Blogs > Cliopatria > The Half-Way House

Apr 26, 2006 2:54 pm


The Half-Way House



Max M. Kampelman, who served as an arms control diplomat in the Reagan administration, has a guest editorial in the New York Times arguing for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Kampelman makes a strong case for combining realism with idealism, instead of seeing them as mutually exclusive, and he persuasively argues that"the goal of globally eliminating all weapons of mass destruction" needs to be"put back at the top of our [foreign policy] agenda."

Unfortunately, as recent rumors surrounding contingency plans for air strikes on Iran demonstrate, the abolition of nuclear weapons -- including our own -- is not near the top of our agenda. And yet the Iran crisis also demonstrates precisely why it should be. So long as the United States is willing to countenance the military use of nuclear weapons (and the funding of research on nuclear bunker-busters at least shows that we do not discountenance such use), so long will other nations continue to possess an incentive for acquiring them. Our strong condemnations of the proliferation of nuclear weapons in states like Iran, coupled with our implicit threats to stop their proliferation, only convinces non-nuclear states to acquire them more quickly than ever as a deterrent to our acting on such threats. As I've argued before,"rational actors will not tolerate monopolies on asymmetrical power," and today the distribution of nuclear power in the world is radically asymmetrical.

Back in the 1980s, opponents of nuclear weapons sometimes referred to themselves as the"new abolitionist movement." There are plenty of ways in which the movement for the abolition of slavery differs from the movement for the abolition of nuclear weapons, and those differences would probably make any systematic historical comparison between the two spurious. (I hope this post won't be taken for such a comparison.) But at least in some respects, the comparison is apt, particularly when one is focusing on what both movements were up against in the battle for popular opinion.


In both cases, the abolitionists had to deal with a large number of people who were sympathetic to their arguments but not to their prescriptions. In the antebellum period, there were numerous critics of slavery who nonetheless argued only that the institution should not be allowed to expand into states where it did not already exist. There were more still who favored the abolition of the slave trade as a natural way to quash slavery itself, gradually and indirectly. Both of these groups saw the abolitionists -- those who called not just for non-expansion or non-trade, but for immediate emancipation -- as ridiculous fanatics who were endangering Southern men and women by fomenting slave insurrection. To take the power of slaveholding out of the Southerners' hands would dangerously place that power in the hands of so-called savages, who would allegedly terrorize and murder the moment the legal power of masters was surrendered.

But the abolitionists understood what the non-expansionists did not: that so long as the right to hold human beings as property was acknowledged in any part of the Union, those who claimed that right would assert it absolutely. South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun argued (logically, if coldly) that if slaves were legitimate forms of property in the South, then it was not clear why Southerners could not carry their property into any new state, just as Northerners were not restricted from expanding their property in cattle or carts into the West. (The famous decision of Judge Roger Taney in the Dred Scott case ratified Calhoun's argument.) Non-expansionists could retort with procedural arguments that Congress had the right to govern in the territories and that compromises had been made (in 1820 and 1850) that forbade slavery in certain territories; they could contest Taney's decision, in other words, as a matter of legal interpretation. But their moral argument against expansion was critically weakened by the fact that they acquiesced to the continuation of slavery at all, no matter how much they bemoaned its evils.

Non-proliferationists can argue, much like non-expansionists did, that nuclear weapons should simply remain in the states where they already are. But unless that argument is coupled with a strong argument for their total abolition -- even here -- we will continue to find ourselves dealing with latter-day Calhouns who claim for their states a sovereign right to possess weapons of mass destruction. Until that argument for total abolition is also made, loudly and clearly, laws for the abolition of trade in nuclear arms will (like the laws for the abolition of the slave trade) continue to be vulnerable to enforcement problems and charges of hypocrisy.

