Why risking nuclear war should be a war crime

Nov 19, JDN 2458078

“What is the value of a human life?” is a notoriously difficult question, probably because people keep trying to answer it in terms of dollars, and it rightfully offends our moral sensibilities to do so. We shouldn’t be valuing people in terms of dollars—we should be valuing dollars in terms of their benefits to people.

So let me ask a simpler question: Does the value of an individual human life increase, decrease, or stay the same, as we increase the number of people in the world?

A case can be made that it should stay the same: Why should my value as a person depend upon how many other people there are? Everything that I am, I still am, whether there are a billion other people or a thousand.

But in fact I think the correct answer is that it decreases. This is for two reasons: First, anything that I can do is less valuable if there are other people who can do it better. This is true whether we’re talking about writing blog posts or ending world hunger. Second, and most importantly, if the number of humans in the world gets small enough, we begin to face danger of total permanent extinction.

If the value of a human life is constant, then 1,000 deaths is equally bad whether it happens in a population of 10,000 or a population of 10 billion. That doesn’t seem right, does it? It seems more reasonable to say that losing ten percent should have a roughly constant effect; in that case losing 1,000 people in a population of 10,000 is equally bad as losing 1 billion in a population of 10 billion. If that seems too strong, we could choose some value in between, and say perhaps that losing 1,000 out of 10,000 is equally bad as losing 1 million out of 1 billion. This would mean that the value of 1 person’s life today is about 1/1,000 of what it was immediately after the Toba Event.

Of course, with such uncertainty, perhaps it’s safest to assume constant value. This seems the fairest, and it is certainly a reasonable approximation.

In any case, I think it should be obvious that the inherent value of a human life does not increase as you add more human lives. Losing 1,000 people out of a population of 7 billion is not worse than losing 1,000 people out of a population of 10,000. That way lies nonsense.

Yet if we agree that the value of a human life is not increasing, this has a very important counter-intuitive consequence: It means that increasing the risk of a global catastrophe is at least as bad as causing a proportional number of deaths. Specifically, it implies that a 1% risk of global nuclear war is worse than killing 10 million people outright.

The calculation is simple: If the value of a human life is a constant V, then the expected utility (admittedly, expected utility theory has its flaws) from killing 10 million people is -10 million V. But the expected utility from a 1% risk of global nuclear war is 1% times -V times the expected number of deaths from such a nuclear war—and I think even 2 billion is a conservative estimate. (0.01)(-2 billion) V = -20 million V.

This probably sounds too abstract, or even cold, so let me put it another way. Suppose we had the choice between two worlds, and these were the only worlds we could choose from. In world A, there are 100 leaders who each make choices that result in 10 million deaths. In world B, there are 100 leaders who each make choices that result in a 1% chance of nuclear war. Which world should we choose?

The choice is a terrible one, to be sure.

In world A, 1 billion people die.

Yet what happens in world B?

If the risks are independent, we can’t just multiply by 100 to get a guarantee of nuclear war. The actual probability is 1-(1-0.01)^100 = 63%. Yet even so, (0.63)(2 billion) = 1.26 billion. The expected number of deaths is higher in world B. Indeed, the most likely scenario is that 2 billion people die.

Yet this is probably too conservative. The risks are most likely positively correlated; two world leaders who each take a 1% chance of nuclear war probably do so in response to one another. Therefore maybe adding up the chances isn’t actually so unreasonable—for all practical intents and purposes, we may be best off considering nuclear war in world B as guaranteed to happen. In that case, world B is even worse.

And that is all assuming that the nuclear war is relatively contained. Major cities are hit, then a peace treaty is signed, and we manage to rebuild human civilization more or less as it was. This is what most experts on the issue believe would happen; but I for one am not so sure. The nuclear winter and total collapse of institutions and infrastructure could result in a global apocalypse that would result in human extinctionnot 2 billion deaths but 7 billion, and an end to all of humanity’s projects once and forever This is the kind of outcome we should be prepared to do almost anything to prevent.

What does this imply for global policy? It means that we should be far more aggressive in punishing any action that seems to bring the world closer to nuclear war. Even tiny increases in risk, of the sort that would ordinarily be considered negligible, are as bad as murder. A measurably large increase is as bad as genocide.

