The Gordian Knot: Moral Debate and Nuclear Weapons

| September 16, 2013
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We have the power of choice over nuclear weapons. But we do not feel our power. Instead, we feel their power. They are larger than life. They loom over us, seemingly beyond our control, shrouded in myth and dark mystery. Because of their power and our feeling that nuclear weapons are unique, we believe that these weapons require a special set of moral rules, specially tuned to the separate world where nuclear weapons dwell.

But nuclear weapons require no special morality; ordinary morality, it turns out, is good enough. This is because the powers of nuclear weapons have been grossly exaggerated. It is true that nuclear weapons are the most destructive weapons in the history of humankind. And they are certainly the most dangerous weapons that have ever been created. But despite their power, they also have limitations that make them quite ordinary. Indeed, nuclear weapons are not awe-inspiring, epochal, or war-winning, nor are they certain instruments of doom. They are clumsy, muscle-bound, expensive, unhandy weapons with little use except as totems of status. They are very difficult to win a war with—even if you have a monopoly on their use. As a result, what we already know about nuclear weapons is sufficient. We simply have to ask ourselves if it is right to kill innocents unnecessarily. The answer to this question will provide all the guidance we need.

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Category: Issue 27.3, Roundtable: Nonproliferation in the 21st Century

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