Title: Guns, Knives and Nukes
The January-February Lincoln-Douglas debate topic is "Resolved: The possession of nuclear weapons is immoral." What on earth, one might ask, could justify possessing a nuclear weapon? When someone throws a punch at you, it is generally inappropriate to counter with a bullet. But when shot at, is it inappropriate to respond with a bazooka?
A bazooka in a gunfight might offend our sense of fair play, but if someone shoots at us first, we ought to be able to reach for the most effective weapon possible. When deadly force is used against us, is there any upper limit to the kind of deadly force we are morally justified in using to defend ourselves? (Probably so, see below...)
Self-defense is the key. In Vernor Vinge's excellent short story, "The Ungoverned," Kansas farmers of the not too distant future have a choice of various free-market forms of protecting their property. Just as we purchase health insurance and car insurance, Kansans of the early twenty-first century purchased a kind of defense insurance. Companies like Midwest Jurisprudence, the Missouri State Police and Al's Protection Racket, would, for a fee, promise to defend clients from aggression. There was no government per se in Vernor Vinge's Kansas of the future. But strong communities were built around a mutual interest in freedom, peace and security. Taxes did not exist, since taxes involve coercion, and no person or organization had the legal authority to resort to coercion. In writing "The Ungoverned" Vinge says he was influenced by economist David Friedman's book The Machinery of Freedom.
It is not clear if such completely voluntaristic societies are workable or likely to last. Lebanon in recent years has lacked a strong central government, and the result has been bloodshed and chaos as bands of thugs compete for political power. Without powerful nation states to guarantee law and order, most believe that thugs and ruffians would have a field-day, appropriating private property and extorting "protection" payments from citizens.
Powerful nation states have police and armies to prevent random rampages, theft, and extortion. But in building a nation state strong enough to protect, citizens face the dilemma often seen in old westerns. The townsfolk hire gunslingers to clean up the town and run off the bad guys. But after the bad guys are run off, the gunslingers settle in and make themselves comfortable--they take the place of the bad guys and extort goods and services from the timid townsfolk (who begin secretly searching for Clint Eastwood).
Nation states can protect their citizens from outside invasion and from petty criminals, but who can protect citizens from their own nation state? Even our easygoing everyday western governments seem to be settling in like gunslingers of the old west. How much, for example, should our friendly gunslinging congressmen be able to tax away from citizens?
So in "The Ungoverned" most Midwesterners chose not to grant a monopoly of the use of force to any single agency or organization. Enforcement agencies competed for customers, and disputes were handled by other agencies that specialized in dispute resolution. Roads are built by road-building companies, garbage collected by garbage-collecting companies, letters delivered by letter-delivery companies, philanthropy done by philanthropic organizations, and police protection provided by security companies.
All the police and security companies agreed, however, that the possession of nuclear weapons was immoral. "The Ungoverned" takes place in a rebuilding period after much of the human race has been killed by nuclear and biological wars. The Midwest is still sparsely populated after the wars, and in the southwest a future Republic of New Mexico is gradually expanding its government services over wider areas of the former United States of America. The Republic of New Mexico government deplores the "anarchy" of the Midwestern "ungoverned" lands. And one day, following a minor dispute of some sort, the Republic of New Mexico's army launches an invasion of Kansas. The New Mexican government insists it is just expanding its protection and enforcement of human rights over a population that was not currently protected by any other government.
But most Kansans, though "ungoverned," weren't particularly keen to be governed. Their society was prospering, and their property rights were adequately secured by the private protection agencies they contracted with for protection. Some Kansas farmers, however, rather than buying property insurance and protection services, chose to protect themselves. These self-protection fanatics were called "armadillos." And at least one of these fringe farmers had secretly acquired a nuclear weapon. This armadillo believed that nukes offered the most reliable protection against invasion.
As long he was left undisturbed, his nuclear bomb would be left undisturbed. But as the Republic of New Mexico's tanks rolled across the property of this well-armed armadillo, the explosion of his nuclear bomb stopped the invasion in its tracks.
The nuclear bomb exploded in "The Ungoverned" was used, in the eyes of the armadillo, to protect his life, liberty and property from a foreign military force. From the view of the Republic of New Mexico, the nuclear weapon killed thousands of troops, and stopped the natural progress of establishing a proper government over an ungoverned land. Who was right?
Clearly, those who defend nuclear weapons will want to do so on self-defense grounds. The slogan might go, "If possessing nuclear weapons were criminal, only criminals would have nuclear weapons." Immoral government leaders will try to develop and deploy nuclear weapons in order to expand their empires. So other governments choose to possess nuclear bombs in order to deter immoral governments from using nuclear threats against them.
An additional difficulty here follows from even the defensive use of nuclear weapons. Why were nuclear bombs not used in the war against Iraq when they were used in the war against Japan. Neither Japan nor Iraq turned out to have nuclear weapons to defend themselves. If nukes were okay in one place, would they have been wrong in the other? One response is that Japan in World War II was a major military power and the U.S. military felt an invasion would cost too many American lives. But if the U.S. has superiority in conventional forces today, why do we need to possess nuclear weapons. Again, the reason is said to be defensive--to defend ourselves against foreign governments who might someday choose to attack with their own nuclear weapons.
For private citizens, though, would the possession of nuclear weapons ever be moral? It seems unlikely (at least until the average citizen can afford antinuclear defense systems). Even if deployed in immediate self-defense, a nuclear bomb would likely kill lots of innocent people. These people have rights not to be endangered by their neighbors, even if their neighbor's nuclear weaponry is purely defensive. Something like a preemptive tort law would allow citizens to take action (i.e. use force) against a neighbor suspected of building a nuclear weapon (they would, of course, be liable for damages if their suspicions proved incorrect, and their wrongly accused neighbors pressed charges).
In the sparsely populated Kansas of "The Ungoverned" an armadillo could secretly deploy small a nuclear bomb in such a way as to allow him to stop aggression without doing too much damage to their neighbors' property. In the more densely populated America of today, it is hard to imagine how defensive nuclear weapons could be deployed without significantly endangering neighbors' lives and property .
So, in conclusion, unless you have incredibly tolerant or distant neighbors, it is immoral to possess a nuclear weapon. Countries defend the possession of nuclear weapons on the grounds that the believable threat that they would retaliate with nuclear weapons if such weapons are used against them, reduces the incentive of other countries to launch nuclear attacks.
If America could construct an effective shield against incoming nuclear weapons, the rationale for the possession of nuclear weapons would no longer hold water. In fact, dismantling America's nuclear arsenal would be the only assurance other countries could trust that one America had an 100% effective missle-defense system, we would not be tempted to abuse the ability to use nuclear weapons without fear of retaliation.
That is, possession of nuclear weapons for offensive purposes is immoral. Until America develops and deploys an effective defense shield against nuclear attack, it can be argued that nuclear weapons serve defensive purposes and are thus justified.