The Morality of Deterrence: Forms, Limits & Acceptability

The Morality of Deterrence: Forms, Limits & Acceptability
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  • 0:01 Deterrence
  • 0:39 Types of Deterrence
  • 2:31 Limits & Acceptability
  • 4:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the concept of deterrence and discover the multiple ways that this idea has been used. Then, you'll be able to test your understanding with a brief quiz.


Don't do that. Why not? Because something bad will happen to you. Isn't that enough of a reason? In the world of morality, the use of threat to discourage people from taking a certain action is called deterrence.

It's a pretty basic idea. If you don't want people to break a rule, just make the punishment so severe that breaking the rule simply isn't worth it. Now, to some people, this idea sounds very logical. But to others, it raises some serious ethical concerns.

Types of Deterrence

The concept of deterrence has historically been used in a couple of large institutions. The first is the justice system, in which punishment is used to prevent people from committing a crime. For example, back in medieval Europe, major crimes were punished with public executions. Now, obviously, this is about as severe a punishment as is possible, and by making it a public event, the goal was to make people associate crime with punishment. Really, really severe punishment. In other words, the goal is to deter people from committing a crime because the punishment is so terrifying.

That's one kind of deterrence. However, this basic idea can also be applied to foreign relations and the way that nations interact, especially during times of war. Military deterrence is the use of extreme threat in order to prevent a military attack. This idea became tremendously popular during the Cold War, the ideological conflict between the USA and USSR that lasted from roughly 1950 to 1989.

During the Cold War, the United States formally adopted a policy of deterrence to discourage the USSR from launching a nuclear attack. Here was the idea: if you launch one missile at us, we will launch every single missile we have at you. This was called the nuclear deterrent and relied on the fact that threat of nuclear weapons was terrifying enough to prevent an attack. In this case, deterrence really only works as long as the threat is deemed credible. The USA could make that threat because they did in fact have a massive nuclear arsenal and, in following with the deterrence policy, it was very widely publicized.

Limits and Acceptability

Deterrence has been used in the past as both foreign policy and criminal punishment. But, that doesn't mean that deterrence is still accepted everywhere. There are many people who have some serious concerns with it. In terms of criminal punishment, deterrence is still used in some sense, but it is much, much more limited than before. I mean, when's the last time you heard of a city advertising an upcoming public execution?

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