Of course, in practice, we have to be able to measure something in order to punish it. We can’t have politicians imprisoned over 0.000001% chances of nuclear war, because such a chance is so tiny that there would be no way to attain even reasonable certainty that such a change had even occurred, much less who was responsible.

Even for very large chances—and in this context, 1% is very large—it would be highly problematic to directly penalize increasing the probability, as we have no consistent, fair, objective measure of that probability.

Therefore in practice what I think we must do is severely and mercilessly penalize certain types of actions that would be reasonably expected to increase the probability of catastrophic nuclear war.

If we had the chance to start over from the Manhattan Project, maybe simply building a nuclear weapon should be considered a war crime. But at this point, nuclear proliferation has already proceeded far enough that this is no longer a viable option. At least the US and Russia for the time being seem poised to maintain their nuclear arsenals, and in fact it’s probably better for them to keep maintaining and updating them rather than leaving decades-old ICBMs to rot.

What can we do instead?

First, we probably need to penalize speech that would tend to incite war between nuclear powers. Normally I am fiercely opposed to restrictions on speech, but this is nuclear war we’re talking about. We can’t take any chances on this one. If there is even a slight chance that a leader’s rhetoric might trigger a nuclear conflict, they should be censored, punished, and probably even imprisoned. Making even a veiled threat of nuclear war is like pointing a gun at someone’s head and threatening to shoot them—only the gun is pointed at everyone’s head simultaneously. This isn’t just yelling “fire” in a crowded theater; it’s literally threatening to burn down every theater in the world at once.

Such a regulation must be designed to allow speech that is necessary for diplomatic negotiations, as conflicts will invariably arise between any two countries. We need to find a way to draw the line so that it’s possible for a US President to criticize Russia’s intervention in the Ukraine or for a Chinese President to challenge US trade policy, without being accused of inciting war between nuclear powers. But one thing is quite clear: Wherever we draw that line, President Trump’s statement about “fire and fury” definitely crosses it. This is a direct threat of nuclear war, and it should be considered a war crime. That reason by itself—let alone his web of Russian entanglements and violations of the Emoluments Clause—should be sufficient to not only have Trump removed from office, but to have him tried at the Hague. Impulsiveness and incompetence are no excuse when weapons of mass destruction are involved.

Second, any nuclear policy that would tend to increase first-strike capability rather than second-strike capability should be considered a violation of international law. In case you are unfamiliar with such terms: First-strike capability consists of weapons such as ICBMs that are only viable to use as the opening salvo of an attack, because their launch sites can be easily located and targeted. Second-strike capability consists of weapons such as submarines that are more concealable, so it’s much more likely that they could wait for an attack to happen, confirm who was responsible and how much damage was done, and then retaliate afterward.
Even that retaliation would be difficult to justify: It’s effectively answering genocide with genocide, the ultimate expression of “an eye for an eye” writ large upon humanity’s future. I’ve previously written about my Credible Targeted Conventional Response strategy that makes it both more ethical and more credible to respond to a nuclear attack with a non-nuclear retaliation. But at least second-strike weapons are not inherently only functional at starting a nuclear war. A first-strike weapon can theoretically be fired in response to a surprise attack, but only before the attack hits you—which gives you literally minutes to decide the fate of the world, most likely with only the sketchiest of information upon which to base your decision. Second-strike weapons allow deliberation. They give us a chance to think carefully for a moment before we unleash irrevocable devastation.

All the launch codes should of course be randomized onetime pads for utmost security. But in addition to the launch codes themselves, I believe that anyone who wants to launch a nuclear weapon should be required to type, letter by letter (no copy-pasting), and then have the machine read aloud, Oppenheimer’s line about Shiva, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Perhaps the passphrase should conclude with something like “I hereby sentence millions of innocent children to death by fire, and millions more to death by cancer.” I want it to be as salient as possible in the heads of every single soldier and technician just exactly how many innocent people they are killing. And if that means they won’t turn the key—so be it. (Indeed, I wouldn’t mind if every Hellfire missile required a passphrase of “By the authority vested in me by the United States of America, I hereby sentence you to death or dismemberment.” Somehow I think our drone strike numbers might go down. And don’t tell me they couldn’t; this isn’t like shooting a rifle in a firefight. These strikes are planned days in advance and specifically designed to be unpredictable by their targets.)

