Response: A Brief Reply to Cameron and Derrick

In their distinguished comments on “Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age,” James M. Cameron (June) and Christopher Derrick (July) raised interesting points.

Professor Cameron thought he detected a bit of “Manichaeism” in my views on the Soviet Union. I am certain that he is mistaken. If someone held that the regime of Adolf Hitler was evil, and that it was worth life itself to resist it, such a person could not on that account be accused of Manichaeism. My views on the Soviets are roughly parallel to my views on the Nazis. This parallel is only rough because, as Solzhenitsyn has shown, the Nazis killed some 12-16 million persons in political killings, while the Soviets since 1923 have killed, by his count, 65 million. In addition, Soviet armed might in 1983 vastly exceeds that of Hitler in 1939 or even in 1943, the height of Nazi military power. Thirdly, the Soviet empire now includes more occupied territories than did the Nazi Reich at its zenith. Fourth, Communism exerts over Western intellectuals, who should know better, a mystical appeal relatively lacking (although not entirely) to Nazism.

As a Slav, I am particularly sensitive to the fact that Soviet officials, in their private lives, can be kindly uncles and aunts; they are not monsters. On the other hand, Communism, like Nazism, demands monstrous deeds even of otherwise good people. Communism, like Nazism, is a disease of the human spirit, not so much evil-in-itself as a set of impulses ambiguously good corrupted by errant intellect and evil will.

I consider it morally just to be both anti-Nazi and anti- Communist, not as a matter of opinion but as a matter of commitment, even to the extent of being willing to die resisting either or both. Such a commitment is not Manichean.

As for the “consumer society” which Professor Cameron professes to loathe, I think it deserves a profounder look. The Catholic Church, too, on a superficial look, is easy to ridicule.

I do not much admire the alternatives to a consumer society. By the latter I mean a market economy allowing free economic choice to consenting adults. Aristocratic societies seem to me decidedly inferior, in human and moral terms, even if one happens to be an aristocrat rather than a serf. Aristocratic humanism, lovely as it was, had dreadfully narrow gates, like those of walled castles.

Nor do I much like societies run by clerics, nor those run by the generals. On the whole, the moral quality of middle class societies, despite their obvious aesthetic flaws, seems to me far superior to the historical alternative.

Moreover, when I imagine societies at peace — say, Strasbourg, or Trier, during their intermittent peaceful periods — I imagine them engaged in commerce.

Again, autonomy for economic acts ought, in the name of human liberty, to be left so far as possible to the human subject. To call an economic agent a “consumer” is pejorative, not descriptive. Some economic choices are highly moral and commendable.

Furthermore, to say that most people most of the time make economic choices which to highly educated elites seem lacking in aesthetics, judgment, and taste seems a truism. If there were not “low” tastes, there could not be “high.”

As for generosity towards others, a gregarious openness and candor, a spirit of association and cooperation, a lack of fist clenching meanness, I rather admire the American people. I know of no American whose actual life I know well who can accurately be described solely or chiefly as a “consumer”; none lives a life so thin. On the contrary, the Americans I know — colleagues, neighbors, friends, relatives, and the like — strain after self- improvement of many sorts. It is their qualities of spirit which most impress me. Look around you.

As for Christopher Derrick, I am afraid he leaves the popes in a dither. For the popes do approve of nuclear deterrence. They do so knowing that a dire threat is involved, and must be intended in order to have its proper deterrent effect. Perhaps they have in mind, as analogues of even more severe ferocity, from which to draw wisdom, the deterrent effect of threats of excommunication and eternal damnation. The God of Judaism and Christianity has not hesitated to appeal to a deterrent worse than nuclear war, including not only the destruction of all creation but also the everlasting damnation of all. In making dire threats, this good and loving, fierce and envious God clearly had two intentions: both to deter us from sin and to be true, if we wretchedly so insist, to his unfailing word.

My point is not that divine prerogatives belong to man, only that “deterrents” attributed to God and to man are many, complex, and purposefully ambiguous. Still, if theologians can penetrate the elaborate intentionality enclosed within divine threats of eternal retribution, distinguishing several different senses in the locution “God wills,” surely they will have the acumen to diagnose the sort of intentionality of which the popes approve, which they tolerate nuclear deterrence.

Would that such deterrence were not necessary. Would that the Soviets were not as they are. Would that World War II would simply have ended, after all its carnage, in a century or so of peace, in the consent of the governed, and in the daily preoccupations of commerce and the arts. Alas.

  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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