How can we aver that trading nukes is immoral without making the corollary claim that possessing them in the first place is? No more easily than someone who believed that holding human beings as property was immoral could consistently oppose the slave trade without opposing slavery. And how can we claim that those states who presently hold nuclear weapons -- by the mere accident of their historical discovery and development in certain wealthy countries -- have a right to hold them indefinitely, while those states who, by accident of history, are free of nuclear weapons cannot acquire them? No more easily than someone who opposed the proliferation of slaves in the West could support their continued bondage in the South. To be sure, the compromises that prevented slavery from expanding into the West accomplished a great good, just as every successful prevention of the proliferation of nuclear weapons is good. But as the famous Boston abolitionist Wendell Phillips once said,"let us not mistake the half-way house for the end of the journey." Let us not lower our sights from abolition to non-proliferation.

(Cross-posted at Mode for Caleb, along with a follow-up post.)

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Alan Allport - 4/25/2006

David, I wonder if there isn't an unexamined assumption in Alan's argument, however. Isn't it possible that the horror of World War II's destruction by routine weaponry, rather than the nuclear threat of mutually assured destruction that held and hemmed in Cold War engagements to limited parts of the world.

Well, it's not necessarily an either/or; but keep in mind that the hitherto unprecedented carnage of the War To End All Wars only kept Europe in check for twenty years. We've already done three times better than that with nuclear weapons.


Ralph E. Luker - 4/25/2006

David, I wonder if there isn't an unexamined assumption in Alan's argument, however. Isn't it possible that the horror of World War II's destruction by routine weaponry, rather than the nuclear threat of mutually assured destruction that held and hemmed in Cold War engagements to limited parts of the world.


David Silbey - 4/25/2006

"Once we widen our lens to encompass more states than merely the "Great Powers," was the Cold War really all that cold? The argument that the world has been a more peaceful place since the happy discovery of weapons of mass destruction would be hard to sustain."

It would be remarkably easy to sustain, actually. As Alan Allport has pointed out already, the intensity of World War II alone puts every conflict since then in the shade. The 57,000 Americans who died in eight+ years in Vietnam would only encompass roughly 29 days of fighting for the Russians during 1941-45. I would guess that all the deaths in all the wars since 1945 would not equal the number of those liquidated in the Final Solution.


Jonathan Dresner - 4/25/2006

It's an analogy, Ralph.

Harvard condescension....

I have not yet begun to condescend.


Alan Allport - 4/25/2006

The point is not to "satisfy" Iran, but to get closer to an end goal of global disarmament. (If you don't agree that this is the end goal, then I wonder if you're trying to have it both ways by saying that the A-Bomb is not a Good Thing and yet should be kept around.)

The only end point of disarmament that would really ensure a lasting non-nuclear world would be the destruction of the knowledge of how to build a nuclear device at all. Since that seems to me not simply impractical but logically impossible at this stage then it hardly seems worth arguing about; it's a bit like saying that having discovered the New World the Europeans should have pretended that they didn't know it was there. The A-Bomb is "going to be around" forever whether I or you or anyone else likes it or not. Its existence is not a matter for worthwhile dispute; what is is whether we can create a situation where the likelihood of its use is kept to an absolute minimum.


Caleb McDaniel - 4/25/2006

Of course not; this is descending into silly caricatures of argument.

I agree: we're veering off course here. Surely not everything I've said has descended to caricature, though. I apologize that this did. As I said in my last comment, I really am trying to be careful and accurate -- or at least as careful and accurate as quick-fire blogging allows.


Alan Allport - 4/25/2006

Must other Western liberal democracies now stoop in a permanent posture of genuflection to the victors of World War II?

Of course not; this is descending into silly caricatures of argument. But praising non-nuclear Western powers (and the diplomatic prestige they have supposedly acquired because of their fastidiousness) without acknowledging that they were only able to take such a high-minded approach in the first place because of the assurity that they would be defended by others less reluctant to soil their hands is only telling at best half the story, isn't it?


Caleb McDaniel - 4/25/2006

Oops. I made an error in haste. 2,000 warheads would only be able to destroy Russia about a dozen times, not a couple hundred. According to this article, at least, either the U.S. or Russia could be devastated by "fewer than 200" of the nuclear weapons that each already has its arsenal.

I apologize for my exaggeration. I really am trying to be careful in this debate because I think this issue is so important. And I appreciate your willingness to have the debate with me. I'm trying to keep the bloviate-to-argue ratio low on my end, although I readily admit that I don't always succeed in staying true to this intention!


