Morality and Public Attitudes to Nuclear and Chemical Weapons

February 2020

Michal Smetana discusses the preliminary results from a project undertaken with researchers at Charles University in Prague and the Center for International Security and Cooperation at (CISAC) Stanford University on morality and public attitudes to nuclear and chemical weapons.

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Moral Foundations Theory & Nonproliferation

Building on the foundational works by Nina Tannenwald and T.V. Paul on the taboo and non-use of nuclear weapons, respectively, as well as recent research by Daryl Press, Scott Sagan, and Benjamin Valentino that showed the aversion to nuclear use is lower than previously believed, Dr. Smetana and his colleagues set out to determine the kinds of psychological profiles that people who support the use of nuclear or chemical weapons might have. Using the five basic blocks of morality as outlined in the Moral Foundations Theory (MFT)—care/harm; fairness/cheating; loyalty/betrayal; authority/subversion; and sanctity/degradation—they designed two experimental studies. They presented a sample group with three scenarios—nuclear-weapon use, chemical-weapon use, and a conventional strike—and asked if they approved of each use. Their findings show individuals’ “moral foundations” determine how they feel about such use, and that, while these moral foundations can’t be changed, by reframing the question in ways that resonate with various psychological foundations, disarmament advocates can convince a broader audience of the benefits of disarmament.

About Dr. Michal Smetana

Dr. Michal Smetana is currently a visiting scholar at CISAC as well as research associate and assistant professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University, and coordinator of the newly established Peace Research Center Prague. He holds a PhD in International Relations from Charles University in Prague, and he was previously a visiting research fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF). His main research interests lie at the intersection of security studies, international relations, and political psychology, with a specific focus on issues related to nuclear weapons in world politics, arms control and disarmament, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, deterrence theory, and norms and deviance in international affairs. His most recent articles have been published in International Affairs, The Washington Quarterly, Journal of International Relations and Development, International Relations, Asia Europe Journal, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, the Nonproliferation Review, and other academic and policy journals. He is the author of Nuclear Deviance: Stigma Politics and the Rules of the Nonproliferation Game (Palgrave Macmillan) and co-editor of Global Nuclear Disarmament: Strategic, Political, and Regional Perspectives (Routledge) and Indirect Coercion: Triangular Strategies and International Conflict (Charles University Press).

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