Does a policy of nuclear deterrence risk ‘dirty hands’? If not, why not? If so, is that a problem?

Published: 2023/07/04 Number of words: 2068

Nuclear weapons are devastatingly destructive and do not discriminate between combatants and non-combatants in war. Nonetheless, imagine a situation where an aggressing country is threatening to initiate nuclear war upon your country. You would expect political leaders to devise an effective strategy in attempt to deter the aggressor, so the attack does not occur. A policy of nuclear deterrence involves the issue of a threat to retaliate should one carry out an attack first. In this essay I will argue that deterrence strategies do risk ‘dirty hands’ but are strategically necessary and therefore this is not a problem.  I will do this by proclaiming that the political leader necessarily dirties his hands due to the nature of his role and he should not be restricted by moral rules in attempting to preserve national security.

Risk of dirty hands in ND:

I will begin by explaining the problem of dirty hands and how a policy of nuclear deterrence necessarily risks this. The concept of ‘dirty hands’ depicts a moral circumstance where one course of action is both the right thing to do and also morally wrong. Walzer (1973) highlights the problem and states that in the realm of politics, it is easy to get one’s hands dirty due to having to make decisions on behalf of a collective. It is important to highlight that dirty hands follow as a result of anticipating the common good but while acting on it, compromising significant moral principles. It is often the case that politicians are regularly placed in positions where they are conflicted between acting in the best interests of their society and upholding certain entrenched moral principles such as those regarding the impermissibility of killing civilians in war. For example, if the government of a country is aggressing towards one’s country, moral principles must be overridden in attempts to preserve national security in the interests of one’s own people. But it follows, that the politician, in doing so, risks dirty hands but is justified in what he has done due to it being for the greater good of his people.

A policy of nuclear deterrence necessarily risks dirty hands due to the agent having formed conditional deterrent intentions (CDI’s) expressing a willingness to carry out nuclear attack if conditions hold. Kavka (1978) outlines that the wrongful intentions principle dictates that forming a wrongful intention is morally equivalent to acting on it. Nonetheless, there is something unique about the conditional nuclear intention which follows in deterrence policy: the intention of deploying nuclear weapons is conditional upon whether or not the aggressing country deploys theirs first. Contrary to my argument, one may argue that the deterrence policies thereby do not risk dirty hands, for the primary intention is not that of issuing an attack. In fact, the agent issues the threat in order to avoid being in a situation where the attack would follow by deterring an attack on one’s own nation.

Regardless, one still risks dirtying their hands in deterrence policy. This can be seen in the risk of having to carry out nuclear attack if the conditions of the deterrent intention apply. Dworkin (1985: 447) suggests that the intentions that an agent forms in issuing a counter threat reflect the fact that he is, nonetheless, willing to carry out the attack should the conditions of aggression hold. The act of issuing a threat reflects negatively on his moral character for it shows that in a possible world where the conditions of the attack were to hold and an enemy was to strike, that the agent would issue a nuclear attack on them. But it is wrong to carry out a nuclear attack and so the corresponding intentions are also wrong for they defy moral principles against killing or intending to kill civilians. So, because it is wrong to have deterrent intentions, a policy of deterrence risks dirty hands.

However, it may be argued that this problem could be averted if a strategy of deterrence is based on a bluff where I issue a false willingness to carry out the attack if I am attacked first. Here, my hands are not dirtied for there is no risk in me having to carry out the attack in any circumstance. However, a strategy built around bluffing would be insufficient and if an attack were to take place despite my bluff strategy, If I do not follow through with what I expressed I was willing to do, I will appear weak and this may cause for more enemy forces to take advantage of this. To them, I have shown that I will not take a proactive approach to my country being attacked. Therefore, a threat to retaliate is necessary as an affective and proactive deterrence strategy. So, I have to form CDI’s for an affective deterrence policy.

Upon analysis of an agents will, it becomes clear that deterrence policy, though is adopted for the primary reason of deterrence, would still constitute dirty hands by showcasing what the agent is willing to do should his strategy of deterrence fail. This a plausible philosophical argument as it encourages us to analyse a possible world situation where enemy forces have used nuclear weapons on my country. Intuitively, if I am able to carry out the action, as I conditionally intended, I am not a morally good person for the act itself is absolutely wrong. So, we can see how even intending to use nuclear warfare would constitute a strain on one’s moral character and therefore, despite being aimed at a greater cause of averting a threat, would still dirty one’s hands. Overall, for an affective deterrence policy, one necessarily dirties their hands due to expressing a willingness to carry out an attack if the conditions of his CDI hold.