Caleb McDaniel - 4/25/2006

There's a level of hypocrisy to all this pontification about 'keeping our hands clean'. Kipling called it making mock of uniforms that guard you in your sleep.

There's also a level of caprice to the rhetoric that because the United States made the world safe for democracy (or something like that) all democracies must now defer to whatever decisions the U.S. makes. How far are you willing to extend this complaint. Must other Western liberal democracies now stoop in a permanent posture of genuflection to the victors of World War II? Expecting a degree of gratitude to the uniforms that guard you is one thing; demanding blind acquiescence to those uniforms is another.

the idea that unilateral disarmament would provide some kind of moral guide to the rest of the world always struck me as one of the more fatuous arguments of the Cold War disarmament movement

No "new abolitionist" would claim that disarmament should simply be unilateral. It should be global and multilateral. But I believe our current posture is hampering our progress to that final end. Our five-year-old commitments to reduce our stockpiles for instance, from 6,000 to 2,000 warheads (just enough to annihilate Russia a couple hundred times) is a start. But that commitment is barely a beginning, especially since the U.S. is (a) not committed to an absolute no-first-strike policy, (b) not committed to actually dismantling three or four thousand of warheads, but only to removing them from active deployment, and (c) has outlined national security strategies that assert the right to strike preemptively and argue for the need to develop new tactical nuclear weapons.

Unilateral disarmanent? Heck, I'd feel at least a little better if we would commit to a comprehensive test ban (which all the R & D on bunker busters makes less likely, rather than more) or submit to third-party verification of our reduction practices. Our refusal to take such steps amounts to a little more than mere contingency planning: it sends the clear signal that we think usable nuclear weapons can and should be built.

Any negotiated disarmament treaty would of course have to include measures to prevent proliferation. But convincing non-nuclear states not to proliferate requires much more stepping down than we are currently doing. The point is not to "satisfy" Iran, but to get closer to an end goal of global disarmament. (If you don't agree that this is the end goal, then I wonder if you're trying to have it both ways by saying that the A-Bomb is not a Good Thing and yet should be kept around.) That end goal will necessarily include stringent efforts to keep dangerous states like Iran and North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons, but it will also have to include incremental disarmament by nuclear states like ourselves.

It's frightening to me how close to Cold War levels our stockpiles still are, and how loosely guarded much of the nuclear material in Russia and elsewhere still is. I'm not sure we can simply look back on the Cold War retrospectively, whether with nostalgia or not. The fact is that we are still living with the suicidal lunacy of a nuclear stockpile that could destroy most of the inhabited world several times over.


Alan Allport - 4/25/2006

seems to me that the "theocratic autocracy" has been pretty damn stable for the last 30 years....

How much would you be willing to bet that Iran will have the same constitution as it currently does in another 30 years?


Alan Allport - 4/25/2006

The argument that the world has been a more peaceful place since the happy discovery of weapons of mass destruction would be hard to sustain. I'll join you in celebrating the fact that we made it through the 20th century without World War III, but I don't accept that fact as strong evidence that the invention of the atomic bomb is a positive good.

Perhaps it is because my area of research is the two world wars that I am willing to argue that the Cold War we got - yes, even with Korea, Vietnam, and the rest - was vastly preferable to a third 20th Century Great Power conflict, even with 'just' conventional weapons. In fact I think the latter would have been so much more cataclysmic that a comparison between the two doesn't even make sense. I think people forget that, no matter how terrible (say) the Vietnam War was, its horror doesn't even begin to compare with that of industrialized total war. During WWII, 10-14,000 people were being killed in Asia every day on average. The Cold War conflicts were trivial skirmishes by comparison.

I don't think the invention of the A-Bomb was a Good Thing, but it did have consequences that in retrospect were not all bad.

Our present leaders quite clearly see nuclear warfare as a still manageable strategy.

My own feeling is that Mr. Bush's supposed itchy trigger is being grossly exaggerated. Of course there are contingency plans to conduct tactical nuclear strikes against all sorts of potential targets - that's what contingency plans are supposed to exist for, contingencies that might arise (but usually never do). I suspect that somewhere in the Pentagon there's a plan for a hypothetical US invasion of Great Britain. That doesn't mean that the 101st Airborne will be dropping into Surrey any time soon.

