Bioethics Blogs

Deterrence or Disarmament?: The Ethics of Nuclear Warfare

Corroral Missile in front of the Center Exchange, 1957.                                          Photo via NYPL Digital Archives.


By: Kayla Giampaolo

On July 16, 1945 at 5:29 a.m., a 30,000 foot mass of smoke rose in New Mexico’s desert: the first atomic bomb had just been successfully tested. At the time, most people were unaware that the course of warfare and ultimately the world was about to change irrevocably. Since that eerie summer morning, nine nations have developed the intelligence to create and possess nuclear weapons (Granoff, 2000, p. 1414). The United States is one of these nuclear superpowers, making the ethical issues associated with these weapons critical and relevant.

Is using a nuclear weapon morally permissible under some circumstances? Is it ethical to implement nuclear deterrence (threatening to use atomic weapons) as a self-defense strategy?

Most research across disciplines unanimously agrees that it is immoral to detonate an atomic weapon due to both short and long-term catastrophic effects. Therefore, this piece shall not focus on the actual use of nuclear weapons, but instead analyze the latter question. Using various philosophical concepts, it will explore the fundamental question as to whether any implementation of nuclear deterrence that involves a risk to civilians is morally acceptable. The models, though differing in origin and rationale, provide a unique lens from which to view this ethical dilemma.

Before analyzing various frameworks, it is first important to understand the concept of nuclear deterrence and why it is a pressing ethical issue.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.