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04 Jun 2015 Articles Q&A Comments (23)

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Hiroshima and Nagasaki

August 6 and 9 mark the anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I’ll be visiting those cities in October, doing research for a book. For months I’ve been reading histories and commentaries about the end of the war in the Pacific, and I’ve been brushing up on my Japanese. More months of research will follow my trip.

My particular focus is the rhetoric of the bombings: How do people talk about and debate them? Most particularly, how do people talk about and debate the morality of the bombings, if they refer to moral issues at all?

For as long as I can remember, as July has merged into August, Americans of all states of life have written about the bombings. Magazines, newspapers, and websites are filled with opinions. Countless words fill comment boxes. Tens of thousands of people express their views—often with considerable emotion—about the rightness or wrongness of using Little Boy and Fat Man.

Each year I have been disappointed at the level of discussion.

I should note that usually I’m disappointed about most discussions about most topics, whether historical, political, or religious. Most people, most of the time, feel free to express opinions without making the least attempt to show the logic of what they hold. They don’t argue “If A, then B.” They don’t lay out underlying principles. They rush immediately to their conclusions. (Can we even call them conclusions if they haven’t arisen from premises?)

The decline of rhetoric

I don’t think this has been getting better as I’ve been getting older. Once upon a time, most high school students were taught the rudiments of logic. Not all of them profited from what they were taught, but at least they seemed to end up with an awareness of the principle of non-contradiction. They learned the different kinds of logical fallacies, however cursorily. Many schools offered classes in rhetoric. Not a few students joined debate teams, where they flexed their rhetorical muscles.

Debate teams still exist, though, from what I can gather, high school debating largely has collapsed into a contest of quantity rather than quality. Participants don’t so much work up syllogisms and facts. Instead, they are scored on how many random factoids they can disgorge in a set time. Debates, then, have become contests in rapid speaking rather than in persuasive speaking.

Persuasion is what rhetoric is about: how do we convince people to adhere to the good, the true, and the beautiful? How do we get past innate prejudices and misconceptions? It takes cold logic, but it takes more than that. Yes, there is an intellectual component in coming to adopt a particular view, but there also is an affective component. We might like to imagine that the only thing necessary is a carefully crafted syllogism. If we were talking to automatons, perhaps that would be enough, but our talk is with people who, since the Fall, have operated with impaired reason.

Think how many times you have made a perfectly sensible and perfectly convincing argument about something, only to have your listener remain unconvinced—not out of a contradictory argument (he made none) but out of pure stubbornness. He willed not to have his mind changed. You needed something beyond mere logic to get through to him. You needed to appeal to him at multiple levels. Only then would he have been open to your step-by-step analysis. What you needed was rhetoric.

Rhetoric is the art of explanation and persuasion. It uses more than just logic in order for logic to do its work. The Greeks and Romans honored their rhetoricians. Aristotle wrote a book about rhetoric and how to become proficient in it. Hundreds of writers in later centuries followed his lead.

A Southerener sides with Lincoln

In our country one of the most effective teachers of rhetoric was Richard M. Weaver (1910-1963). He is best known for the thin book Ideas Have Consequences (1948). A Southerner much admired by social and political conservatives, Weaver spent most of his adult life in the North, teaching at the University of Chicago.

Of his several writings on rhetoric—they included a high school textbook—no doubt The Ethics of Rhetoric has been the most influential. It has an early chapter on the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. In popular mythology, such as given in the 1960 movieInherit the Wind (starring Spencer Tracy, Frederic March, and Gene Kelly), Clarence Darrow beat the pants of William Jennings Bryan. But Weaver argues that not only did Bryan’s side win the court case, it also won the rhetorical case.

As surprising as that notion might be to a current-day reader, perhaps more surprising is what follows in Weaver’s book. He looks at two great rhetoricians of the past, Edmund Burke and Abraham Lincoln. You would expect that Weaver, a highly educated Southerner who wrote in defense of lost aspects of Southern culture—his doctoral dissertation eventually became The Southern Tradition at Bay—would side with Burke over Lincoln, but not so.

Weaver looked at how Burke and Lincoln framed their arguments. Burke used the argument from circumstance while Lincoln used the argument from definition. Burke looked around and asked: given the situation as it exists, what incremental steps should we take, if any? Lincoln said: let’s determine what is right and wrong first and then apply those principles to the present matter.

Burke used an argument that often is misattributed to him: “If it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” (That actually was said by Lucius Cary, the second Viscount Falkland, in the House of Commons in 1641.) Burke’s was a truly conservative position; he insisted on conserving the existing situation unless sufficient reason could be adduced to change it. Lincoln argued from a few ground-level principles and wanted to apply them, even if they overthrew existing arrangements.