There are plenty of Western liberal democracies who don't have nuclear weapons and who have the diplomatic advantage of seeming less belligerent to the non-Western world.

Yes, but I wonder how many of them would still be Western liberal democracies today if they hadn't been able to tacitly rely on the support of the Western liberal democracies that did over the past half-century. There's a level of hypocrisy to all this pontification about 'keeping our hands clean'. Kipling called it making mock of uniforms that guard you in your sleep.

I'm merely pointing out that the status quo, right or wrong, is unlikely to be seen by any non-nuclear state as a "compromise," which is the way you seemed to be describing it.

If you mean, do I think that (say) Iran would regard this is a fair compromise, then I think the rather obvious answer is 'no'. But satisfying Iran about the equity of the status quo ought not IMHO to be the biggest concern right now. I imagine Iran would only be truly satisifed by arrangements that would place the world in far greater peril than it currently is. And I find it difficult to imagine that the current Iranian government would look on moves by the US to disarm itself as anything other than a naivety to be exploited (the idea that unilateral disarmament would provide some kind of moral guide to the rest of the world always struck me as one of the more fatuous arguments of the Cold War disarmament movement.)


Manan Ahmed - 4/25/2006

seems to me that the "theocratic autocracy" has been pretty damn stable for the last 30 years....


Caleb McDaniel - 4/25/2006

One might not look back on the Cold War that we actually got with unalloyed nostalgia, yet still accept that there were much less desirable alternative outcomes.

True, but one can accept that there were much less desirable outcomes while still insisting that there were more desirable ones.

The A-Bomb kept the U.S. and U.S.S.R. from engaging in open warfare with each other, but it also displaced conventional warfare into satellite theaters like Korea and Vietnam and Latin America. Once we widen our lens to encompass more states than merely the "Great Powers," was the Cold War really all that cold? The argument that the world has been a more peaceful place since the happy discovery of weapons of mass destruction would be hard to sustain. I'll join you in celebrating the fact that we made it through the 20th century without World War III, but I don't accept that fact as strong evidence that the invention of the atomic bomb is a positive good.

I do agree that MAD has kept nuclear powers from going to war with one another. But isn't that precisely why many non-nuclear powers want the bomb? I won't try to reduce the reasoning of non-nuclear states to one premise (or even assert that these states are always "reasoning"), but it seems to me like (based on your own logic) the surest way to prevent Western superpowers from going to war with you is to get the bomb. Any argument for MAD as a morally tolerable scenario has a hard time simultaneously advancing arguments against proliferation. Without proliferation there's nothing at all "mutual" about the "assured destruction."

If you think that (for example) it makes little difference to the safety of the world whether we trust an unstable theocratic autocracy with ownership of a nuclear weapon, compared to whether we trust (for all its flaws) a Western liberal democracy, then I think our outlooks are too different for anything very productive to come out of this.

Of course I "trust" liberal democracies more than theocratic autocrats, but not necessarily because I entrust the leaders of liberal democracies with the decision to obliterate millions of civilians or wreak ecological havoc. I don't entrust that decision to anyone; at most I trust liberal democracies more than theocracies because I hope that debates like the one that you and I are freely having will induce our leaders to reject nuclear warfare (tactical or otherwise) as a live option. Our present leaders quite clearly see nuclear warfare as a still manageable strategy. I trust liberal democracies only because I hope the free exchange of ideas and the operations of the electoral process will force them to change their minds.

The fact that liberal democracies are more trustworthy than autocracies is no small thing. But as I said in my first response, we're dealing with weapons whose accidental use would be just as disastrous as their intentional use. Whom I trust bears on the question of who is least likely to choose to engage in nuclear warfare. But I oppose nuclear weapons in part because I have doubts that their non-use can be assured simply by the deliberative choices of rational actors.