If everyone is going to have guns pointed at each other, at least in a second-strike world they’re wearing body armor and the first one to pull the trigger won’t automatically be the last one left standing.

Third, nuclear non-proliferation treaties need to be strengthened into disarmament treaties, with rapid but achievable timelines for disarmament of all nuclear weapons, starting with the nations that have the largest arsenals. Random inspections of the disarmament should be performed without warning on a frequent schedule. Any nation that is so much as a day late on their disarmament deadlines needs to have its leaders likewise hauled off to the Hague. If there is any doubt at all in your mind whether your government will meet its deadlines, you need to double your disarmament budget. And if your government is too corrupt or too bureaucratic to meet its deadlines even if they try, well, you’d better shape up fast. We’ll keep removing and imprisoning your leaders until you do. Once again, nothing can be left to chance.

We might want to maintain some small nuclear arsenal for the sole purpose of deflecting asteroids from colliding with the Earth. If so, that arsenal should be jointly owned and frequently inspected by both the United States and Russia—not just the nuclear superpowers, but also the only two nations with sufficient rocket launch capability in any case. The launch of the deflection missiles should require joint authorization from the presidents of both nations. But in fact nuclear weapons are probably not necessary for such a deflection; nuclear rockets would probably be a better option. Vaporizing the asteroid wouldn’t accomplish much, even if you could do it; what you actually want to do is impart as much sideways momentum as possible.

What I’m saying probably sounds extreme. It may even seem unjust or irrational. But look at those numbers again. Think carefully about the value of a human life. When we are talking about a risk of total human extinction, this is what rationality looks like. Zero tolerance for drug abuse or even terrorism is a ridiculous policy that does more harm than good. Zero tolerance for risk of nuclear war may be the only hope for humanity’s ongoing survival.

Throughout the vastness of the universe, there are probably billions of civilizations—I need only assume one civilization for every hundred galaxies. Of the civilizations that were unwilling to adopt zero tolerance policies on weapons of mass destruction and bear any cost, however unthinkable, to prevent their own extinction, there is almost boundless diversity, but they all have one thing in common: None of them will exist much longer. The only civilizations that last are the ones that refuse to tolerate weapons of mass destruction.

The real Existential Risk we should be concerned about

JDN 2457458

There is a rather large subgroup within the rationalist community (loosely defined because organizing freethinkers is like herding cats) that focuses on existential risks, also called global catastrophic risks. Prominent examples include Nick Bostrom and Eliezer Yudkowsky.

Their stated goal in life is to save humanity from destruction. And when you put it that way, it sounds pretty darn important. How can you disagree with wanting to save humanity from destruction?

Well, there are actually people who do (the Voluntary Human Extinction movement), but they are profoundly silly. It should be obvious to anyone with even a basic moral compass that saving humanity from destruction is a good thing.

It’s not the goal of fighting existential risk that bothers me. It’s the approach. Specifically, they almost all seem to focus on exotic existential risks, vivid and compelling existential risks that are the stuff of great science fiction stories. In particular, they have a rather odd obsession with AI.

Maybe it’s the overlap with Singularitarians, and their inability to understand that exponentials are not arbitrarily fast; if you just keep projecting the growth in computing power as growing forever, surely eventually we’ll have a computer powerful enough to solve all the world’s problems, right? Well, yeah, I guess… if we can actually maintain the progress that long, which we almost certainly can’t, and if the problems turn out to be computationally tractable at all (the fastest possible computer that could fit inside the observable universe could not brute-force solve the game of Go, though a heuristic AI did just beat one of the world’s best players), and/or if we find really good heuristic methods of narrowing down the solution space… but that’s an awful lot of “if”s.

But AI isn’t what we need to worry about in terms of saving humanity from destruction. Nor is it asteroid impacts; NASA has been doing a good job watching for asteroids lately, and estimates the current risk of a serious impact (by which I mean something like a city-destroyer or global climate shock, not even a global killer) at around 1/10,000 per year. Alien invasion is right out; we can’t even find clear evidence of bacteria on Mars, and the skies are so empty of voices it has been called a paradox. Gamma ray bursts could kill us, and we aren’t sure about the probability of that (we think it’s small?), but much like brain aneurysms, there really isn’t a whole lot we can do to prevent them.

