Last Updated 03 Feb 2017

Nuclear warfare

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John Hersey’s article entitled Hiroshima was an account of six residents in the city of the same name who survived the bombing on August 6, 1945. The six survivors consisted of a physician, a personnel clerk, three small children and their mother, a young surgeon, a pastor and a missionary priest.

Compared to other accounts of the Hiroshima bombing, Hersey’s account dryly described the experiences of the survivors, beginning from the time they woke up until the time the bomb went off. While it made considerable noise within and without the publishing world, Hersey’s account was not intentionally written as a call to action, nor did it eventually give rise to a mass action. Rather, it was intended to be a mere impassive report of the impact made by the bomb on the lives of many.

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Ethical Theories.

There are many reasons for the opinion that nuclear warfare is not morally justified, the most familiar and popular of which is the opinion that nuclear warfare involves an intention to use nuclear weapons, where such use would be immoral (McMahan, 1985).

Moral philosophy has several positions on the issue of nuclear warfare. One such position falls within the deontological position (McMahan, 1985). This position consists of three claims, the first of which is that the use of nuclear weapons is not morally justified (McMahan, 1985). This first argument is rationalized by the theory that use of nuclear weapons would lead to a violation of at least one criterion of the traditional "just war" theory (McMahan, 1985).

The just war theory refers to justice in war or moral support for war (Moseley, 2006). This theory has two aspects, namely, the theoretical and historical traditions (Moseley, 2006). The former discusses the justifications and reasons for engaging in war; while the latter focuses attention on the body of rules and agreements entered into by international bodies that are supposed to be applied in times of war (Moseley, 2006).

The just war theory has two criteria, namely, the criterion of proportionality and the criterion of discrimination (McMahan, 1985). The first one mandates that "the level of force employed must be proportional to the good it is intended to achieve (McMahan, 1985)." On the other hand, the latter criterion provides that "force should be used in a way which respects the distinction between combatants and noncombatants (McMahan, 1985).

Applying the two criteria, one can arrive at an opinion as to whether the dropping of the bomb in both Nagasaki and Hiroshima was justified. The first criterion demands that an act be justified by the good consequences achieved by the act be able to outweigh the negative consequences it may have caused (McMahan, 1985). Moreover, there must be a direct proportion between the degree of force used and the positive consequences produced (McMahan, 1985).

Considering that both bomb attacks had caused the loss of numerous lives, mostly those of innocent citizens, there is no way that they could have been justified by any positive consequences. Whichever motivation led to the decision to set off the attacks, it could never be enough to justify the killing of countless innocent lives. The brutality of the acts involved in both bombings negate any argument that there is a direct proportion between the act committed or the degree of force used and the consequences it produced.

The second criterion cannot also be used to justify the bombings, since it forbids the killing of noncombatants in war (McMahan, 1985). A distinction should be made between people who are combatants and not (McMahan, 1985). However, based on numerous accounts on the effects of the bombings, including that written by Hersey, it is apparent that many people who were noncombatants died during the attacks. This is a clear violation of the second criterion of the just war theory (McMahan, 1985).

Again applying the deontological tradition, any future use of nuclear weapons in war cannot be justified. The use of that kind of weapons is a deliberate choice made by those who lead the war. They know that such use necessarily involves the killing of man innocent people.

As argued by one study, deaths occurring in nuclear attacks are neither incidental nor unintentional results of lawful military action (McMahan, 1985). Rather, such deaths are deliberate aims made by those who chose to act using nuclear weapons (McMahan, 1985).

Thus, the same argument would negate any justification that would be put forward by a country that intends to retaliate using nuclear weapons. Retaliation can be exercised in various forms and it is recognized under international law to be valid means of protecting a country’s interests and sovereignty. Nevertheless, even through a good reason exists for retaliation, doing the same through nuclear weapon still cannot be justified because of the consequences involved in such action, which would cost thousands, if not millions, of lives. Indeed, nuclear warfare is no room for the ancient adage “an eye for an eye.” Other means of retaliation, like demanding reparation or using economic measures, should instead be used rather than resorting to nuclear warfare.


Nuclear warfare cannot be justified under any circumstance. The deliberate use of nuclear weapons is equivalent to deliberate killing of numerous innocent people. Such an act cannot be considered proportionate to the aim involved; nor would such act discriminate between people who engaged in war or not. These consequences obviously violate criteria of the just war theory, which negates any morality in the acts.


Hersey, J. (1946). Hiroshima. The New Yorker.

McMahan, J. (1985). Deterrence and Deontology. Ethics 95(3) Special Issue:
Symposium on Ethics and Nuclear Deterrence, 517-536.

Moseley, A. (2006).

Just War Theory. Retrieved October 31, 2007, from

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