Finally, I think you read too much into my question about whether we should be the ones with our hands on the trigger. If it doesn't necessarily have to be us, that doesn't mean that the only other option is to give nukes to "theocratic autocracies." There are plenty of Western liberal democracies who don't have nuclear weapons and who have the diplomatic advantage of seeming less belligerent to the non-Western world.

At any rate, though, I wasn't actually making a policy proposal here; I'm not seriously suggesting we should turn over all our nuclear weapons to Canada or something like that. I'm merely pointing out that the status quo, right or wrong, is unlikely to be seen by any non-nuclear state as a "compromise," which is the way you seemed to be describing it. If we truly believe that abolishing nuclear weapons is impossible, and that the best way to manage them is to keep them without using them, we should move towards an internationalist agenda that does look more like a compromise (like, for instance, committing to vast reductions in our stockpile, opening our own sites to inspection by international observers who might be charged with confirming safeguards against accidental launch or environmental damage, etc.).


Alan Allport - 4/25/2006

But as far as I can tell, your argument for why this is so amounts to your view that one scenario -- total abolition -- is impractical or impossible.

As I've said above I think the 'practicality' argument has a different cogency in the case of a moral absolute like slavery than it does in the very different case of nuclear weapons - in the former it's an unacceptable cop-out, in the latter it's a rational reason to accept a less pure but still morally tolerable position.

But since you raise the point I think I can go further. Would a world without nuclear weapons be necessarily 'better' than the one we have? Frightening as the implications of MAD may be, it is arguable that the risk of truly catastrophic retaliation has proven rather more successful in keeping the Great Powers in check than the much lower risk of conventional retaliation ever did. If the A-Bomb had never been invented would the US and the USSR have been as likely to refrain from open warfare during the late 1940s onwards? One might not look back on the Cold War that we actually got with unalloyed nostalgia, yet still accept that there were much less desirable alternative outcomes.

If it is true that the best we can hope for is to live perpetually with someone's hand resting on the red button, why does it have to be our hand?

This seems to beckon a much wider argument, but it's not, to be honest, one I'm much interested in having. If you think that (for example) it makes little difference to the safety of the world whether we trust an unstable theocratic autocracy with ownership of a nuclear weapon, compared to whether we trust (for all its flaws) a Western liberal democracy, then I think our outlooks are too different for anything very productive to come out of this.


Caleb McDaniel - 4/25/2006

Another correction: in characterizing your position in the last paragraph, I obviously meant a world in which non-proliferation is strongly encouraged. I blame the typos on my frustration with having to write this comment three times. Apologies for the confusions.


Caleb McDaniel - 4/25/2006

Correction:

The last sentence of the third paragraph should read:

As Kampelman argues, we can acknowledge what "is" without acknowledging that this is the way it "ought" to be, and instead of simply accepting the status quo (or actually toying with the further development of nuclear weaponry), we should be thinking creatively about how to bring the "is" more in line with the "ought."


Caleb McDaniel - 4/25/2006

[Pre-script: I've started this comment twice only to accidentally delete the whole thing, so I apologize if it now seems a bit shorter and more abrupt than I intended it to be. I'm getting tired of starting over!]

Alan, in both threads you are arguing primarily against a claim that I am not making. To reiterate, nothing in my original post suggests that the holding of slaves and the holding of nuclear weapons are morally analogous. I simply intended to compare the kinds of arguments that abolitionists in both cases were up against. And my primary aim was to convince an audience of readers who believe that the possession of nuclear weapons is wrong not to stop short of calling for their total abolition. The point of the comparison was not to pull on anyone's heartstrings, but to point to a case where all of our moral intuitions are already clear.

You may be right that the limited analogy I'm drawing has limited utility. (I think that's a more accurate charge than the claim that I'm trying to have it both ways: I never tried to claim that slavery and nuclear weapons were "identical" moral problems, as you put.) The real debate to be had, in your view, is over the question of whether the possession of nuclear weapons is absolutely morally wrong. To be fair, though, I did advance some arguments to that end in my response to your first comment, which at least indicates my willingness to engage on that issue instead of clinging to the conceit that you already agree with me.

