We Won’t Because We Will: Moral Doublethink in the Nuclear Age

Of all the pleasures of the intellect, one of the very keenest — I admit that it’s a slightly perverse sort of pleasure — is that provided by the spectacle of a first-class lawyer arguing a manifestly bad case.

I am deeply grateful to Mr. Michael Novak, therefore, for the delight I took in his letter “Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age”: it entranced me beyond measure — as a performance, that is. As a supposedly cogent argument, however, it tempts me to the heights of ribaldry.

But I must control myself; and initially, I have a few less ironical words to say in praise of this letter. As regards its presentation, it is admirably temperate and lucid. Mr. Novak’s subject is the moral problem created by a twofold danger — the danger of nuclear war, and the danger of Soviet aggression. Each of these arouses powerful emotions, and it is no rare thing for their discussion to be marred by extravagant language, by straightforward bellicosity and bloody-mindedness, by various sorts of apocalyptic and paranoid fantasy. There’s practically nothing of that sort here. This is a good piece of writing, calm and measured, and it contains much with which all of us would agree.

Centrally, however, he is arguing what I have called a “manifestly” bad case — not just an imperfect case, a case with particular weaknesses here and there, but a totally and obviously absurd case.

This is strong language, and it leaves me open to an obvious reply. If Mr. Novak’s case is of total and obvious absurdity, we would expect to find it supported by a small minority alone — by grossly incompetent thinkers, by deranged people, by plain fools. But Mr. Novak himself is far from falling into any such category, as are the numerous and distinguished signatories of this letter: his conclusions are shared by a great many people of high reputation. In using such strong language about them, have I not put myself into the position of one who swears that the earth is flat, and that the vast majority who disagree are all stupid or insane? Isn’t it rash to go out on such a limb?

We’ll see. Let me just observe in passing that throughout the history of thought, we continually find orthodoxies that are held by ‘all sensible men’ over long periods while having no real plausibility at all. Look at the control once exercised over countless first-class minds by astrology or — more recently — by Marxism! In itself, a consensus of able people proves very little, even when widespread and enduring.

Let me also observe that where the passions are involved, rational judgment has a difficult time. Mr. Novak’s subject involves the concepts of ‘patriotism’, ‘Communism’, and ‘war’ among others; and the atavistic passions aroused by such concepts as those are powerful indeed, whether they find untrammeled expression or not. In many people, they generate an overwhelmingly compulsive need to believe in some such conclusion as that reached by Mr. Novak, at practically any cost in intellectual and moral propriety.

Any development of this point would cause me to argue on psychological and ad homines lines and possibly to give offence thereby; so I shall leave it at that. Let us always remember, however, that strong passions do cloud judgment: also, that all of us are often tempted to fudge some moral argument so as to make it yield a conclusion upon which we have already determined. Recent debates about sexual morality, within the Catholic Church, afford many illustrations of this sad tendency in action.

Even so, my strong language needs more positive justification. One practical difficulty is that the relevant problems are so very close to us, so very immediate. Let us therefore stand back and survey them as from a distance, considering the position from which Mr. Novak starts and the conclusion that he reaches. We shall then consider the curious route by which he passes from the one to the other.

There would be no problem (or at least, there would be a different kind of problem) if he didn’t start off, quite specifically, as a Christian and a Catholic — one whose mind is governed by the Gospel and the Church (1-12), and for whom the ultimate responsibility is that of the individual conscience before its Judge (11). His credentials as an interpreter of the Catholic conscience might possibly be cast in doubt by his position on Humanae Vitae. But it would be unkind of me to make too much of that; and having just read a new book of his — not yet published — can testify to his more general qualifications as a Catholic writer. In particular, he is familiar with classic teaching about ‘the just war’ (29) and with the new factors that now govern its application (30).

So far, being a Catholic and a conservative (in most senses of that complicated word) and no pacifist, I go along with him most happily. But what happens when we jump ahead to his practical conclusion?

(The reader is invited to break off at this point and reread the New Testament, the Fathers, The Imitation of Christ, the lives of the saints and martyrs, the great theologians, and the various teachings of the Popes and Councils: let him thus remind himself of what this Christian and Catholic Faith is, and of how much it can sometimes ask. You’ve done so? Good: now we can proceed.)

Let us imagine that you borrow Wells’s Time Machine and go back through the centuries, so as to put a certain question to our most responsible Catholic forefathers — to St. Alphonsus, to St. Thomas, to St. Augustine, even to the Lord himself. Here’s the question. “Given a sufficient cause, could it ever be lawful for a Christian to hold himself ready and willing to kill — say — fifty thousand people at random, regardless of their personal guilt or innocence?’

