Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

Reviving Nuclear Ethics: A Renewed Research Agenda for the Twenty-First Century

Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

Reviving Nuclear Ethics: A Renewed Research Agenda for the Twenty-First Century

Article excerpt

In 1976 the noted Catholic ethicist J. Bryan Hehir expressed concern about the waning sense of moral urgency over the existence of nuclear weapons with each passing year that superpower nuclear war was avoided. Acknowledging that international ethicists had justifiably turned to other global problems, such as world hunger and poverty, Hehir still worried that the

   relative exile [of the ethical analysis of the nuclear] issue
   [that] has endured in the academy .... if not in government during
   the last decade, is not healthy. The price of error on this issue
   is still catastrophic; the chance of redress is minimal. Yet each
   year the genie kept in the political bottle contributes to our
   confidence of control and can contribute to our lack of attention.
   But the complexity of the issue and the costs of ignorance require
   attention, ethically and politically. (1)

This hiatus in nuclear ethics lasted until the Reagan administration reasserted a confrontational posture with the former Soviet Union, including a proposed comprehensive missile defense system (colloquially referred to as Star Wars), at which time popular fears of nuclear war resurfaced. In response, the journal Ethics devoted an entire volume in 1985 to superpower nuclear ethics. (2) Nonetheless, another hiatus followed the end of the cold war in anticipation of a broad peace dividend. International ethicists again turned their attention from issues of great power security to such demanding and seemingly more immediate issues as human rights, humanitarian intervention, refugees, democratization, and economic globalization.

Yet, while the prospect of superpower nuclear confrontation has virtually disappeared, the problems of a "second nuclear age" began to emerge, most clearly in the late 1990s. The second nuclear age is marked by the real and potential nuclear proliferation among smaller regional powers, (3) which in turn is linked to the fearful possibility of nuclear terrorism. Unsurprisingly, renewed concerns over regional and global nuclear security arose, and some began to wonder whether the nonproliferation regime constructed during the cold war could still fulfill its mission. (4) Accordingly, Hehir's concern about the "exile" of the ethical analysis of nuclear weapons remains vital for us today. In this spirit, therefore, it seems timely to urge that the nuclear ethics literature should be revived and reoriented to adequately address the new and evolving twenty-first-century nuclear threats and to guide policy responses. And if containing the spread of nuclear-weapon states and eventual global nuclear disarmament remain valid political and moral objectives, nonproliferation policies informed by new research programs in nuclear ethics may help us avoid the consequences of ignorance that Hehir rightly identified more than three decades ago.

In what follows, I propose such a revival and reorientation of nuclear ethics research for the opening decades of the twenty-first century. I begin by briefly situating the larger proposal in the context of the main themes of the cold war nuclear ethical literature. Since I do not assume that all readers are familiar with these debates, I will identify high points of continuity and contrast between cold war and contemporary concerns. I then propose an initial research agenda for three areas: the possible decay of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regime, the threat that nuclear weapons pose to democratic institutions, and the relationship between ethics and the domestic political dimensions of nuclearization. For each new inquiry suggested, I advance a sketch argument. My aim is not to present definitive positions, but to initiate debate with the hope of advancing our ethical understanding of these complex issues.


A few preliminary remarks are in order before I sketch the history of the nuclear ethics literature. …

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