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Kyle Eller: Nuclear terrors should help us reject consequentialism

As a kid growing up in the 1970s, I remember standing at the end of my driveway looking at a weird cloud formation and naively wondering if it was a mushroom cloud in some faraway city and the world was coming to an end.

I remember the news and its frank discussions of how many times over the United States and the Soviet Union each could blow up the whole world with their massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Those who have no memory of the Cold War may find this difficult to even comprehend, but this information often came not as an argument for getting rid of nukes but for building more of them. We were in an “arms race,” and we were supposedly behind.

Kyle Eller
Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

A central foreign policy doctrine went by the acronym “MAD” — “mutually assured destruction.” The idea is absolutely as insane as the name suggests: If each side knows the other cannot be prevented from completely destroying him, neither will be crazy enough to launch a first strike.

Pop culture played out some of the perils and flaws in this thinking, for instance with movies like “Wargames,” with songs saying “I hope the Russians love their children too,” and with books like “The Hunt for Red October.”

Unfortunately, such scenarios were not just fiction. My parents’ generation lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the whole world stared into the abyss, on the brink of nightmares become reality. Some fathers of that era built bomb shelters in their backyards, and some of their children were given drills in school that they were to hide under their desks. By the time I was in school, those efforts were mostly laugh lines. No one bothered to pretend they would do any good.

After the Cuban Missile Crisis, there were other close calls, but they did not become public until years later. For instance, 34 years ago this month, the Soviet satellite warning system malfunctioned. Sunlight hitting clouds in North Dakota in a peculiar way made it look like inbound American missiles. We all may owe our lives to a man named Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, who, although uncertain, trusted his instincts and reported a false alarm, rather than taking the more obvious steps that could have led to a full scale Soviet nuclear strike.

Our nation is the only one to have ever used nuclear weapons against another, and every August, we are inundated with apologia attempting to justify those decisions, even by some Catholics, despite the unambiguous teaching of our faith against it. This sad spectacle was made all the more dramatic this year in light of recent efforts, supported by the church, to eliminate these weapons, and especially in light of the saber-rattling between the United States and North Korea.

Nearly all the arguments in favor of our World War II use of nuclear weapons and of reserving the “right” to use them in the future rely on a theory of morality the church unequivocally condemns as wrong. The ten-dollar word for it is “consequentialism.” It’s the idea that you can only really judge the morality of some act by its consequences. So, for example, you will commonly hear people say that had the United States not nuked two Japanese cities, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians, even more people would have died in an invasion of Japan. The argument is that the ends justify the means.

Against this, the church, based on Scripture and natural law, has taught that you can never do evil that good may result; that there are some things simply wrong in themselves that can never be justified, no matter the circumstances and intentions (that’s what “intrinsic evil” means); that among those intrinsic evils are targeting civilians or the whole populations of cities in war; and that there is no such thing as a sin that is “necessary” or somehow “the right thing to do.”

That’s what could lead Blessed John Henry Newman to write this: “The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one willful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.”

Probably a decade ago now, I remember the National Catholic Register running a provocative column suggesting you could connect Americans’ widespread rationalizing of Hiroshima to their later embrace of abortion, which relies on much the same kind of ends-justify-the-means thinking. Other modern evils could be added to the list, all justified in the name of some perceived good or bad outcome.

In my experience, there are few Americans left who, if pressed, do not ultimately embrace consequentialism. Few can imagine thinking, like the saintly Newman, that the slightest sin is worse than the worst worldly evil. For most Americans, and for too many Catholics, it’s practically the opposite; in a perceived conflict between violating God’s law and what one deems a worldly good, the world always wins.

Maybe this is why so many people believe there is no such thing as sin at all. One major problem with consequentialism is that it can be used to rationalize anything. We’re good at convincing ourselves that whatever we’re doing is for a really good reason. Nuclear weapons illustrate the point. If aiming unimaginable horror, death, and destruction at whole cities and hundreds of millions of people and figuratively leaving your finger perpetually on the trigger can be justified by some alleged higher good, what couldn’t be?

But our sin is the cause of the world’s ills. It cannot be the cure. Jesus, when he came to save the world, didn’t directly eliminate war and greed and exploitation on the cross, he attacked their root, sin. He said, “Seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness,” and the worldly things we need will follow.

We need to learn from him, and trust him.

Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at