to smaller (in the kiloton range) weapons, ranging from nuclear shells to intermediate range nuclear missiles, produced for use in battlefield situations.

What are the results of these changes?  For four decades the United States and the Soviet Union kept their respective armed interventions from turning nuclear; however, new generations of nuclear weapons, alterations of policies, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union have undercut the reliance on a by-gone past as a guide to how nuclear states will respond to future conflicts.  Unless and until the “firebreak” between conventional and nuclear conflict is again crossed, the ability to wage nuclear war remains in question.  In addition, insofar as ability and willingness to use nuclear weapons in conflict is dubious, a further problem arises.  Nuclear weapons function as a deterrent against aggression only to the extent that the threat of their use is credible.  Hence, much of the history of nuclear weapons systems and policies is an endeavor to demonstrate that nuclear nations have the capability for and, under specified conditions, commitment to use of nuclear weapons.


First Phase of Moral Response:  From Hiroshima to Bikini

In the first phase of philosophical response, the theme of social responsibility was proclaimed by several philosophers with international reputations.  On August 8, 1945, only two days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and a day before the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Albert Camus was the first philosopher to voice ethical concern with an essay in the underground resistance newspaper Combat.  On August 18, 1945, Bertrand Russell began his prolonged responses with an essay in Forward.  Also in 1945, Jean-Paul Sartre responded with “La Fin de la Guerre” in Temps Modernes, and John Dewey published his seminal essay “Dualism and the Split Atom” in The New Leader.  Teilhard de Chardin also made several contributions.  Soon, philosophers began to consider whether world government was now needed and feasible.  The prominent philosophy journal Ethics published an essay by Emile Benoit-Smullyan and a response by Joseph Neyer on this topic.  In other forums, Bertrand Russell and A.C. Ewing provided analyses of arguments about whether the atomic age mandated world government for global security.  Finally, several philosophers stressed the prospect that nuclear war could bring about the end of the human species.  In particular, John Somerville began his numerous writings on this topic in the late 1940s and continued to do so through each remaining decade of the twentieth century.

During the initial phase, two works stand out.  First, in 1946 T.V. Smith, a previous editor of Ethics and a prolific contributor to the theory of democracy, published Atomic Power and Moral Faith.  This book was the first entire volume by a philosopher to be devoted to reflection on nuclear weapons.  Smith stresses the economic, military, and social implications of atomic energy, provides a critique of religious and political sectarianism in the atomic age, and issues an early call for improving U.S.-Soviet relations.  Second, in 1948 Daniel S. Robinson published The Principles of Conduct.  This book updates and extends points he made in earlier articles.  Within the field of applied philosophy (that largely languished until late in the twentieth century), he presents concern about the atomic age as pre-eminent for what he terms “political ethics” or what is termed “international politics” in political science.


Second Phase of Moral Response:  Above-Ground Tests of Hydrogen Bomb

In the second phase of philosophical response, debate on the extinction thesis received increased attention and participants included several philosophical luminaries.  During the 1950s, the earlier hope for international control of atomic weapons was displaced by the harsh realities of the Cold War: the Baruch Plan had been rejected, the hydrogen bomb had been developed, the Chinese Revolution had succeeded, and the Korean War had begun.  Against this backdrop, in 1958 Bertrand Russell and Sidney Hook carried on a heated exchange with each arguing from opposite extreme positions.  Russell argued nuclear war would destroy all humanity, and Hook argued Soviet communism would destroy all freedom.  In the heat of their political fervor, Russell lost sight of the fact that not all of humanity would surely perish in a nuclear war, while Hook lost sight of the fact that no society, not even in the Soviet Union, was completely devoid of freedom.  Nevertheless, their extreme, though untenable premises, made arguing for their conclusions rather easy.  Russell, of course, was the philosopher who spoke most extensively about the nuclear war throughout this period.  He made a dramatic broadcast against the hydrogen bomb for the BBC, initiated the anti-nuclear Pugwash movement, contributed to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and in 1959 published his classic Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare.

One of the most important practical results of the criticisms by ethicists and scientists of above-ground nuclear testing was negotiation and ratification of the Partial Test Ban Treaty.  In this regard, along with the “Russell-Einstein Manifesto,” one of the compelling pleas to protect the innocent from the fallout of above-ground nuclear testing, as well as from the destruction of thermonuclear war, came in 1958 from Albert Schweitzer in Peace or Atomic War?  Nevertheless, the Cold warrior position of Hook also had influential representatives, the most famous of whom was Karl Jaspers who in 1958 published Dei Atombombe und die Zukunft des Menschen.  Like Hook, he advocated risking destruction of humanity in nuclear war over the alternative of risking the loss of our “humanity” under totalitarianism.  Less known in this phase are some of the metaphysical assessments of the nuclear age.  Though a controversial figure because of his brief affiliation with the Nazis, Martin Heidegger discusses the metaphysics of nuclear weapons in several writings, and several philosophers, particularly in the 1980s, have drawn on his argument that metaphysical reflection on the nuclear age helps us diagnose our plight as would-be controllers (and, potentially, destroyers) of the Earth.  He criticizes the arrogance of anthropocentrism and points to a type of nonviolent ecological vigilance in his concept of the Hausfreund—friend of the house of our earth.