In the light of your recent reading, which was extensive though hurried, can you be in any doubt as to the answer you’ll get? You’ll be told that an individual may perhaps kill his unjust assailant, though St. Augustine will have his doubts: you’ll be told that soldiers may sometimes fight a ‘just war’ against other soldiers, in theory at least, though seldom in practice, as St. Alphonsus will remind you. But your question, as posed, wasn’t about ‘war’ at all, or not in any traditional understanding of that word: it was about the massacre of an enemy population or some substantial part thereof, and that — you’ll be told — is simply the mortal sin of murder and must not be committed or contemplated in any circumstances whatsoever, not even in order to ensure very good consequences or to avert very great evils. How can you doubt it? How can you ask such a preposterous question?”

You might demur. “But you don’t understand: we of the twentieth century face dangers and other evils that weren’t even imaginable in your earlier day!”

There’d be an obvious and realistic come-back to that one. “Don’t flatter yourselves: you aren’t so new and special. We know all about tyranny, oppression, cruelty, massacre, injustice, and the rest of it. Such things will continue, and the moral law will be the same in your day as in ours. The Christian must still hold himself ready to suffer endlessly but totally unwilling to sin, in fact or by any possible kind of intention: he may need to endure the special agony of seeing others suffer because of his own unwillingness to sin. But we who follow the crucified Lord and the sorrowing Mother know that our tribulations, however grievous, are of small account in the long run: salvation comes by accepted suffering, not by having things fat and comfortable and easy in this life, and certainly not by any such gross wickedness as you’ve just asked us to evaluate”.

That question, as posed, would have received an emphatic and total negative from the entire Catholic conscience until very recently, and in some such terms as those. Its own terms are more candid than those used by Mr. Novak, who (understandably) takes great care to avoid the embarrassingly central word ‘kill’ — a word that makes precisely one oblique and irrelevant appearance (22) in the whole of this highly euphemistic letter. In effect, however, he gives that same question an emphatic and total positive answer, and something more: his practical conclusion is that in present circumstances, a state of mind in which we’re “ready and willing to kill” is not only licit but a moral imperative, and not only in respect of a mere fifty thousand randomly-chosen victims. That’s his applied Christianity.

By the standards of Catholic teaching and tradition, am I really the one who’s a ‘flat-earther’? Am I really the one who’s out on a limb?

His subject is, of course, the morality of our nuclear deterrent as now existing, not as it may conceivably exist in some possible future. Pure ‘counter-force’ is a remote dream at present, as are President Reagan’s plans for a Star Wars conflict between unmanned artifacts in space, with nobody getting killed at all. Our present policy is precisely of the kind indicated in that question: unless we are to dodge the reality of what we are talking about, we have to define its key concepts in terms of “ready and willing to kill” and “millions of randomly-chosen victims”.

Mr. Novak considers that a good policy, not only innocent but obligatory. Why? Because it seems likely to lead to highly desirable consequences.

More precisely, he justifies it in terms of moral responsibility for the common good, for human well-being in this life. It seems to be our only way of keeping the peace: it also seems to be our only way of containing Soviet expansionism. It may not succeed (55, 57). But any alternative policy will make very great evil very much more probable: ergo, this deterrent policy is morally virtuous and deserves the support of all good men, especially those who care most for peace.

There is — to speak mildly — a certain lack of harmony between his starting-point and his finishing-point. How does he proceed from the one to the other?

I regret to say that in order to do so, he makes abundant use of evasion and doublethink. On a first hurried reading of this letter, I marked twenty-six separate instances of such obfuscation: here, I shall only mention a few of those most central to his argument. (I hope it will not be supposed that I’m picking on Mr. Novak in person. He isn’t alone. In some twenty-five years of involvement with this controversy, I have never yet found a writer who, starting from Catholic premises, could reach conclusions of his paradoxical sort without ample use of euphemism, evasion, and doublethink.)

To begin with, let me mention one particular evasion, one tactical silence of great importance. Mr. Novak is laudably emphatic about his desire for peace, and he goes so far as to call the deterrent “a form of non-violence” (26). But he never tells us what kind of war against the Soviet Union he would consider ‘just’ — as regards its conduct, that is, and on our side — if the deterrent failed and the fighting began. A wholesale holocaust? A little nervous skirmishing around Berlin and the Persian Gulf? He knows that the possibilities are numerous (40): at what point (if any) will Christian morality require us to hold back, even at the cost of Soviet victory? We are not told.