Weaver endorsed Lincoln’s mode of argumentation over Burke’s because he saw the argument from definition (or underlying principle) as higher and ultimately more convincing than the argument from circumstance. The latter, he held, was susceptible to lateral movement over time. As circumstances changed, so did the force of an argument based on them.

Argument from consequences

Alexander Pope, in his Essay on Man, famously claimed (facetiously) that “whatever is, is right.” That works if whatever is at the moment is itself good or true, but it doesn’t work when culture or morals have declined. It then isn’t so easy to argue from the is to theought. Lincoln, said Weaver, tried to argue from perpetually valid principles and thus could form arguments that had lasting applicability. That didn’t mean that Lincoln’s arguments always were right. It just meant that he used a superior mode of rhetoric.

There is a third common mode that Weaver didn’t even get to in his book. That is the argument from consequences. It says that an act is good if it has good results and bad if it has bad results. At first glance, this might seem to be a good way to argue, until we realize that it is a reformulation of an argument that we all reject, at least notionally. The argument from consequences really is just a rephrasing of the argument that “the ends justify the means.” If the desired result is good, then the means to achieve that result must be good. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who actually has said he believes that ends justify means, but I’ve met lots of people who argue from consequences.

Let me return to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many books have been written about the atomic bombings. I have lots of those books. I also have a stack of paper, nearing a thousand sheets in all, consisting of printouts from online arguments about the bombings.

What long has surprised me (perhaps dismayed is the better verb) is that most of the arguments about the bombings are not in terms of the argument from definition or even the argument from circumstances. They almost always are in terms of the argument from consequences.

The chief argument in favor of the bombings is that they saved lives, American and Japanese. The bombings are said to have been moral because they were “successful” by a certain measurement. Few commentators make any attempt to look further than that. Almost no commentator even alludes to the Just War Theory. This is true even of Catholic writers.

Wilson D. Miscamble teaches history at the University of Notre Dame. He is a Catholic priest and author of The Most Controversial Decision. A back-cover blurb says that “his chapter on the morality of America’s use of atomic weapons . . . is by far the best discussion of that difficult subject.” Miscamble devotes only a dozen pages to the moral question and never discusses Just War Theory. His argument is purely from consequences: on net, lives were saved, so the bombings were morally good. Little is said about the propriety of targeting civilians, for example.

That is what is found in a book by a Catholic. Books by non-Catholics—whether approving or disapproving of the bombings—are not any better. They argue particular historical points, such as how many casualties may have resulted from an invasion of Japan and whether the Japanese government really was seeking an end to the war, but they don’t discuss questions of morality (if they discuss them at all) at a higher level of rhetoric. They never get past the argument from consequences. They never get around to basic moral principles and how to apply them.

Applying Catholic moral principles

I mention civilians. What should be their status during war? Over the centuries, Catholic theologians have considered the question: Augustine, Aquinas, Francisco de Vitoria, and many others. In recent times Catholic scholars have fine-tuned the concept of discrimination: distinguishing combatants from non-combatants. The Church teaches that it never is permissible to target non-combatants deliberately. (There is a parallel here with abortion.)

That’s a basic moral principle: civilians (non-combatants) must not be targeted deliberately. So how does that play out in terms of the use of a weapon that is indiscriminate in its application—that is, so powerful that it gathers among its victims both soldiers and civilians (but chiefly the latter)? What is the moral calculus when one proposes to use a weapon that one knows will kill chiefly civilians—and not just a few of them collaterally?

In my introductory criminal law course in law school, our first casebook example was of two young men who, lying on the far side of a field, shot their rifles at a moving passenger train. They were out for a lark. To them it was mere target practice. They didn’t intend to harm anyone, but they killed one of the passengers. Were they guilty of a crime?

The answer was yes. They were guilty because they were so heedless in what they did, so negligent, that they in essence willed the death of the passenger. He wasn’t mere collateral damage during their target practice. At one level, certainly, they didn’t intend to kill him, but at another level they did, since the action they took could have been expected to result in someone’s death.

A similar question could be asked of the use of atomic bombs on cities. Is it possible to envision a scenario in which there would not be massive civilian deaths? If not, then are such deaths positively willed by those who drop the bomb, at least at some level? If so, how does the Catholic moral principle against killing non-combatants apply?

These are the kinds of considerations I haven’t seen much of in the annual fulminations about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I suppose it’s hoping for too much to think that non-Catholic writers, whether professionals or Facebook posters, would try to apply Catholic moral principles. I hope it’s not too much to hope that Catholics, at least, would make a serious attempt to do so. It would be good to see the annual rhetoric reach a higher level.