There is one thing that we really need to worry about destroying humanity, and one other thing that could potentially get close over a much longer timescale. The long-range threat is ecological collapse; as global climate change gets worse and the oceans become more acidic and the aquifers are drained, we could eventually reach the point where humanity cannot survive on Earth, or at least where our population collapses so severely that civilization as we know it is destroyed. This might not seem like such a threat, since we would see this coming decades or centuries in advance—but we are seeing it coming decades or centuries in advance, and yet we can’t seem to get the world’s policymakers to wake up and do something about it. So that’s clearly the second-most important existential risk.

But the most important existential risk, by far, no question, is nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons are the only foreseeable, preventable means by which humanity could be destroyed in the next twenty minutes.

Yes, that is approximately the time it takes an ICBM to hit its target after launch. There are almost 4,000 ICBMs currently deployed, mostly by the US and Russia. Once we include submarine-launched missiles and bombers, the total number of global nuclear weapons is over 15,000. I apologize for terrifying you by saying that these weapons could be deployed in a moment’s notice to wipe out most of human civilization within half an hour, followed by a global ecological collapse and fallout that would endanger the future of the entire human race—but it’s the truth. If you’re not terrified, you’re not paying attention.

I’ve intentionally linked the Union of Concerned Scientists as one of those sources. Now they are people who understand existential risk. They don’t talk about AI and asteroids and aliens (how alliterative). They talk about climate change and nuclear weapons.

We must stop this. We must get rid of these weapons. Next to that, literally nothing else matters.

“What if we’re conquered by tyrants?” It won’t matter. “What if there is a genocide?” It won’t matter. “What if there is a global economic collapse?” None of these things will matter, if the human race wipes itself out with nuclear weapons.

To speak like an economist for a moment, the utility of a global nuclear war must be set at negative infinity. Any detectable reduction in the probability of that event must be considered worth paying any cost to achieve. I don’t care if it costs $20 trillion and results in us being taken over by genocidal fascists—we are talking about the destruction of humanity. We can spend $20 trillion (actually the US as a whole does every 14 months!). We can survive genocidal fascists. We cannot survive nuclear war.

The good news is, we shouldn’t actually have to pay that sort of cost. All we have to do is dismantle our nuclear arsenal, and get other countries—particularly Russia—to dismantle theirs. In the long run, we will increase our wealth as our efforts are no longer wasted maintaining doomsday machines.

The main challenge is actually a matter of game theory. The surprisingly-sophisticated 1990s cartoon show the Animaniacs basically got it right when they sang: “We’d beat our swords into liverwurst / Down by the East Riverside / But no one wants to be the first!”

The thinking, anyway, is that this is basically a Prisoner’s Dilemma. If the US disarms and Russia doesn’t, Russia can destroy the US. Conversely, if Russia disarms and the US doesn’t, the US can destroy Russia. If neither disarms, we’re left where we are. Whether or not the other country disarms, you’re always better off not disarming. So neither country disarms.

But I contend that it is not, in fact, a Prisoner’s Dilemma. It could be a Stag Hunt; if that’s the case, then only multilateral disarmament makes sense, because the best outcome is if we both disarm, but the worst outcome is if we disarm and they don’t. Once we expect them to disarm, we have no temptation to renege on the deal ourselves; but if we think there’s a good chance they won’t, we might not want to either. Stag Hunts have two stable Nash equilibria; one is where both arm, the other where both disarm.

But in fact, I think it may be simply the trivial game.

There aren’t actually that many possible symmetric two-player nonzero-sum games (basically it’s a question of ordering 4 possibilities, and it’s symmetric, so 12 possible games), and one that we never talk about (because it’s sort of boring) is the trivial game: If I do the right thing and you do the right thing, we’re both better off. If you do the wrong thing and I do the right thing, I’m better off. If we both do the wrong thing, we’re both worse off. So, obviously, we both do the right thing, because we’d be idiots not to. Formally, we say that cooperation is a strictly dominant strategy. There’s no dilemma, no paradox; the self-interested strategy is the optimal strategy. (I find it kind of amusing that laissez-faire economics basically amounts to assuming that all real-world games are the trivial game.)