This is a crucial omission, since it helps Mr. Novak to fudge the question of what we are preparing and currently intending, in however conditional a manner. In one notable instance of doublethink, he tries to suggest that in that sad eventuality, we would be acting under an unspecified kind of compulsion and not by choice. “The fundamental moral intention in nuclear deterrence”, he tells us, “is never to have to use the deterrent force” (59d: my emphasis). Have to? Would the decision then be out of our hands? So also if Truman had never dropped the atomic bomb in 1945: “In that case, a bloody amphibious assault on the Japanese may have had to ensue” (58: my emphasis) — as though a negotiated peace were then somehow beyond the realm of possibility.

This is exactly the doubletalk of those who say that if abortion is made illegal once again, women will be forced or compelled to have backstreet abortions. They won’t: the choice and responsibility will still be theirs.

If Mr. Novak fudges the question of what we would “have to” do if the crunch came, it’s very understandable: there was no other way in which he could fudge that question of what we are now intending, and how sinfully or innocently. As an instance of his evasiveness, I recommend his distinction between the different ‘intentions’ of a policeman, a burglar, and a murderer in respect of the carrying and possible use of firearms (59c). It’s a most useful distinction, but it carefully ignores the case most exactly parallel to our deterrent. Imagine a good policeman who rightly hopes to prevent some violent crime, but finds that he can only do so by holding the villain’s six-year-old son hostage at pistol-point: “Behave yourself, or I’ll blow your son’s brains out!” Such a small-scale deterrent might work successfully, while still amounting to nothing but bluff. In the larger matter, however, mere bluff is an unreal option, as Mr. Novak knows (59d); and I would be very interested in his moral assessment of that policeman’s action, on the assumption that he means what he says and will actually kill the boy if he ‘has to’.

Small boys in quantity are among those to whose heads we are now holding the nuclear gun. But you’d never guess that from anything said by Mr. Novak.

In such cases, large or small, Catholic tradition is far too explicit for his comfort. You must never kill innocent people. That’s an absolute, as in the parallel case of abortion; and where weapons of mass destruction are involved, the distinction between ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ killing disappears. Beyond that, a present intention to commit an inherently sinful act in hypothetical circumstances carries the full ‘formal guilt’ of that sin at once, even if the wicked thing never gets done in fact.

That second point needs steady emphasis. Imagine a girl who is virtuous and virginal and means to stay that way, but who — knowing the weakness of the flesh — provides herself with a do-it-yourself abortion kit, “just in case”, hoping that she’ll never ‘have to’ use it. Ask any good confessor about the present state of that girl’s conscience.

I have no quarrel whatever with the highly desirable ends which Mr. Novak has in view. But the means are sinful: in order to work, they require any number of us to live in a state of habitual consent to mortal sin. This is most clearly true of those most directly involved, at the political and operational levels: it’s true of us private citizens as well, in so far as we give ‘formal or material co-operation’ to this conditionally intended killing of the innocent.

It’s pitiful to behold the lengths of doublethink to which Mr. Novak has recourse in his visible eagerness to avoid this very obvious conclusion while retaining some foothold in Catholic teaching and tradition. He faces the question squarely enough, but then tells us — amazingly — that “the appropriate moral principle is not the relation of means to ends” (59a).

Why on earth not? Unless the Church has been talking through its hat from the start, we need to consider not only the desirability of the end but also the lawfulness of the means: this cannot be presumed, and least of all in such a case as this. I fear that at this crucial point, we are simply being told not to ask awkward questions.

Well, what is “the appropriate moral principle”? We are told that it’s “the choice of a moral act which prevents greater evil” (59a). But that begs the question of whether the act is moral: it also dodges the question of what sort of evil is to be prevented. A tragedy certainly, but a sin of wickedness as well? And a sin on whose part? “Clearly, it is a more moral choice and occasions lesser evil to hold a deterrent intention than it is to allow nuclear attack” (59a); but how can this fail to mean that it’s better – more moral — to sin than to suffer?

Mr. Novak doesn’t want it to mean that; and so, centrally, he embarks upon some very intricate doublethink about that word ‘intention’, having previously warned us (54) that it will here need to be used in a special and Pickwickian sense. There has to be some way of really intending a certain event as a way of not intending it, of seeking to prevent it. Somehow, “We won’t because we will” has got to make sense.

It can make a kind of sense: it isn’t a simple contradiction. The English language has no future tense: we have to make do with two auxiliary verbs, one of them originally referring to choice or intention (will, won’t, would) and the other to obligation or destiny (shall, shan’t, should). In common usage, both original senses are sometimes but not always submerged in a general sense of simple futurity. (This is one of the many points at which our language becomes hell for foreigners.)

