Is it ethical for engineers to continue developing nuclear weapons?

Nuclear weapons have catastrophic effects due to their destructive power. As it is impossible to control their bad effects on both the people and environment, nuclear abolition is considered as a humanitarian necessity to protect the survival of humanity. However, some argues that it is ethical for engineers to develop nuclear weapons for the purpose of national defence.

Main stakeholders are comprised of nuclear weapon companies, population, and government. Companies want to increase production to make more money. Population hopes to live in a safe environment and the government’s main interest is to protect own country against foreign invasion and threat. The relevant values should include national sovereignty and territorial integrity, public welfare, world peace, environment and integrity of the engineer. The disputed fact can be whether the nuclear weapons should still exist in the world. Options for actions include (1) Use nuclear deterrence as an important instrument for security. (2) Every country gives up the nuclear weapon at the same time.

From the theory of utilitarian, one should choose those actions that result in the greatest happiness of people. This means that when we have multiple choices, a decision that can increase the utility of people should be selected. Total utility (happiness)should be maximized in the population. As everyone in the world pursues peace, people will feel happier if there are fewer wars and deaths.

Nuclear deterrence means that country A is unlikely to attack country B if A knows that B has nuclear weapons.  Deterrence is successful if country A is convinced by the threat of retaliation. In this case the maximum utility is achieved.


As the superpower’s nuclear monopoly is broken, any nuclear state cannot act rashly to wage a worldwide war. Consequently, the risk of world-destroying nuclear war was relatively low. During the Cold War, the atomic bomb created a balance of terror. The two superpowers (America and Soviet Union) all have a large amount of nuclear arsenals. They never fought each other directly as it is likely that all of human civilization was destroyed by the war. The fact that no atomic bombs have been dropped since 1945 shows that powerful weapons creates a kind of peace. Some hegemonic countries wage a local war to safeguard national interests. Weapons that are not specified by the international atomic agency are used such as deleted uranium.

Consequently, nuclear radiation spreads to the world. In this case, the non-nuclear weapon states realize that it is important to establish plans to safeguard security.

From the theory of deontology. Deontology focus on whether the action is right or wrong instead of analyzing the consequences. As nuclear weapons are designed to kill people, it is morally wrong to produce them.

The global balance of nuclear weapons can reduce the chance of large-scale aggression and escalation of war. As a result, nuclear deterrence makes the country safer. So it is ethically for engineers to continue developing nuclear weapons as they do the best for the most people in the end.

Yue Zhao

33 thoughts on “Is it ethical for engineers to continue developing nuclear weapons?

  1. I really like this article and it raises some very good questions. I feel it is now only natural for most countries to invest in this field out of fear. However, if one nuclear bomb is dropped this could cause a chain reaction of dropped bombs, destroying the world. I would personally like there to be no nuclear bombs as controlling the world with fear is not the answer. Do you think there will always be nuclear weapons?


  2. I think we should develop nuclear resource that is clean and effective meanwhile limit nuclear weapons which is uncontrol and leads to a disaster.


  3. I feel the article is good and it raises some very important points as to why nuclear weapons are harmful for human civilization. I feel that it should be given up by the countries possessing it and engineers should stop producing it at once as it only brings destruction.


  4. Weapons are not designed for evil usage but people are evil. It is not possible to stop human too. It is such a hard problem As what is taking place on the Korean island.


  5. I agree that nuclear weapons work as a great deterrent but to say they have brought world peace is a bit of a stretch. The Iraq conflict centred around weapons of mass destruction (believed to include nuclear programmes) and that resulted in over half a million deaths in Iraq alone, the repercussions (ISIS, etc.) of that war will be felt for a long time yet. So, though no nuclear weapons have been dropped since 1945 I don’t believe it to be ethical for engineers to build them, particularly with some of the volitile leaders we have today. I think a nuclear version of the Chemical Weapons Convention would be a good idea if impractical given the US and Russia’s stance on these weapons.


    1. I do not understand what is this sentence means: I think a nuclear version of the Chemical Weapons Convention would be a good idea if impractical given the US and Russia’s stance on these weapons.
      You think it is impractical?


