In her book, Kaveny gives three examples of pressing moral issues that, in her judgment, are not ripe for the rhetoric of prophetic indictment: animal rights, gun control, and climate change. Her reasons for this judgment differ for each of the issues, but a key question is whether would-be prophets can draw on at least some of the fundamental commitments of our present political community, or whether they draw only on the commitments of a utopian community they imagine and hope for. Would-be prophets who cannot draw on commonly recognized moral commitments are not likely to get a hearing. Instead, they’re likely to alienate people and thereby set back their cause.
How do things stand, then, with the pressing moral issue of nuclear weapons in the twenty-first century? Is it ripe for prophetic indictment, or does that rhetorical style risk backfiring?
The would-be prophet can surely draw on widely shared moral commitments to denounce any use of nuclear weapons that directly targets civilian populations, as well as any use that “unintentionally” but foreseeably kills and maims massive numbers of civilians. The would-be prophet can also draw on common moral commitments in denouncing any system, strategy, or policy that would either increase the likelihood of nuclear warfare among the current nuclear powers, or stimulate nuclear proliferation, thereby imperiling peace in unstable regions like northeast Asia and making it more likely that terrorist organizations would acquire a nuclear device. In this regard, the signs of the times have been ominous over the past few years. If, as Pope John Paul II claimed, the “condemnation of evils and injustices…is an aspect of the Church’s prophetic role,” prophets have a lot of material to work with—from North Korea’s expansion of its ballistic-missiles program, to Russia’s violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (I.N.F.) Treaty, to the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran and abrogation of the I.N.F. Treaty in response to Russia’s violations. The recent agreement between the Biden administration and Vladimir Putin’s Russia to extend the New START Agreement, which limits the countries’ nuclear arsenals, is a rare piece of good news.
The would-be prophet appears to be on shakier ground in denouncing nuclear deterrence as such. In The Challenge of Peace, the U.S. bishops had asked, “May a nation threaten what it may never do?” The argument that the answer to this question must always be “no” typically turns on the claim that it’s morally impermissible to do evil that good may come of it. According to this argument, it is evil for a nation to intend the massacre of civilians either for its own preservation or in retaliation. Yet that has been U.S. policy since the Cold War. It’s not only Catholic ethicists who find this policy evil. In his 2017 book, The Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame, laments that “what is missing…in the typical discussion and analysis of historical or current nuclear policies is the recognition that what is being discussed is dizzyingly insane and immoral.” An anti-consequentialist thinker like Elizabeth Anscombe (profiled by John Schwenkler in the May 2019 edition of Commonweal) might take the argument a step further: because the use of nuclear weapons would be evil, and because there’s no point in stockpiling weapons that a nation must never use, nations with nuclear weapons should simply get rid of them, without calculating the possible consequences.
There are several objections to this line of argument. First, one might reasonably doubt whether it is really appropriate to describe the choice to use nuclear deterrence so as to avoid being annihilated or subjugated by a foreign power as a choice to do evil that good may come of it. One might argue that it should instead be described as a choice between two evils—which is how the French bishops, for example, saw it in their 1993 document Gagner la paix. In this analysis, nuclear deterrence might be defensible as less evil than annihilation or subjugation. That brings us to a second objection: Is it really as bad to threaten the use of nuclear weapons—while hoping it won’t be necessary—as it is to actually use them? Surely not. In that case, why would a lesser evil (nuclear deterrence) not be permitted if it has the consequence of preventing a greater evil (annihilation or subjugation)? Finally, if we are considering how to counter a threat of aggression, the first question to ask is not what we would be permitted to do after the act of aggression we hope to prevent, but what we are permitted to do in the course of trying to prevent it.