So one can say “We won’t because we will” without talking nonsense: the “won’t refers to probable futurity, but the “will” refers to present intention. Translation: “We are most unlikely to use these weapons of mass destruction in fact, since our present and genocidal intention of using them — though only conditional at this point — is perfectly real and therefore deters the Russians”.

So far, this deterrent intention appears to have worked. But it only works by being perfectly real, and therefore wicked. Mr. Novak says much about nuclear war as a disaster that may come upon us and needs to be prevented if possible: he says nothing about it as a colossal sin of which — by the confessor’s standards and in the eyes of God — you and I may already be guilty.

I do not underestimate the horrors that now threaten us, though of course we don’t really know what will happen in any possible turn of history: I only want to point out that in order to justify present methods of preventing such horrors, Mr. Novak — like many another — offers a straightforward situational or consequential morality, such as has repeatedly been condemned by the Church and is quite incompatible with his Catholic profession. He knows that he lies open to an accusation in that sense (59a), but it doesn’t seem to bother him very much: as I have observed, he only defends himself against it by the crudest sort of evasion — by changing the subject, in fact. The nuclear dilemma, “like the Fall, ought not to have existed, but when it does exist, actions to prevent evil are not bad but good” (53) — as though all actions in that cause were automatically good, as though the end justified the means By more Christian and Catholic standards, his argument is a preposterous one. It would be recognized as such by one and all, were it not for the explosive passions that I mentioned earlier. Centrally, it’s an argument that’s perfectly capable of being advanced by Moscow in justification of its own deterrent. There’s nothing specifically Christian about it, despite that opening manifesto.

I don’t want to be too hard on Mr. Novak; and I would like to point out that if he fails to prove his impossible case in terms of Catholic morality, it’s mostly because despite appearances, he isn’t really talking about that subject at all. He’s talking about practical politics; and while that’s something about which he is amusingly romantic (8, 33, &c.), it’s also something which — on his view — can only be conducted on consequential lines as against Christian principles (59b). If that’s the case (but is it?), Christians will need to think less politically than some of them now do. And while his mind is incurably political at the expense of his Christianity, it also displays a curiously old-fashioned sort of progressive optimism, even a Golden Dawn millennialism, such as scares the pants off me in any version (75).

Were Ito get moralistic about this letter, I would rebuke Mr. Novak for not noticing and recognizing the stink of Hell when it comes to his nostrils, “the rank urinous stench from the nether pit”, as C. S. Lewis called it. Were it not for the explosive passions that I have mentioned more than once, anyone with a breath of the Gospel in him would recognize these hellish technologies as something from which the Christian must run a million miles, at once and unconditionally — even if he then dies as a traitor as St. Thomas More did, even if he has to flee to the desert like the Fathers of old.

I would also preach most priggishly about a popular sin that might well be called ‘inordinate attachment to temporal good’. Some people might then interrupt forcibly, saying that when we attempt to contain Communist power, we are also defending a spiritual good of the first importance. On very much those lines, Mr. Novak finds it possible to speak of the spiritual “possibilities” opened up for the West by the freedom and affluence of its last few decades, despite the actuality of its religious and moral collapse over the period (33). There’s a further subject here and a good one: we might approach it by comparing the respective conditions of the Church in Communist-run Poland and in free comfortable Holland. We might even ask whether it’s really good for the Christian, as such, to have things fat and comfortable and easy in this life. (It seems that for Mr. Novak, the ‘imitation of Christ’ is something from which Christians need to be protected (22).

But that would take us into another kind of argument. For my present purposes, it is enough to observe that despite his initial Christian and Catholic manifesto (1¬12), Mr. Novak’s concern is with temporal good alone — with peace, and also with his own preferred notion of political good, which is not universally shared. It would not be unfair to say that behind the whole of his argument, there lies an unspoken assumption in the following sense. “The overwhelmingly important thing is that nuclear war should be prevented, yes; but also and equally, that we in the United States — our friends as well — should continue to enjoy life as we prefer it, and should be able to look forward with confidence to an even more golden future. But all such hopes are threatened by those bastards over there; so in order to get what we want, we shall need to be quite as tough and quite as unscrupulous as they are. If this prime necessity brings us up against traditional Catholic morality, that’s just too bad — we’ll need to modify that morality into something more realistic, more practical”.

That’s a very understandable view of things: it’s taken, I suppose, by the great majority, atheists and Communists included. But it isn’t quite what we find practiced by Jesus or recommended by his Church.

  • Christopher Derrick

    Christopher Derrick's books include C.S. Lewis and the Church of Rome, Sex and Sacredness, and Words and the Word.

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