Trident and ethics


Last night I watched the film Threads for the first time. A chilling account of a nuclear attack on Sheffield during the Cold War, I cannot recommend it highly enough. The subject matter is topical, because today is Peace Sunday, but also because the subject of Trident renewal is current in British politics.

I oppose Trident absolutely, as I do all nuclear weapons. I most naturally articulate that opposition in terms of my Catholic faith, citing the God-given dignity of the human person created in the imagio dei. However, the debate in Britain will not be won or lost on Christian terrain, but in the largely secular forum of politics. It is vital then that a case against the weapons can be made on the basis of natural reason alone; as will become clear, I think that it can. Before I get to that,  I want to mention one trend in Christian thinking about war that I think is positively unhelpful to our making an effective case against nuclear weapons. This is the growth of a default pacifism in quite a lot of Christian talk about war at every level, regardless of whether that talk is directed ‘inwards’ within the Church or ‘outwards’ to the world. Some years ago the Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe made a case that pacifism prevents us from seeing the particular evils of nuclear weapons clearly – if all war is forbidden, yet grimly ever-present, then nuclear war is simply a variation on a theme, and to this extent unremarkable.

On the contrary, in an imperfect world, which falls short of the fullness of God’s Kingdom, the mainstream Christian tradition remains that war, whilst always tragic, is sometimes permissible. Christian pacifism falls into the trap of an overly realised eschatology, a failure to recognise the sense in which the Kingdom is still yet to come. This is not to say that the Church doesn’t have a particular vocation to live peacefully, since we are the sacramental anticipation of the Kingdom. We should be wary of glorifying war, something that has too often been a feature of Christian existence, and it is perfectly legitimate for individual Christians to choose to refrain in principle from all violence. This is very different, however, from demanding pacifism from the world. Doing so blunts the case against nuclear weapons: the problem with them is not that they are weapons of war, but that they are weapons whose purpose is the deliberate killing of the innocent.

This is not the argument that has been most prominent in the current debate. We hear various cases made against Trident: that it is a waste of money, that it is not an effective deterent against the actual threats to the UK in an age of non-state combatants, that spending on nuclear weapons has a low labour-intensity, that the whole project is based on an overestimation of the UK’s military status, that the submarines are effectively under US control, and so on. Now, all of these things are true, and I don’t think there’s any harm in saying them. Yet if the debate is had solely in these terms, a disturbing conclusion follows: perhaps if these matters could be addressed, nuclear weapons would be acceptable. Particularly, Trident’s champions will insist at this point, since we have no intention of actually using the things. They are, as the saying goes, purely deterrents.

This last protestation is nonsense: no deterrent ever succeeded in deterring without a credible threat of use. But even leaving that aside, there is something disturbing about these terms of debate. Elsewhere Anscombe named a current strand of moral thinking consequentialism. For the consequentialist, the only things that make an action right or wrong are its (foreseeable) consequences. In certain circumstances, then, things that might be unthinkable in the ordinary course of events might become permissible: Anscombe uses the example of the judicial punishment of the innocent.

Against consequentialism, Catholic ethics maintains that some types of action are, by their very nature, always and everywhere forbidden. This is not to say that our understanding of ethics is primarily law-based, a matter of command and prohibition. For Aquinas, the subject matter of ethics is human flourishing, and its major concern is with the acquisition of virtue, in the possession of which flourishing consists. It is consistent with this outlook, and has always been maintained by the Church, that there are some things that a virtuous person would never do under any circumstances, actions which are simply incompatible with certain virtues. These actions corrupt, and a society in which they are performed, or for that matter seriously contemplated, is one that will not form flourishing human beings. Importantly, the Catholic tradition also asserts that this outlook does not depend on divine revelation (although is, of course, compatible with, and indeed completed by, it). So in bringing these kind of considerations to the table, we are not giving up on the possibility of debate beyond the boundaries of the Church.

Deliberately killing the innocent is one such impermissible action, as therefore is threatening to kill the innocent. A certain kind of comformist casuistry might propose at this stage that killing the innocent is merely a consequence of the action of dropping a nuclear bomb, and on this basis argue that the principle of double effect is applicable. I’m reminded of the rhyme:

Say I’m awfully aggressed:
I’ll pull the trigger – well I’m blessed!
He hit the bullet with his chest!
I’m glad I did my morals

Killing the innocent isn’t the consequence of the action of dropping a nuclear bomb, it is the action. One thing Catholics can usefully do at the present moment, with respect to nuclear weapons and other things beside, is remind the world that there are some things we should just never do, regardless of the consequences. This view, although in principle available to people of all faiths and none, has fallen out of favour for reasons whose intellectual and social roots it would be interesting and investigate. In this context, the Church remains an important custodian of an important insight for all of humanity, and it is one of which we can remind others without forcing the debate onto specifically Christian terrain.




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