Would you have dropped the bomb?


(Photo: Popperfoto/Getty)

United States Naval Academy midshipmen take a course titled “Ethics for Military Leaders” during their third class (sophomore) year. Among the topics they deal with is the utilitarian calculus behind the first use of nuclear weapons.

The decision to drop the nuclear bomb that killed tens of thousands of the civilian inhabitants of the city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 was made while the United States was at war with Japan. Henry L. Stimson, the American Secretary of War at the time, later explained that he advised President Truman to drop the bomb on the basis of utilitarian reasoning.

I felt that to extract a genuine surrender from the Emperor and his military advisers, they must be administered a tremendous shock which would carry convincing proof of our power to destroy the Empire. Such an effective shock would save many times the number of lives, both American and Japanese. . . . The face of war is the face of death; death is an inevitable part of every order that a wartime leader gives. The decision to use the atomic bomb was a decision that brought death to over a hundred thousand Japanese. . . . But this deliberate, premeditated destruction was our lease abhorrent choice. 

Objecting to this kind of utilitarian justification for killing the inhabitant of cities with nuclear weapons, philosopher-theologian John C. Ford wrote:

Is it permissible, in order to win a just war, to wipe out such an area with death or grave injury, resulting indiscriminately, to the majority of its ten million inhabitants? In my opinion the answer must be in the negative . . . it is never permitted to kill directly noncombatants in wartime. Why? Because they are innocent. That is, they are innocent of the violent and destructive action of war, or of any close participation in the violent and destructive action of war.

So what do you think? Is killing the innocent always wrong, no matter what the consequences? Would you side with Stimson or Ford about the morality of dropping the bomb? Do you agree that in some circumstances the use of nuclear weapons is morally permissible?

And a tenet of Utilitarianism is that each person counts for one and only one. On this view then is there a difference between the moral worth of the lives of a civilian and a combatant? Should there be a difference?

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