The Moral Responsibility To Act

Mon, 06 Apr 2009 18:42:17 +0000

I did a double-take when I heard this statement excerpted from a speech by President Obama in Prague (with my emphasis):

Just as we stood for freedom in the 20th century, we must stand together for the right of people everywhere to live free from fear in the 21st century. (Applause.) And as nuclear power -- as a nuclear power, as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it.

We do have a moral responsibility to act, but it comes from our present arsenal of weapons and not from our having used nuclear weapons in the past. We would have the same moral responsibility to act if we presently had our current arsenal and we had gone with Plan B in 1945 and sacrificed upwards of a million American troops in ending the war in the Pacific without nuclear weapons. We would have less of a responsibility to act if we had virtually no current arsenal, despite our use of nuclear weapons over 60 years ago.

The decision to use nuclear weapons to try to bring an end to the war in the Pacific was one with deep ethical considerations. I don't think the President should be making statements that bear on the appropriateness of that decision in a forum where he cannot do justice to those ethical considerations. Let's hope that this was just an ill-considered ad lib by the President.

So we agree that there is a moral responsibility to act. But how should we act? I'm all for a world without the fear of nuclear weapons being used. In my view, that world is more likely to come about when the United States has a nuclear and non-nuclear arsenal that is big enough to deter others from using whatever nuclear weapons they may possess or acquire.