You argue that there is a range of conceivable scenarios with regard to the disposition of nuclear weapons, some of which are "better" or more morally tolerable than others. But as far as I can tell, your argument for why this is so amounts to your view that one scenario -- total abolition -- is impractical or impossible. The fact of abolition's impracticality or improbability, however, does not speak to the question of whether the mere possession of nukes is wrong, nor does it answer the (admittedly cursory) account I've given for that view, unless you believe that whatever is, is right. As Kampelman argues, we can acknowledge what "is" without conceding that this is different from what "ought" to be, and instead of simply accepting the status quo (or actually toying with the further development of nuclear weaponry), we should be thinking creatively about how to bring the "is" more in line with the "ought."

I also want to press a little bit on the way you describe the various "morally tolerable" compromises that are available to us. You argue that a world in which some states have nuclear weapons and proliferation is strongly encouraged would be preferable to one in which all states have nuclear weapons. Does this theoretical scenario have to be one in which, by simply default, the states that currently have nuclear weapons are the ones that get to keep them? If so, then it will be hard to convince non-nuclear states that your scenario (morally tolerable or not) is anything like a compromise. "Let's make a deal: we get all the power we already have, and you get nothing." If it is true that the best we can hope for is to live perpetually with someone's hand resting on the red button, why does it have to be our hand? (Or does it? I don't want to speak for you, but I'm curious about your answer.)


Alan Allport - 4/25/2006

"just as the fact that we can't eliminate all the wrongdoing in the world means that we can accept its existence as morally tolerable"

That rather convoluted clause should read:

"just as the fact that we can't eliminate all the wrongdoing in the world doesn't mean that we can accept its existence as morally tolerable"


Alan Allport - 4/25/2006

Could you explain why slavery is necessarily a case of stark moral absolutes and ownership of nuclear weapons is necessarily a case of a spectrum of increasingly tolerable (or intolerable) compromises?

I think I have laid this out in other posts, but briefly, once again: the act of slavery itself is wrong because it is a denial of the liberties of the person enslaved. It is from a moral point of view an inherently intolerable situation. Even if it was shown to be impractical to end all slavery it would not remove the moral imperative to try to end it, just as the fact that we can't eliminate all the wrongdoing in the world means that we can accept its existence as morally tolerable. There are no moral fallback positions here; there are simple rights and wrongs.

Nothing similar is at stake with nuclear weapons. Their ownership in and of itself does not appal us; the rights of no atom bomb are being trampled upon by their being kept benignly under lock and key. No existential crime is being committed by the very fact of their existence. The thing that appals us is the potential for their use against us. Which is why it's possible to morally settle for a situation in which that use is least likely to happen.

Not being an Americanist I have little idea exactly what arguments were used for and against slavery in the antebellum period, but if slave-owners were performing the same category error as I believe Caleb has done (by confusing a morally bipolar situation with one that has a number of morally quiescent possibilities) then I don't really see that that changes much, other than to say that we shouldn't repeat their mistakes.


Ralph E. Luker - 4/25/2006

Alan, Could you explain why slavery is necessarily a case of stark moral absolutes and ownership of nuclear weapons is necessarily a case of a spectrum of increasingly tolerable (or intolerable) compromises? It seems to me that Caleb has fairly clearly shown that slavery was widely regarded in the latter light in the mid-19th century and that, in retrospect, that seems unacceptable. Apart from the fact that nuclear weapons are not persons, is there reason to think that compromises on the ownership of them should be any more readily tolerated?


Alan Allport - 4/25/2006

Thank you for your comments. I will not belabour the point because I've responded to you elsewhere, except to say that I think the analogy fails because one case is a problem of stark moral absolutes while the other is a spectrum of increasingly tolerable (or intolerable) compromises. For the record I don't particularly like nuclear weapons, would prefer that they didn't exist, and hope that as few nations as possible obtain them in the future. I don't believe this is incompatible with the belief that MAD is probably the least bad situation we can hope for.

But I must protest a little Caleb, because I think you're trying to have it both ways with this analogy - starting with a boilerplate disclaimer that it *isn't* an analogy but then treating it as one anyway. You say that you're "taking it for granted" that readers will agree with you about the absolute wrongness of owning nuclear weapons; well, that seems to be quite a conceit. By ruling out from the beginning what seems to me the basic problem in your argument you're eliding more than clarifying.