How dirty hands is not a problem in ND:

While I agree that deterrence policy risks dirty hands, I disagree with Dworkin’s verdict that this renders it impermissible. I argue that politicians are permitted to take any means necessary to preserve security as a result of responsibility and obligations to their people which transcends maintaining good character. Therefore, one’s moral character is not a sufficient reason to risk national security in cases where a nuclear threat is present. My argument is that political duties are unlike those in the private realm and are bound by certain obligations and responsibilities (Negal 1979: 80) to those residing in one’s political community that grant exemptions to political leaders allowing them to risk dirtying their hands in contexts of nuclear deterrence. Political obligations are different to private obligations because they are obligations to an entire population. The political leader, as the representative, is bound to his obligations to those who reside in his nation. Being accountable to his people, he therefore must express deep concern for their interests. Therefore, when applied to justifying risk of dirtying one’s hands through nuclear deterrence, it is permissible for the leader to sacrifice a strain on his character to preserve the national interest of security and serve his obligation to protect his people. So, the fact that deterrence policy risks dirty hands isn’t an issue because it is strategically necessary.

A strength of my argument is that it acknowledges the incredibly high stakes of possible nuclear attack and is consistent with contemporary political theory on war. For example, Johnson (1999: 12) has pointed out the nature of the modern global political order which has caused a great need for countries to be wary of other states’ nuclear capacity. The destructive nature of nuclear weaponry has been seen in the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings which showed the disastrous affects to lives as well as agriculture. Nuclear threat can be averted by adopting a policy of deterrence by inducing a fear of retaliation in the enemy.  So, if a country threatens to use these on one’s country, despite the risk of dirtying one’s hands, deterrence is a practical way to reduce the threat, and should be employed. Thus, my argument allows the political leader to take the necessary steps to try and avert the threat by insisting that risking dirty hands in deterrence policy is not problematic.

However, it may be argued against my view that granting politicians moral exemptions is dangerous and may lead to widespread corruption (Calhoun: 2004). By encouraging the exercise of power without constraint, we give way to politicians using obligations and responsibility to justify doing unjust things. This leaves politics in an endless cycle of corruption for it prescribes that politicians are allowed to stain their moral character without needing to hold them to account where they have done particular wrongs. So, granting exemptions for politicians to dirty their hands could lead to the notion of special obligations being used in order to justify catastrophic harm and unjust killing and pain. Therefore, a problem with dirtying one’s hands in deterrence is depicted as potentially leading to corruption whereby the politician justifies breaking rules in the name of the collective good.

Nonetheless, while allowing politicians exemptions could lead to corruption, nuclear deterrence cases show a case of ‘supreme emergency’ (Walzer 1973: 162) where it is required of the good political leader to dirty his hands. As noted earlier, nuclear threat presents us with the grave prospect of nuclear attack. So, for the purpose of retaining national security, the politician must employ a deterrence strategy and risk dirtying his hands. Regardless, the corruption problem can be solved by prohibiting frequent use of dirty hands, stating that it is permissible if and only if there is a grave threat to national security. This will avert the risk of widespread corruption for it will limit the exercise of dirty hands to certain situations of emergency like that involved in deterrence.

However, a problem with corruption still persists. Even though deterrence policy could preserve national security, if the strategy were to fail, the agent has to do something which in itself is corrupt. He must now commit the act that he was willing to do but didn’t want to do, namely, to deploy nuclear weapons on the enemy country. We might ask in this case, to what end? When the damage has already been done to my national security, do I necessarily need to deploy counter nuclear weapons and add to the destruction by taking lives of civilians on the enemy side? Surely not. in fact, adding to the destruction would be a ‘corrupt’ thing to do in that it causes harm for no reason of security. Instead he is causing harm merely because he said he would.

I respond to this critique by suggesting that the nature of the supreme emergency caused by a nuclear threat creates the need for political leaders to be prepared to carry out the corrupt act. The fact still stands that we want our political leaders to represent us and our interests, and if this results in some corruption in his character, this is not sufficient for him to justify doing nothing when a threat of nuclear attack is presented to us. Despite the fact that the politician is expressing indifference to the harm he causes on the enemy side, he is expressing his commitment to upholding his people’s rights and this is necessary in political discourse, so the dirty hands in deterrence policy is not problematic as the politician is justified in expressing willing to carry out a corrupt act.

Overall, I have argued that deterrence policy does risk dirty hands, but this is not problematic, for the policy is necessary to be employed to preserve national security.


Dworkin, G.D. 1985. Nuclear intentions. Symposium on Ethics and Nuclear Deterrence. 95(3), pp. 445-460.

Hurka, T.H. 2001. Chapter 4: Varieties of virtue and vice. In: Hurka, T.H ed. Virtue, vice and value. New York: Oxford University press, pp. 92-129.

Johnson, J.T.J. 1999. Chapter 1: Politics, power and the international order. In: Chase, G.C ed. Morality and contemporary warfare. New York: Yale University press, pp. 8-40.

Kavka, G.S.K. 1978. Some paradoxes of deterrence. The journal of philosophy. 75(6), pp. 258-302.

Nagel, T.N. 1979. Chapter 6: Ruthlessness in public life. In: CPI group, C.P.I ed. Mortal questions. New York: Cambridge University press, pp. 75-91

Walzer, M.W. 1973. The problem of dirty hands. Philosophy and public affairs.  2(2), pp. 160-180.

Cite this page

Choose cite format:
Online Chat Messenger Email
+44 800 520 0055