Letters | Debating Deterrence

 

POMPS & PERILS

The subtitle of Bernard Prusak’s article “The Paradoxes of Deterrence” (March), “How the debate about nuclear weapons has evolved,” gets Prusak’s analysis off on the wrong foot.

The truth is that it hasn’t evolved at all. Despite the rhetoric of Francis, devoid of follow-up as it is, we’re still stuck with deterrence and all its very expensive works and pomps—and perils.

After slumbering for some four decades after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Catholic bishops of the United States issued The Challenge of Peace, which at long last confronted the horror of modern war or, more accurately, attempted to do so. Their peace pastoral was undercut before the committee assigned to write it sat down to their first coffee and Danish. First and foremost came John Paul II’s ill-considered letter to the United Nations read by a Vatican functionary (John Paul apparently didn’t feel the need to make the trip himself) that deterrence was probably the best solution for the time being as long as it was a step towards the elimination of all nuclear weapons, though even the pope must have realized that there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of that coming to pass. (It hasn’t.)

Secondly, Cardinal Bernardin, the chairman of the committee, informed them at their first meeting that they were by no means to condemn the possession of nuclear weapons. Nor was that enough. The committee was later forced at the insistence of the “NATO bishops” to insert a clause that allowed a first use of nuclear weapons to a country under attack by conventional weapons.

Prusak shows a remarkable ignorance of both the role of intentionality in Catholic moral theology and how the military works by asking, “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?” His answer is a bit too quick: “Surely not.” In order for deterrence to work—and this everyone agrees on—a launch officer must have the firm intention to obey an order, however immoral, to enact a slaughter of the innocents unparalleled in history. (Our killing machine, pace John Paul, has gotten much better in the decades since his letter.) Think of the effect on the mind and conscience of launch officers.

As it happens, the 1976 pastoral of the American bishops, To Live in Christ Jesus, contains this sentence: “As possessors of a vast nuclear arsenal, we must also be aware that not only is it wrong to attack civilian populations but it is also wrong to threaten to attack them as part of a strategy of deterrence.”

Prusak is probably unaware of this condemnation of deterrence, which echoes a similar condemnation in Vatican II’s The Church in the Modern World. But he is not alone.

Michael Gallagher
Shaker Heights, Ohio

 

BERNARD PRUSAK REPLIES:

My article concerns the rhetorical strategy that’s best geared to the goal of ridding the world of nuclear weapons. More precisely, I consider whether a prophetic style is appropriate, characterized for example by angry denunciation, perhaps also ad hominem attacks. For the reasons that my article proposes, I argue that a prophetic style isn’t likely to be effective on the issue of nuclear deterrence, which I suggest may be defended on the grounds that it is a lesser evil—though still evil!—than annihilation or subjugation. As deterrence is evil, Mr. Gallagher is right to worry about the consciences of launch officers. Regarding the role of intention in Catholic moral thought, he might be interested in my article “Start with Safe: Opioids and the Ethics of Harm Reduction” (Commonweal, November 11, 2019), or, at considerably greater length, chapter two of my book Catholic Moral Philosophy in Practice and Theory. Finally, it is the editors, not authors, who choose the titles of Commonweal articles.

 

AI & THE KINGDOM OF GOD

In “Minds Without Brains” (April), John W. Farrell ponders the prospect of humans sharing the world with evolving conscious machines. Far too abstract, the discussion ignores the environment shaping that evolution and the proper perspective for such a study.

Beginning with the work of Alan Turing and others during World War II, computing power fueled the arms race and is now integral to munitions industries and the conduct of war. Digital espionage and sabotage are the brave frontiers of global conflict. 

Computing was exploited after the war by American business; it is now everywhere used by hyper-competitive global capitalism for researching, marshaling resources, manufacturing, and limiting human labor costs. Algorithms pervade finance, law, education, and communication. Surveillance capitalism and totalitarian social control need AI. “Social” media divides and conquers our cultures and politics. Today’s vast fortunes are amassed with AI; it beats in the heart of our scandalous maldistribution of wealth. It is used to manipulate life’s genetic code and alters the very way we think. Farrell mentions some of these concerns, but they are absent from the analysis.

Intelligent, networked, and learning computers are useful for any number of tasks. But this technology multiplies our powers and amplifies our faults. All too often, the Earth, the ecosphere, and humans suffer unprecedented misery aided and abetted by AI. When abused, this dynamic may be called free trade, global capitalism, the military-industrial-information complex, or even Mammon; then it impedes the Kingdom of God. 

Intelligent computation is useful for any number of tasks, but how can it be used to benefit humanity, heal creation, and glorify God? Often it devalues human dignity, disrupts solidarity, and erodes subsidiarity. The vast power of AI eclipses human moral agency and subverts the universal distribution of goods. Scripture and Catholic social teaching, especially as articulated by Francis, give us the tools to properly study the evolution of AI.

Already fallen from grace, AI has yet to acquire conscience or soul. How to domesticate this beast? Understanding its true context in the light of faith is the place to start.

John O’Neill
Cedar, Mich.

 

THE BEAUTIFUL GAME

Thank you for the beautiful article about Diego Maradona (“Why They Loved Him,” April). Only a philosopher, a sensitive one, could have written such a tribute. Maradona’s talents moved a generation of fans and elevated soccer to a sport of intelligence and elegance, an acquired taste that rewards us with genuine and joyful entertainment.

Gianna Gargan
Dallas, Tex.

Published in the May 2021 issue: 
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