    2. It seems A nuclear weapons convention is a proposed multilateral treaty to outlaw nuclear weapons is a good idea?


  6. An interesting article.

    In it, you state that no atomic bombs have been dropped since 1945, and suggest that this is a result of widespread possession of nuclear weapons, which serves as a deterrent.

    Do you not feel as though there may be other factors at play?

    Amongst other things, could it be equally attributable to the fact that there is a global sense of regret surrounding the bombings of WW2, and their long term impact?


  7. Article raises a really interesting and important question in contemporary world. I believe that it is not ethical to produce and develop any weapon of mass destruction. On the other hand considering current political situation in the world, it might be the case that possession of nuclear weapons is actually necessary to prevent countries from starting a war. If in the future potential of war between countries due to territorial or other reasons will become unlikely, abolition of nuclear warheads across the world will be reasonable as to prevent a potential disaster. In addition, uranium in nuclear warheads can be used for power generation in the future.


    1. The truth is that we cannot stop war happening . But you have said that if the war is unlikely to happen. War will always happens in the world in the histrory


      1. Yeah, wars happened throughout the history of the mankind, but I want to believe that in the future people will leave in peace, but we can’t really predict what is going to happen in the far future.


  8. Some typos / poor word choice:

    argues -> argue
    companies -> defence contractors
    population -> public
    deletd -> depleted

    As for the content:

    The doctrine of “Mutually Assured Destruction” rests on the assumption that the nuclear powers behave rationally. In the case of the United States vs the Soviet Union, this was perhaps a reasonable thing to think. However it does not always apply. One can conjecture all sorts of resaonable scenarios where this fails:

    – Pakistan has a weak government and is beset by religious extremists. There is a small, but non-zero chance that one day they will take power in a coup and have control of the nuclear arsenal.

    – Similarly, the collapse of the Soviet Union generated some brief scares over the fate of the nuclear weapons stationed in its satellite countries. In such chaos, a nuclear weapon could have fallen into the hands of terrorists.

    – Impoverished and isolated nuclear states such as North Korea might sell a nuclear device to terrorists.

    – Even if the powers attempt to behave rationally, faulty equipment or intelligence could spark a nuclear exchange. There was a Soviet colonel named Stanislav Petrov in charge of an air-defence system. One day, the early-warning radar showed what looked like a number of American missiles heading for Soviet territory. It was Petrov’s job to sound the alarm, which would have resulted in an immediate nuclear salvo from the Soviets. However, he realized that there were too few missiles showing on the monitors for it to be a genuine attack (if the Americans were going to strike first, they would surely send thousands of missiles, not dozens). He correctly reasoned that the equipment must be malfunctioning, which turned out to be true. Had a different officer been on duty that day, we might not be alive now.

    – A similar close-call happened in 2002 when a small asteroid exploded in the upper atmosphere over the Eastern Mediterranean. Though it didn’t harm anyone, it was equivalent in power to a nuclear detonation, though without any radioactive fallout. Coincidentally, at the time India and Pakistan were on the brink of war. If the asteroid had instead exploded above their territory, it might have been mistaken for a first strike, and a real nuclear exchange may have soon followed.

    It is dangerous to conclude that, since no large scale war between the superpowers has happened since the development of nuclear weapons, that nuclear weapons are the guarantors of peace. This suffers from survivorship bias — we think we are safe merely because we haven’t died yet. The problem is that history is not a scientific experiment — we cannot redo it multiple times to see whether we made the right choice, or just got lucky.

    In any event, not enough time has passed. We are 70 years into the so-called “Long Peace”, but there have been even longer periods of history during which there weren’t large-scale wars between the great powers. On the eve of the First World War, Europe had enjoyed almost one hundred years of relative peace. Contra Steven Pinker, such a state of affairs is not guaranteed to continue (cf Nassim Taleb on fat-tailed distribution of wars).


  9. should be argue, not ‘argues’. => mistake on 4th line.

    So are they private companies that have invested interests in an arms race, and not the governments. If governments wanted to slow production they could, I’m not sure that companies would have that big a stake. Unless they had people in the heart of government.