Alan Allport - 4/25/2006

This argument would defend the general principle of nuke-holding by referring to contingent examples of nuke-holders, much like (for instance) defenders of slavery argued that not all masters were brutal and malicious. The old abolitionists rejected that line of argument as fallacious, because it tried to establish a general principle of right from a collection of accidental facts. If the legal holding of slaves in bondage is wrong, then it matters not how particular slaves are treated; and if the legal holding of nuclear weapons is wrong, then it matters not how particular states intend to use them.

Sorry, but I think this argument is specious. It is a categorical error to equate the moral problem of slavery with the moral problem of nuclear weaponry.

Slavery was (presumably) wrong because it denied the moral sovereignty of the enslaved person. It was a problem of moral absolutes: the number of slaves involved and the way that they were specifically treated were beside the point. Even if only one slave was held in bondage, and under benign conditions, the situation was still intolerable.

Nuclear weapons have no moral sovereignty and no sense of personhood; so from the get-go the moral problem is not their ownership as such but their potential use. The most we can say is that ownership of nuclear weapons is wrong because they can be used for terrible purposes; they are not wrong because the very fact of their ownership means they are being denied some existential right.

That might seem obvious or pedantic but I think it reveals an important qualitative difference between the two moral problems. It is possible in the case of nuclear weapons to distinguish between an ideal situation and a tolerable one. The ideal situation might be that no-one possesses such weapons. A tolerable situation might be that some nations possess them, but that the further proliferation of them is heavily discouraged and that in any case there are powerful self-interested reasons for their current owners never to use them. The first situation might be theoretically better than the second, but because of the practical difficulty of achieving it (I would go further and say it is in fact impossible) it may be morally acceptable to settle for the second. I submit that no such analagous case exists for slavery. There is no morally tolerable compromise scenario open to the abolitionist. Thus to open up the analogy simply confuses the issue.

It seems to me that the introduction of slavery into discussions like this is more about emotional effect than logic. I am not sure that it is tactically wise for left-leaning persons to do it in any case because there are more compelling analogies to slavery available that they might not wish to pursue. I don't, for instance, think that the pro-life claim that abortion is the slavery question of the 21st Century is particularly accurate, but the analogy between the two does seem to fit better than the attempt to make ownership of nukes morally identical to ownership of slaves.


Barry DeCicco - 4/25/2006

Actually no. Case in point: USA, Bush administration. The power elites of the USA put the vastest stockpile of WMD's in the world into the hands of a religious fanatic who embraces the end of the world.


Caleb McDaniel - 4/25/2006

As I pointed out in the above comment threat, I'm more or less taking for granted in this post that I'm speaking to people who believe that holding nuclear weapons is wrong. I'm trying to argue, to that particular audience, that support for non-proliferation or non-trade is not a sufficient way to express that conviction.

I also should underline that I'm not making a comparison between the evil of slavery and the evil of holding nuclear weapons. Both evils belong to a class in a sense that they involve the legal possession of something that should not be possessed. But there the similarity between why they are evil more or less ends. The comparison I'm drawing is between the kinds of arguments used to extenuate evils that should be abolished outright.

I disagree that "possession is beside the point." If that is true, should we not even support non-proliferation? If the only way for the use of nuclear weapons to be "effectively outlawed" is for everyone to be pointing total destruction at everyone else's heads, then isn't it the case that the more nukes in the world there are, the better? Our sense that nuclear weapons should be kept from spreading indicates that we don't believe that.

We're also dealing here with weapons whose accidental "use" would be every bit as devastating as their intentional use, so a defense of keeping them around would have to go farther than an analysis of how the logic of M.A.D. affects the choices of rational actions. (I'd also question, given this administrations interest in developing new "tactical" nuclear weapons like bunker busters, whether the future use of nuclear weapons has been as effectively outlawed as you claim.)