Written By Karl Keating



  1. Tom Rafferty Reply

    Wow, a title that included Hiroshima and Nagasaki (click bait much?) quickly going into logic. Okay, i will bite. Catholics and other Christians promote the power of prayer. The second atomic bomb missed the city of Nagasaki by 2 miles and destroyed the largest Catholic Church on the island, killing 20,000 Catholics. Question to those who respect logic: why doesn’t this falsify the power of prayer?

  2. Patrick Gannon Reply

    Interesting essay, but what’s that bit about “Catholic moral principles” and how does that differ from Yahweh’s morality? Yahweh certainly had no problem with targeting civilians:
    “This is what the Lord of hosts has to say: ‘I will punish what Amalek did to Israel when he barred his way as he was coming up from Egypt. Go, now, attack Amalek, and deal with him and all that he has under the ban. Do not spare him, but kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and asses.’ (1 Samuel 15:2-3 NAB)”
    Read about how the holy Moses treated civilians in Numbers 31, insisting that none be spared except virgin girls who could be taken as spoils of war. There are many other stories in the bible that make it clear that Yahweh has no problem whatsoever with the killing of civilians, and in fact He orders it on more than one occasion: “Only in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. 17″But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the LORD your God has commanded you, Deut 20:16-17.
    I’d sure like to know more about this “Catholic moral principles” thing, as I question how the suggestion that civilians not be targeted can be anything but a blatant denunciation of Yahweh and His moral principles, and that seems to leave the Church as bowing to no divine authority, and therefore basing its authority on what it proclaims for itself. I guess the ends justified the means….?
    The author’s suggestions regarding the starting point for discussing such a subject are interesting and insightful, but his suggestion that question of morality should be based on Catholic moral principles, which are in turn based on Yahweh’s moral principles, leaves him floundering at the end, because by his own definition – Yahweh is immoral. (Which anyone who has read the entire bible can attest to). When your god is immoral, how can you speak of morality with any real credibility?

  3. Doug Reply

    This author attempts to set up readers by implying that if they do not agree with the writer’s posture, they, not the written product, are at fault. Second, it is made clear that the southern position was a faulty one that led to the War Of Northern Aggression. Slavery is the call signal for all gullible activism today. The fact is, slavery was being eliminated before the war began. It was the Muslim slave traders who continued pushing for the cause of slavery. The mechanical age was advancing and slavery had long been proven to be a failed experiment. Plantation owners were abandoning the entire slavery experiment in the south. However, this doesn’t make very good media hype and certainly doesn’t make good headlines for hate-based south-bashing activists. Thus these facts are quickly being lost to twisted accounts of history. The civil war was fought over control of southern agricultural wealth. Slaves were freed only in the southern states that fought as the confederacy. In other states, slavery was left intact. Why, if Lincoln’s war was fought over slavery, were not all slaves freed? After freeing the slaves, the planned influx of cheap labor to northern industry didn’t go as planned and the mechanical age had replaced slavery, thus southern agriculture was saved and northern populations suffered while misplaced Africans found themselves lost and unwanted in northern cities. Countless blacks returned to the south where they had once enjoyed a better life. Lincoln’s plan to exile all blacks back to Africa, via Monrovia and to South America was thwarted by his murder. Otherwise, the African American population would have been eliminated by Lincoln’s racist plan following the war. This led to the development of the KKK; an anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish and anti-black organization begun by Democratic politicians.

    We are to forget that during WWII, the building, assembly and total production of bombs and other war tools was a cottage industry in Japan. ALL Japanese citizens were commanded and fully expected to take part in the war effort, if not, they were murdered by their own leaders, in the name of Shinto loyalty. The use of atomic technology absolutely and without doubt prevented a ground invasion of Japan that would have killed many times more than were killed by the two bombs. Why did the first bomb not stop Hirohito? Because he had an iron fist over his people and was willing to sacrifice each man woman and child. We gave Japan fair warning before and after the first bomb to stop their crazed invasion. Hirohito refused, willing to sacrifice the past Japanese child. This is the man that the bomb stopped.The bomb saved the Japanese people and countless allied personnel (mostly American) from certain death in a long drawn out ground war that was inevitable without the bomb.