That is, I don’t think the US would actually benefit from nuking Russia, even if we could do so without retaliation. Likewise, I don’t think Russia would actually benefit from nuking the US. One of the things we’ve discovered—the hardest way possible—through human history is that working together is often better for everyone than fighting. Russia could nuke NATO, and thereby destroy all of their largest trading partners, or they could continue trading with us. Even if they are despicable psychopaths who think nothing of committing mass murder (Putin might be, but surely there are people under his command who aren’t?), it’s simply not in Russia’s best interest to nuke the US and Europe. Likewise, it is not in our best interest to nuke them.

Nuclear war is a strange game: The only winning move is not to play.

So I say, let’s stop playing. Yes, let’s unilaterally disarm, the thing that so many policy analysts are terrified of because they’re so convinced we’re in a Prisoner’s Dilemma or a Stag Hunt. “What’s to stop them from destroying us, if we make it impossible for us to destroy them!?” I dunno, maybe basic human decency, or failing that, rationality?

Several other countries have already done this—South Africa unilaterally disarmed, and nobody nuked them. Japan refused to build nuclear weapons in the first place—and I think it says something that they’re the only people to ever have them used against them.

Our conventional military is plenty large enough to defend us against all realistic threats, and could even be repurposed to defend against nuclear threats as well, by a method I call credible targeted conventional response. Instead of building ever-larger nuclear arsenals to threaten devastation in the world’s most terrifying penis-measuring contest, you deploy covert operatives (perhaps Navy SEALS in submarines, or double agents, or these days even stealth drones) around the world, with the standing order that if they have reason to believe a country initiated a nuclear attack, they will stop at nothing to hunt down and kill the specific people responsible for that attack. Not the country they came from; not the city they live in; those specific people. If a leader is enough of a psychopath to be willing to kill 300 million people in another country, he’s probably enough of a psychopath to be willing to lose 150 million people in his own country. He likely has a secret underground bunker that would allow him to survive, at least if humanity as a whole does. So you should be threatening the one thing he does care about—himself. You make sure he knows that if he pushes that button, you’ll find that bunker, drop in from helicopters, and shoot him in the face.

The “targeted conventional response” should be clear by now—you use non-nuclear means to respond, and you target the particular leaders responsible—but let me say a bit more about the “credible” part. The threat of mutually-assured destruction is actually not a credible one. It’s not what we call in game theory a subgame perfect Nash equilibrium. If you know that Russia has launched 1500 ICBMs to destroy every city in America, you actually have no reason at all to retaliate with your own 1500 ICBMs, and the most important reason imaginable not to. Your people are dead either way; you can’t save them. You lose. The only question now is whether you risk taking the rest of humanity down with you. If you have even the most basic human decency, you will not push that button. You will not “retaliate” in useless vengeance that could wipe out human civilization. Thus, your threat is a bluff—it is not credible.

But if your response is targeted and conventional, it suddenly becomes credible. It’s exactly reversed; you now have every reason to retaliate, and no reason not to. Your covert operation teams aren’t being asked to destroy humanity; they’re being tasked with finding and executing the greatest mass murderer in history. They don’t have some horrific moral dilemma to resolve; they have the opportunity to become the world’s greatest heroes. Indeed, they’d very likely have the whole world (or what’s left of it) on their side; even the population of the attacking country would rise up in revolt and the double agents could use the revolt as cover. Now you have no reason to even hesitate; your threat is completely credible. The only question is whether you can actually pull it off, and if we committed the full resources of the United States military to preparing for this possibility, I see no reason to doubt that we could. If a US President can be assassinated by a lone maniac (and yes, that is actually what happened), then the world’s finest covert operations teams can assassinate whatever leader pushed that button.

This is a policy that works both unilaterally and multilaterally. We could even assemble an international coalition—perhaps make the UN “peacekeepers” put their money where their mouth is and train the finest special operatives in the history of the world tasked with actually keeping the peace.

Let’s not wait for someone else to save humanity from destruction. Let’s be the first.