Torture, Hostage Taking, and the Fundamental Immorality of Nuclear Weapons

04/24/2015 05:54 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2015

Amid the world's guarded optimism about the nuclear deal with Iran, less visible yet crucial negotiations are taking place in New York. Starting on April 27, the Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will hear reports of negligible progress in disarmament efforts among nuclear-armed states. We can expect non-proliferation and security to dominate the meeting's agenda, given President Vladimir Putin's admission that he was ready to place Russian nuclear arms on high alert before annexing Crimea.

It is, nevertheless, our urgent moral obligation to eliminate them. Just as we consider torture and hostage taking unjustifiable under any circumstances, we deem the use and threat of nuclear weapons fundamentally unethical. There is a need for a political consensus on their unacceptability.

What are nuclear weapons for?

Our debate about the morality of nuclear weapons has mostly been framed around their ostensible purposes. Many, including political leaders of nuclear-armed states and states under their protective "umbrellas," believe that nuclear weapons help maintain international peace. For all its bumps and scary moments, our nuclear world has so far held itself together. It is thanks to the credible fear of mutually assured destruction that no two nuclear-armed states have gone to war with each other. Strengthening the status quo -- managing risks, ensuring that nuclear weapons remain in the hands of reliable players -- may very well give us the best overall chance of continued security. Nobody knows for sure whether fewer nuclear warheads would have brought us stability, or whether a future world free of nuclear weapons would also be a secure one.

Opponents counter that nuclear weapons endanger peace. Nuclear deterrence might have "worked" between the two Cold War blocs, but it clearly failed to curb numerous conflicts that occurred elsewhere; in fact, it may even have made their incidence more likely as proxy wars. Even with the best of intentions, we repeatedly came close to the brink of catastrophic accidents and inadvertent escalations. Nuclear-armed states may also "go rogue," collapse, or let terrorist groups get hold of their arsenal. In other words, it is despite nuclear weapons that we have kept our world more or less secure. There is no guarantee that we will continue to do so in the future.

One major trouble here is that it is impossible to prove the supposed superiority of that other world without nuclear weapons. Such a world might suffer from some other, but just as deadly, threats to peace and security. Preferring the devil we don't know over the admittedly imperfect yet tolerable one we do know is hardly a compelling moral choice.

Morally relevant suffering

More importantly, debating whether nuclear weapons keep us safe misses the point of their intrinsic moral status. We should see nuclear weapons for what they really are, not what purposes they allegedly serve or how important such purposes are. Isn't the morally relevant suffering that which nuclear weapons inflict, not suffering that is necessary or unnecessary for this or that end?

Most of us categorically reject torture. Moreover, we do so even where torturing one suspected ticking bomber might save thousands of innocent lives. Torture's inherent immorality remains the same, not only since it often doesn't work, but also even if it happens to produce the desired result in some situations. We reject torture because it robs its victims of their human qualities by reducing them to the status of mere instruments for the benefit of the rest of us.

Nor do we accept the idea that hostage taking can be justified. Our unreserved condemnation of hostage taking is independent of the act's utility or disutility. Hostage taking is indefensible because its perpetrators treat their victims not as ends in themselves but merely as a means towards some other end.

The same can happen to nuclear weapons

Using nuclear weapons can be considered analogous in moral status to torturing. Decimating population centers and leaving generations of survivors with horrific aftereffects of radiation in the name of some allegedly worthier goals, like restoring strategic parity between nuclear-armed adversaries and expediting war's conclusion, violates the same fundamental moral premise upon which we condemn torture. Similarly, nuclear deterrence amounts to taking entire populations, not just of one's enemy but also of third states, hostage. Nuclear-armed states impermissibly use the inevitability of their unspeakable suffering as a bargaining chip in order to deter attacks.

True, our moral outrage against torture and hostage taking involved the gradual erosion of these techniques' perceived utility over time, combined with the steady rise of human dignity as the centerpiece of our moral compass. Nevertheless, a similar change regarding nuclear weapons is arguably afoot. The end of the Cold War has diminished the perceived strategic value of nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, three recent conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons held in Norway, Mexico and Austria, gathered mounting scientific evidence on the singular inhumanity to which these weapons are bound to subject their victims.

Preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons is a valuable endeavor for its own sake. But it is not a substitute for nuclear disarmament and elimination, the Non-Proliferation Treaty's less successful pillar. The challenge now is to foster a broad political consensus on the inherent immorality of these weapons.