    Let us go back to the use of the first rock used in the hand of the first man defending his home and family against an aggressor. The prevailing cause was identical. Only the technology differed. Let us refer to the examples of God granting military victory to his chosen armies as the blessed armies annihilated entire civilizations to please God, or do we dare refer to the holy word of God during this attempt to shower guilt upon a nation defending itself against a vicious attack by the island nation of Japan. Japanese had already proven their inhumanity while slaughtering countless Chinese civilians. The stories of their focus upon murdering babies in the presence of parents and locals as a terror tactic is extremely well documented. This is what awaited the USA if we had not used atomic technology. This is not an opinion; it is fact.

    how many people today understand that the Crusades were a result of invading Muslim aggression? Muslims came up from Africa and had captured the holy land. Muslims were in the process of taking the entire developed world. The pope called upon Kings to put their differences aside, assemble and combine their armies and repel the Islamic invasion. Columbus made his journey to the new world, not simply to find new trade routes, as gullible school children are told, but, was attempting to find sources of wealth to fund the defensive war against the invading Muslim hoards already taking Europe. Today, however, writers are quick to paint the Crusades as an embarrassment to the church. We are being brainwashed by the twisting of historical fact and by attempts to demonize any culture that defends it’s people, culture and ideology from attack.

    Adolph Hitler stated many times that if one repeats a non-truth often enough to the masses, the facts of history will be changed in their minds and they will accept anything.

    1. Patrick Gannon Reply

      Hmm, interesting political statements, Doug; but I think you missed the point of the article – at least as I understood it. Just for grins, I’ll give a short report for those who don’t want to read the whole thing:
      The article, as I understood it was about how to frame a discussion or debate. The article was not about debating the Civil War or even the dropping of the bomb. As was mentioned – the title was click-bait. The article was actually about debating methods. Keating had me at the start when he said, “Most people, most of the time, feel free to express opinions without making the least attempt to show the logic of what they hold.,” and of course this applies to religious believers, so I was surprised to hear him say it. He went on to speak of logic in framing ones argument, and then noted, “Think how many times you have made a perfectly sensible and perfectly convincing argument about something, only to have your listener remain unconvinced—not out of a contradictory argument (he made none) but out of pure stubbornness. He willed not to have his mind changed.” Such of course can be applied to those denying evolution or a global flood – typical examples that jump quickly to mind. He then goes on to discuss the subject of rhetoric – how to get your point across, because logic alone is not enough. He provides examples of different rhetorical methods – his point was not to refight the Civil War, or debate the question of dropping the bombs. The article was about how we should debate things like that. He proposes techniques such as arguing from circumstance vs arguing from definition, and makes note that most people argue about the atomic bombs from circumstance, (as you did, thereby helping to prove his point), rather than definition. He explains these concepts pretty well. He dismisses the argument from consequences (the ends justifies the means), although this was certainly the favored method of Yahweh; which he fails to note. In summary, I see him as making an argument that we should look at these issues, such as the atomic bomb, and debate from definition – and what is to be defined is morality. He argues convincingly that there is a value in looking at such issues from the standpoint of morality. Where he loses me is when he speaks of Catholic moral principles, because either these principles are based on Yahweh, or they are not, and that’s a problem. Clearly the Catholic doctrine that civilian deaths should be avoided, is in direct contradiction with Yahweh’s principles and methods of warfare. So – is the Church denouncing Yahweh by proclaiming it has moral principles that far exceed their god’s principles? If so, by what authority does the RCC get to declare what is and is not moral, that the rest of us should give any credibility to?

      I agree that the author’s suggestion that we look at the issue as one from definition – what is the most moral action – is a very good one. It can give us different views of an action to see if there is something that can be learned for the future. It’s the idea that the Catholic Church should have any input into defining what that morality is, that pegs my BS meter to the right, given it traces its roots to an imaginary immoral god. Sam Harris offers a suggestion in “The Moral Landscape,” by which science can be used to help us in determining which is the more moral of two or more actions by creating a moral landscape with peaks and valleys, in which we all agree more or less on how to define these. A peak is the best possible condition for the individual and society, while the valley is the worst possible condition. A peak for an individual may result in a valley for society or vice versa, but if the condition affects many individuals, then society is affected, so its complicated. There are scientific tools that can be developed to help us work out best scenarios. It won’t be exact, but there are always better and worse ways to do things – think of how many ways you might try to decide how many mosquitoes are in the FL Everglades and which methods might be better than others in order to solve that problem. An action will lead towards one or the other of a peak or valley in the moral landscape. Which way it leads, in relation to other options available, can provide a scale of relative morality individuals and society can rely on. That’s a very thin overview of his proposal.
      I mention Harris, because I find myself in agreement with the author, Keating, that an argument from definition is worthy of consideration, but where that breaks down is when morality is defined by non-scientific methods such as religions based on Bronze and Iron Age mythology.

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