The Catholic philosopher who clashed with a US president over nuclear war

Elizabeth Anscombe: warned of a ‘covenant with death’

In 1956, the University of Oxford decided to award an honorary degree to the only politician to have ever used nuclear weapons: US President Harry Truman. But a young Catholic academic called Elizabeth Anscombe, who would become one of the 20th Century’s greatest English philosophers, was furiously opposed to this, and forced through a vote on the degree. This was virtually unheard of, though the vote went in favour of Truman.

Given the ongoing tensions between the US and North Korea, it seems timely to revisit Anscombe’s speech to the Oxford University Senate opposing Truman’s degree. In it she critiqued the Allies’ aim of unconditional surrender and, interestingly, pacifism – for she, like St Augustine and others, believed there could be a just war, which makes the distinction between lawful and unlawful killing extremely important. But her central point vis-à-vis nuclear weapons was this:

“For men to choose to kill the innocent as a means to their ends is always murder, and murder is one of the worst of human actions. So the prohibition on deliberately killing prisoners of war or the civilian population is not like the Queensberry Rules…”

Anscombe is not alone among Catholic philosophers to have voiced such strong opposition to nuclear weapons. In a 1987 book on the ethics of nuclear deterrence, John Finnis, Joseph Boyle and Germain Grisez argued that even threatening to annihilate cities using nuclear weapons, so as to deter potential aggressors, is already immoral as it constitutes a conditional intention to kill the innocent. To say “I will kill you if…” is to have a murderous heart, whether or not those conditions ever materialise. There have, of course, been other slightly differing views: Cardinal Basil Hume said he could not “condemn outright the possession of nuclear arms which are directed to military targets”, though given the enormous range of territory that nuclear weapons can affect one wonders if such a strict condition can actually be met in real life. Nonetheless, Cardinal Hume was also clear that nuclear strikes on civilian populations – which is generally what is envisaged in nuclear deterrence – could never be justified.

For us Catholics, this should be easy to recognise. Life is a basic good that we must cherish and protect – this is something we are able to know even without revelation. Furthermore, murder is absolutely prohibited because of our intrinsic dignity: we are made in God’s image, made to know and love Him. Murder, then, destroys innocent life ordered to such a supreme good. Anscombe’s distinction between utilitarian and mystical virtues reminds us that the prohibition on murder cannot just be utilitarian – to keep a society stable – as men will still find “justifications” for murder; we need a mystical, or spiritual, perspective as well.

But when Anscombe began teaching moral philosophy in Oxford in the 1950s, she found that the prevailing thought among moral philosophers was that nothing – not even killing the innocent – was absolutely prohibited. Thus, in opposing Truman, she was accused of being “high-minded” for not allowing evil to be done that good may come. The logic of nuclear warfare and deterrence thrives precisely on this idea, or else that we can choose “the lesser of two evils”. Such ideas, however, are antithetical to Christian morality.

Unsurprisingly, justifying evil is easier with hindsight. “Hiroshima was tragic, but it was ultimately necessary,” others often say, with reference to Allied victory. But why is it not plainly obvious to people of otherwise good moral sense that slaughtering over 100,000 innocent lives is simply murderous and barbaric, and never necessary regardless of its usefulness? Alas, such is the moral corruption of utilitarian or consequentialist thinking, the shortcomings of which Anscombe sought to expose in her philosophy. (Indeed, she coined the term “consequentialism”.)

The fact of the matter is this: Nuclear weapons are horrible things, and “mutually assured destruction” utterly repugnant to human dignity, for it is based on using our fellow human beings as mere means to an end. Anscombe called this setup a “covenant with death”, doubting the possibility of building lasting peace on the basis of such horror. This is common sense, really – the idea that we will be kept good by the reminder that we are always ready to do evil is pure self-deception.

So when Trump – or any other leader – brandishes his nuclear arsenal, he is effectively brandishing the blood of the innocent. Certainly, there is a difference between killing the innocent as an unintended side-effect of fighting with combatants, and killing the innocent deliberately. But using atomic bombs on cities is not a borderline case, but clearly a species of the latter, and so can never be condoned.

It is perhaps unlikely that nuclear war is actually imminent right now, but for those who thought Trump “brave” to threaten nuclear war for deterrence’s sake, I leave them with Anscombe’s words on courage:

“I have long been puzzled by the common cant about President Truman’s courage… Light has come to me lately: the term is an acknowledgement of the truth. Mr Truman was brave because, and only because, what he did was so bad. But I think the judgement unsound. Given the right circumstances (for example that no one whose opinion matters will disapprove), a quite mediocre person can do spectacularly wicked things without thereby becoming impressive.”

May God preserve us from mediocrity.