    I’m sure there are numerous other options to just either giving up nuclear weapons, or keeping them => you should say these are extreme positions.

    There are positions throughout history that would for example make the population overall ‘happy’ such as slavery in the south of america, just because it makes you happy doesn’t mean it is necessarily the right thing to do.

    We come from a nuclear born generation that has always lived in the deterrent part of history, where before the goal was to produce the largest weapon possible to inflict maximum destruction. Nuclear weapons were a moment of realisation, where you can produce a weapon that would destroy your enemy and your own way of life at the same time => through environmental impacts. The idea of nuclear weapons have become very normalised, “its okay to have a weapon that could destroy the world”, I feel this is true when we have so called rational actors. But the physical laws are there for everybody to realise, and when a country that is not rational gets hold of such a weapon I feel is the point where the agreeability of having nuclear weapons breaks down.

    You said since *“1945 shows that powerful weapons creates a kind of peace”*, by that you mean a country has not attacked heavily a country that possesses nuclear weapon. However a country that has nuclear weapons has been free to occupy/try to invade non-nuclear countries. Also the fact that two countries USA and USSR rose so fast meant that the world effectively picked a side, e.g. an iron curtain between one side and the other. Peace is quite an inappropriate term in a sense that the two most powerful countries agreed not to kill each other out pop fear of what might be unleashed.

    I agree on the position that nuclear weapons make the country that posses them safer due to the deterrent and probably in certain cases the countries around them that are not armed. At its core you are trying to argue that an engineer is morally justified in building/maintaining nuclear weapons, I feel you should talk about the role of science and what it is permitted to do and not do. At the end of the day the law of the land determines whether it is right or wrong ‘objectively speaking’ for a scientist to do his science. So it is perfectly acceptable for an engineer in a way to do what its country on a whole agrees upon.

    Toby Dowling
    Department of Physics and Astronomy Sheffield


  10. This article raises a very good point of view. Whether we should develop the nuclear power has been a confusing question since the invention of atomic bomb. However, it’s not the problem of technology itself, but human desires.


  11. I do agree with what you said. As we know,some countries have produced very advanced nuclear weapons. If the others stop continue developing more advanced nuclear weapons, they would be disadvantaged when the country owns weapons opens the war. Of course, to protect the public people, no country would use the weapon if not nesseccery. Therefore, I agree with what you said in the article.


  12. Wheather a new technology was born as good or evil is detemined by who use it. World Peace is fleeting by deterent, communism long live. We need engineers making technology development, and ideologist making ideological evolution. In a word, be an ethical engineer, you can change the world.


  13. Nice article, I learnt a lot – the use of new terminology with an explanation directly following it was key. Maybe consider restructuring to lead the reader through with more ease and make it clear what you consider to be the most important point that has led you to make your decision on the morality of developing arms. I suppose, either way, we will only know the true answer at humanity’s end.


  14. I support powers to develop nuclear weapons. From the world of war, big countries to develop nuclear weapons can play defense and restraining each other, to achieve the relative safety of the state. It is not to attack, but in the face of the nuclear threat, to curb the use of nuclear weapons. But small countries should consider whether from the national strength and the political status quo is suitable for developing nuclear weapons.


  15. I agree to develop nuclear weapons. The progress of science is no power can stop, just like the wheel of history forward to resist the same after all. Others you don’t study, they progress you don’t progress, that is very dangerous. To develop to ensure peace, with science and technology to prevent war.


  16. Does not support, nuclear weapons development should be controlled in a certain range, because nuclear weapons itself is threatening, any omissions will cause like chernobyl nuclear power plant leak global harm, especially nuclear power technology development is not sound of small countries, may therefore lead to extinction.


  17. Interesting read. I must admit I like the option of action whereby all countries give up the utilization of nuclear weapons at the same time. However, it would be uninformed to assume that that could ever be possible in the slightest bit. Conflict will always continue to be an inherent part of human nature, as much as we all would like to strive for peace… And in times, when such conflict does threaten the well-being of citizens on a national scale, I believe it is ethically permissible for countries to think of ways to defend themselves with devices such as nuclear weapons.