Third Phase of Moral Response:  The Emergence of Counterforce Strategy

The third phase of philosophical response swelled into prominence because of renewed public concern over the nuclear threat during the 1970s and 1980s.  The American Academy of Sciences warned of the dangers of ozone depletion from nuclear detonations, Physicians for Social Responsibility declared the unmanageability of medical problems in a post-attack environment, Jonathan Schell in 1982 in his famous anti-nuclear manifesto The Fate of the Earth used the term “second death” to refer to the meaning of annihilating humanity in nuclear war, and Carl Sagan popularized the notion of nuclear winter.  With these Apocalyptic prognostications, the extremes in arguing about nuclear war were reached.  John Somerville honed his earlier argument by coining the term “omnicide”--the irreversible extinction of all sentient life.  Beyond revisiting of the extinction thesis, philosophers in the 1970s and especially 1980s produced a deluge of writings seeking to “counter counterforce”--arguing against nuclear war-fighting policies and first-strike weapons.  Key journal issues were published by Philosophy and Social Criticism (Gay, 1984) and Ethics (Hardin et al, 1985), and several important anthologies were published, including Nuclear Weapons and the Future of Humanity (Cohen and Lee, 1984) and Nuclear War (Fox and Groarke, 1985).  The two philosophers who published most extensively on these topics (and, several times, in response to one another) were Douglas Lackey and Gregory Kavka.  Lackey’s main work during this period is Moral Principles and Nuclear Weapons (1984), and Kavka’s main work is Moral Paradoxes of Nuclear Deterrence (1987).


Fourth Phase of Moral Response:  End of the Cold War

During the fourth phase of philosophical response, philosophers turned their attention to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and to the continued proliferation of nation states with nuclear arsenals.  Even with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Steven Lee argued in 1993 in Morality, Prudence, and Nuclear Weapons that the threat of nuclear war continues.  In the post-Cold War world, a strong case persists concerning the immorality and imprudence of nuclear deterrence, let alone nuclear war.  Lee argues for the delegitimization of nuclear weapons and, to achieve this goal, contends war itself needs to be delegitimized.  Broader concerns of this type were addressed in 1994 in On the Eve of the 21st Century, edited by William Gay and T.A. Alekseeva; this book, in fact, was the first collaborative work between Russian and American philosophers since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  Both Russians and Americans criticize the persistence of Realpolitik and the morality of nuclear deterrence.  They also argue for nonviolent approaches to national security.  In addition, they reassess the future of socialism and role of Russia in the post-Cold War world.  During this period, Concerned Philosophers for Peace, a North American Philosophical Association, began publishing a Special Series on Philosophy of Peace (POP), published by Rodopi with Joseph Kunkel as the General Editor.


Fifth Phase of Moral Response:  The Future of Violence, Terrorism, and War

The final verdict on how philosophers and the world community will respond ethically and politically to the prospects for increased nuclear proliferation and the attendant threat of nuclear war remains to be seen.  Nevertheless, a fifth phase of philosophical response began to emerge following the attacks of September 11, 2001.  Philosophers are beginning the critical assessment of the connections among violence, terrorism, and war.  Increasingly, the argument is being made that the differences among violence, terrorism, and war are more of degree than of kind.  The first available response is a special double issue of Concerned Philosophers For Peace Newsletter on “Terrorism and War in the Twenty-First Century  (Gay, 2001)  The POP Special Series is planning an entire volume devoted to the problem of terrorism.  In a new Special Series published by Rodopi with William Gay as the General Editor, Russian and American philosophers are exploring these issues and broader ones of the global quest for justice.  Philosophical responses to violence, terrorism, war, nuclear weapons, and other weapons of mass destruction likely will continue as long as the earth is plagued by these sources of destruction and as long as philosophers are around to raise moral questions.  Given the persistence of their moral critiques, philosophers likely will continue to side with the victims of violence and injustice and to seek to advance a world that will renounce nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.




Cohen, Avner and Steven Lee, eds.  Nuclear Weapons and the Future of Humanity.  Totowa:  Rowman & Allenheld, 1984.

Committee for the Compilation of Materials on Damage Caused by the Atomic Bombs, eds.  Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Physical, Medical and Social Effects of the Atomic Bombings.  Trans. Eisei Ishikawa and David L. Swain.  New York:  Basic Books, Inc., 1981.

Fox, Michael Allen and Leo Groarke, eds.  Nuclear War:  Philosophical Perspectives.  New York:  Peter Lang, 1985.

Gay, William and Michael Pearson, The Nuclear Arms Race.  Chicago:  American Library Association, 1987.

Gay, William, ed.  Philosophy and the Debate on Nuclear Weapons Systems and Policies, Philosophy and Social Criticism 10, n3-4 (1984), 188 pp.

Gay, William, ed.  “Terrorism and War in the Twenty-First Century,” Special Double Issue of Concerned Philosophers For Peace Newsletter 21 (2001), pp. 1-40.

Gay, William and T.A. Alekseeva, eds.  Democracy and the Quest for Justice:  Russian and American Perspectives.  Amsterdam:  Rodopi, 2002.

Gay, William and T.A. Alekseeva, eds.  On the Eve of the 21st Century: Perspectives of Russian and American Philosophers.  Lanham:  Rowman & Littlefield, 1994.

Glasstone, Samuel and Philip J. Dolan.  The Effects of Nuclear Weapons.  3rd ed.  Washington, D.C.:  U.S. Government Printing Office, 1977.

Hardin, Russell et al., eds.  Symposium on Ethics and Nuclear Deterrence, Ethics 95 (1985), 385 pp.

Jaspers, Karl.  The Future of Mankind.  Trans. E.B. Ashton.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Kavka, Gregory.  Moral Paradoxes of Nuclear Deterrence.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Lackey, Douglas.  Moral Principles and Nuclear Weapons.  Totowa, NJ:  Rowman & Allenheld, 1984.

Lee, Steven, Morality, Prudence, and Nuclear Weapons.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Russell, Bertrand.  Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare.  London:  Allen Unwin, 1959.


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