I agree that there is a difference between potentially and actually doing something, but in the case of nuclear weapons, I don't believe that difference is morally salient, at least not for the purposes of determining whether possessing them is right or wrong. I believe the unimaginably destructive human and ecological costs of nuclear war place the burden of proof in these debates squarely on the shoulders of those who think possessing nuclear weapons are worth the risk. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that there really were a little red button locked in a room that could annihilate an entire civilian population simply by being depressed. I would argue that it would not merely be morally wrong to press that button; it would be morally wrong even to rest one's hand lightly upon it. And I would cite the same principle by which we recognize, say, the endangerment of a child (and not just actual harm to a child) to be morally culpable.


Caleb McDaniel - 4/25/2006

Jonathan, I should have made clearer in the post that I'm more or less assuming the possession of nuclear weapons to be morally wrong. (Non-proliferation rhetoric itself often seems to make the same assumption: the mere acquisition of the weapons by those states who do not have them is seen, at least, with deep moral suspicion.)

I suspect a fair number of people share this assumption, or can at least be somewhat persuaded by arguments for it. But although they are sympathetic to the anti-nuke argument, they don't agree with the "new abolitionists'" prescription. My point was that many therefore stop at the same kinds of extenuating half-way houses that tempted broadly antislavery Americans in the nineteenth century.

If one's reason for being opposed to the proliferation of nuclear weapons is that the weapons themselves are wrong in principle, then that reason ought equally to compel one to support their total abolition. The question you cite would have been better phrased this way: "If we aver that possessing nuclear weapons is immoral, how can we merely call for ceasing the trade in nukes?"

It would take another post to argue the case for viewing nuclear weapons themselves as an illegitimate species of property, to defend the assumption that I take for granted in this post. I suspect that the de facto argument against this assumption is that their possession is only wrong in certain cases. Certain states, some would argue, can hold nuclear weapons (presumably because they would never use them), while other states cannot (presumably because they would). This argument would defend the general principle of nuke-holding by referring to contingent examples of nuke-holders, much like (for instance) defenders of slavery argued that not all masters were brutal and malicious. The old abolitionists rejected that line of argument as fallacious, because it tried to establish a general principle of right from a collection of accidental facts. If the legal holding of slaves in bondage is wrong, then it matters not how particular slaves are treated; and if the legal holding of nuclear weapons is wrong, then it matters not how particular states intend to use them.


Ralph E. Luker - 4/25/2006

None of your Harvard condescension, please. Explain how I misapplied the analogy. Last time I heard, we do nothing to keep automobiles out of the hands of irresponsible regimes.


Alan Allport - 4/25/2006

... that the practice of attacking an opponent with nuclear weapons had been quite effectively outlawed during the last sixty years by the crushing consequences that await anyone choosing to do so. The analogy with slavery would only seem to work if it could be shown that this prohibition was being routinely flouted (possession is beside the point - no-one cares about the feelings of ICBMs. The only thing that matters is their use). There is surely a rather significant difference between being potentially able to do something and actually doing it.


Jonathan Dresner - 4/25/2006

Actually, we do (I'm gonna ignore the fact that you're misconstruing the analogy): there are international conventions which are supposed to limit the sales of "small arms" in conflict zones, and the US (not uniquely) has considerable controls on the export of advanced military and "dual-use" technology -- we'll share it with allies, but we'll imprison anyone who shares it with our enemies.


Ralph E. Luker - 4/25/2006

But, in fact, we make no effort whatsoever to keep guns, automobiles, or caustic chemicals out of the hands of other nations, irresponsible or not.


Jonathan Dresner - 4/25/2006

I agree: this is an excellent, excellent piece. Nonetheless, I don't find the analogy entirely persuasive, and that's ironic because I'm very sympathetic to the abolitionist position:

How can we aver that trading nukes is immoral without making the corollary claim that possessing them in the first place is?

We make similar claims about many tools capable of inflicting great harm: guns, automobiles, caustic chemicals, etc. In all these cases we find no inherent moral wrong in these items being owned and operated by responsible parties, but we go to great lengths to keep them out of the hands of irresponsible ones.


Ralph E. Luker - 4/25/2006

Very nicely done, Caleb. I was skeptical at the outset, but your parallels were persuasive.

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