  18. It seems to be a good article. It is a matter of current issue now (S.Korea, US, N.Korea & China).
    But my opinion is that neither nuclear possession nor nuclear abandonment is the only solution for war. I think there should be more solutions.

    Also I can argue that ***Nuclear deterrence means that country A is unlikely to attack country B if A knows that B has nuclear weapons. Deterrence is successful if country A is convinced by the threat of retaliation. In this case the maximum utility is achieved.***
    Because we can see the current US, South Korea, China and North Korea.
    ‘country A is unlikely to attack country B if A knows that B has nuclear weapons.’ I think this is generalization that lacks evidence. It is difficult to argue ‘war’ with just only with ‘nuclear’.

    I think that nuclear development should be developed for the safety of the country. (To be honest, as I know, countries that have said they will not do nuclear development are also secretly developing nuclear weapons.)
    I think that nuclear development should be done for the security of the country.
    However if the “purpose” is simply a “show of national power” or “a threat to another country” like North Korea, I think it is definitely wrong.


  19. I like this article as it raised some fundamental questions and interesting discussions. I think we should all work together to stop nuclear weapons. I like the idea that all should give up the uses of nuclear weapons. We should continue to develop advanced and safe nuclear technologies for civil applications such as power generation.


  20. This is quite a convincing argument. However, nuclear weapons technology will only become increasingly available as time goes on, and more and more countries will develop nuclear weapons. Even if France or China are not willing to use nuclear weapons, it is possible that smaller countries may be prepared to used them in regional wars. Even this could trigger a response from the larger nuclear powers, and there is a potential to escalate into world war.

    Another danger is the use of low grade nuclear material in ‘dirty bombs’ which could be used by terrorists. This would cause a major response from targeted country, both in terms of foreign and domestic policy. It would completely alter the geopolitical climate and cause economic and social instability, almost certainly leading to increased conflict worldwide.

    An argument can also be made that nuclear weapons are not worth the risk. Even though nuclear weapons are unlikely to be used any time soon, the threat is enormous. If the weapons are used it would likely result in the total extinction of humans. Any duration or intensity of war could surely be seen as a better alternative than risking total human extinction, which is arguably the worst possible outcome. Humanity should be given any opportunity to develop into a state of world peace. If it came to it, most people would say that it is better to let the enemy win rather than to destroy everyone.


  21. Interesting article.

    Yes. They work as a great deterrent and no nuclear bombs have been dropped since 1945. This is because they were in the hand of bodies who intend to keep them as a deterrent and hoping that they will never need to use it. What if one day nuclear bombs possessed by a small country with weak government and military who intend to use it as a deterrent got taken by evil bodies such as ISIS? The consequence would be disastrous.

    As a result I think the best way is that we should all stop developing nuclear weapons. Engineers generally don’t have decision making power to say no I can’t do it and I hold little hope that this will ever happen as we are not living in an ideal peaceful world.


  22. I agree that the continuous development of weapons of mass destruction is no longer justifiable since WW2. To achieve this end, it will be necessary to apply peer pressure within the scientific community to strip away any semblance of prestige and legitimacy that remains connected to the creation of weapons capable of destroying humanity.

    However, the biggest impact will come from a political level which will then filter down into engineering communities. As long as these projects have government backing, there will always be engineers that work on these projects.


  23. I feel that we are now at the stage where nuclear weapons are a necessary evil. Countries have in their possession the means to create these weapons, and trying to regulate this is a pipe dream.


  24. An interesting article that raises the main points about nuclear weapons. It does seem that the fear of nuclear war has deterred countries from engaging in direct conflicts with each other, but there are still wars occuring in the world but on different levels, such as that in Ukraine. So perhaps the idea of war is evolving due to nuclear weapons – for example the USA and Russia are engaged in a proxy war in Syra, so although it is a not a direct war it is still a war. Syria is the battleground and the country and its people are bearing brunt of a war that the US and Russia are heavily involved in, so in this way nuclear weapons create an imbalance where superpowers of the world life in a relatively safe bubble at home but their wars take violence to other countries anway. Is war inevitable?


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