Sunday, December 11, 2016
First Aired: 
Mar 30, 2014

What is it

The United States recently threatened military action against Syria in response to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons. Similar threats have been made against states suspected of trying to develop nuclear arsenals such as North Korea and Iran. Yet the U.S., the U.K., France, Russia, and China have thousands of active nuclear weapons of their own. Is there a morally significant difference between nuclear or chemical weapons and conventional weapons? Should we work toward total disarmament, or do we need these weapons as a deterrent to rogue states? What steps must we take to secure peace in a world rife with weapons of mass destruction? John and Ken go nuclear with Stanford political scientist Scott Sagan, co-author of The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: An Enduring Debate.

Listening Notes

Is there a moral difference between conventional weaponry and weapons of mass destruction (WMD)? If so, what makes the difference? Ken’s original intuition is that efficiency of killing serves as a moral difference, but John is skeptical, since he believes that the moral tragedy is in the death toll and not how quickly the death toll increases. John and Ken also note that nuclear power seems to have become a national source of pride — something that commands a geopolitical presence. Ken reminds John that states with nuclear weapons are not the entire issue; a single individual can wreak complete havoc if nuclear power ends up in the wrong hands.

John and Ken are joined by guest Scott Sagan, a professor of political science at Stanford University and co-author of The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: An Enduring Debate. John begins with the question to Scott: What do all weapons of mass destruction have in common that makes their use morally different from conventional weapons? Scott replies that they are more easily used against civilians as opposed to strictly targeting combatants. Thus, Scott concludes that the indiscriminate attack methods used in total war is immoral, which is not strictly an issue of WMDs. Ken then brings the discussion closer to John’s question and is skeptical on whether it is really worse to gas 1500 civilians as opposed to shooting 1500 with machine guns. Scott agrees that there is no moral difference in that case, but goes further to draw two distinctions: (1) The use of chemical weapons is illegal. (2) It is less moral because it sets a precedent that makes it more likely that someone will use chemical weapons in the future.

Ken then comments that the world is awash in nuclear weapons, and it seems like any self-respecting country would like to get their hands on one. What incentives are there not to acquire nuclear weapons? John also asks the question: Why hasn’t the U.S. used their nuclear weapons since WWII? Scott responds that there is a theory that there is a taboo among the American public against the use of nuclear weapons. However, Scott doesn’t agree with this theory and reveals that actually 75% of the American public approved of the use of atomic weapons against the Japanese in WWII. Moving on to the Cold War, an insight offered by Scott is that nuclear weapons are deterrents, but they are also controlled by humans who are fallible and consistently make mistakes.

The program concludes with the asking of five questions: (1) When it comes to the morality of killing civilians, does the pain of the death matter when it comes to morality? (2) Would it have been a better idea if the U.S. never acquired nuclear weapons in the first place? (3) What are some approaches to nuclear disarmament? (4) What is Scott’s position on the morality of drones, given that they incur a lot of collateral damage? (5) How bad are nuclear weapons, really, and did they really help forestall WWIII?

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 4:50): Caitlin Esch explores the history of biological warfare. It has already been in use for 2000 years; some examples include: contamination of water sources, using plague victims as weapons, and smallpox infected blankets used against Native Americans. She then interviews Margaret Brando, who sits on a committee that manages the storage and use of antibiotics. She then discusses the accessibility of biological WMDs.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 48:45): Ian Shoales quotes Walter Isaacson for saying that we cannot allow ourselves to be out-communicated by our enemies. Hilary Clinton also voiced concerns that America is lagging in the propaganda wars. He concludes by discussing the nature and history of government espionage on their own citizens and other countries.

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Scott Sagan, Professor of Political Science and Senior Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University

Bonus Content

VIDEO: Opening montage

MUSIC: The Plāto'nes, Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream

MUSIC: The Plāto'nes, We Will All Go Together When We Go

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Tyler Haddow

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