A Short Piece

Replacing “The Trolley Problem” with “The Ballistic Missile Defense Problem”

Reflections on O.G. Rose Conversation Episode #68 with Dr. James Simpkin

I love discussions which move between a detailed and technical analysis of a particular subject to “big picture” philosophy, back to technical detail — on and on. Dialectical, this brings to mind the need for the “concretion” and how Hume emphasizes “common life,” and I personally have always felt literature and economics can help “ground” philosophy. Dr. James Simpkin, with his expertise on military strategy and military technology, is a tremendous example of someone who maintains dialectical thinking, a discipline I admire.

Dr. James Simpkin lives in West Yorkshire with his wife and three children. He teaches politics at Craven College, and received his PhD from the University of Leeds. His thesis is due to be published by Routledge, entitled Labour’s Ballistic Missile Defense Policy 1997–2010: A Strategic-Relational Analysis, and I enjoyed a chance to read his essay on the topic, “Under the Radar?” His research interests focus on the impact of military technology on strategy, BMD, drones, directed energy weapons, and the like, and I admire and appreciate his work at Microliberations.


Dr. Simpkin taught me a lot and our conversationa great pleasure. He explained that there is a profound connection between military technology and strategy, which brought to mind Heidegger.

Today, we often stress how cellphones have changed our “towardness,” which is to say that now everything is a potential photograph or tweet. Heidegger talks about the world being transformed into “standing reserve,” and in a similar way we can think of everything now as “potential photographs” (as discussed in “Representing Beauty” by O.G. Rose). This can make it difficult for the “suchness” of beings to really strike us, contributing to our alienation and “meaning crisis.” The point that hit me is the idea that we rarely think about how military technology has changed our “towardness,” how the way we experience the world is impacted by nukes and drones. Dr. Simpkin made the point that we “reached into reality” and pulled out the ability to create atom bombs, which suggests that we “took fire from God,” per se, like Prometheus. For most of human history, before what Fukuyama deemed “the end” of it, only God could destroy the world.

Dr. Simpkin noted that the possibility of nuclear annihilation underlies our entire lives: it is like the ground upon which we walk. The question I find myself asking is if nukes make us “closer to death” or “further from it?” Johannes Niederhauser and Alex Ebert both discuss the need for us to come to terms with “being,” which requires us coming to terms with “death” (“death” and “being” are profoundly linked), and both note that today we are death averse, causing us to be pathological and “cancerous.” This is strange though, for we have nukes: shouldn’t we be more attuned with death than ever? And yet it would seem that when everything can be destroyed at any moment, nothing can be destroyed: “total annihilation” seems to contribute to death becoming “unreal,” a strange and paradoxical turn.

We tend to see everything as “standing reserve,” exactly as Heidegger warned, and yet I wonder if really taking seriously the possibility of nukes might actually help us be hit by “suchness” again. Though it seems nukes can contribute to death becoming “invisible” to us “naturally,” perhaps it is possible for nukes to actually help us fight against the tendency to see everything as a “standing reserve” if we took them seriously (along with the notion that everything could be destroyed at any moment). I’m not sure, but perhaps in this way nukes could be a gift.

Both nuclear weaponry and ballistic missile systems are forms of deterrence, but it’s interesting to note that, though equal in “end,” they are not equal in the “enframent” they generate. Nukes make me “toward” the world in one way, while “ballistic missiles” make me “toward” the world in another, and this practically manifests in the different psychologies and strategies nations undergo considering them. We see, very concretely, the correctness of Heidegger on the global stage, for Russia reacts differently to the creation of a missile defense system than to the building of more nuclear weaponry. Means of deterrence are not equal: they generate different psychological responses and moods.

(For those interested in learning more about Heidegger and the ideas explored in this work.)


Drone Warfare was another topic we discussed, which also transforms how we are “toward” war as a culture. It is possible that drones, in removing soldiers from combat, paradoxically increase the likelihood nations go to war, suggesting that Liberals in America might end up being as pro-war as are traditional Conservatives. This struck me as a remarkable point, the details of which we explored in the talk.

Dr. Simpkin noted the strange experience of drone pilots killing thousands of people while eating lunch or while sitting in an air-conditioned room, and he connected this with “the death of distance” described by Heidegger. What kind of “being” does this mean we possess today? In the past, it’s hard to imagine the possibility of killing someone without fully experiencing the bloodshed, the emotions, and the threat: war occurred in a much better defined environment (according to a different “phenomenology of killing,” we could say). Today, it is arguably possible for every human act to be one in which the act of killing can be carried out in concert with: I could pilot a drone over lunch while sitting outside on a beautiful day, while playing a game with my kids — the possibilities of what can be done in every human space is radically different. Alluding to “Representing Beauty” by O.G. Rose, everything has gained a new potential of being “toward” death. What does this mean for us? Is it good? Is it bad? When everything can potentially be incorporated into war, then perhaps nothing is war, so it’s possible that drones have contributed to a decline in violence, and it is indeed reported that drone pilots suffer less post-traumatic stress disorder. Is this a sign that “drone warfare” is a superior form of fighting? Hard to say: for Heidegger, the point was that every historic period brings with a new kind of being. Perhaps it is better. Perhaps it is worse.

Where distance collapses, contextualization also collapses, and it becomes difficult to tell which logics should be used where and when. If I can kill people while eating a sandwich, why shouldn’t I be a soldier while sitting at home with my wife? In this way, a collapse of distance may lead to new and novel pathologies, and we see again the problem with a failure to consider “multiple rationalities” and “tradeoffs.” But is it immoral not to use drones if they will reduce PTSD? But what if it’s immoral to use drones because “indiscriminate killing” is immoral (where there is no risk to the soldier)? Moral considerations, in this way, are not simple, but I fear “The Trolley Problem” and similar “Moral Paradoxes” hide us from the severity of the decisions we must make to really think. It matters what thought experiments we choose to entertain.


I’m sure it’s clear by now that I want to replace “The Trolley Problem” with “The Ballistic Missile Defense System Problem,” for I think “The Trolley Problem” disastrously teaches us that we are advanced moral reasoners in considering it, when real moral reasoning requires deciding if we should put a billon dollars toward poverty relief or fund a missile defense system to stop a nuclear holocaust. Horrifically, if the missile defense system succeeds at stopping a nuclear attack, we never see the nuclear attack that doesn’t happen, and so we can always think the money was wasted. This is “disquieting’ and hard to live with, and problematically our brains naturally train us to conclude that “if we are feeling disquietedness, we made the wrong discussion.” We naturally come to associate certainty and “existential stability” with “real thinking” but this is a mistake: real thinking is thinking which destabilizes us, and it easily leaves us with a permanent feeling of disquietedness.

In my view, disquietedness is good for Democracy, and if we know “real thinking” requires it, then we can aim for it as citizens, and this will fight extremism and tendencies toward totalitarianism. This also suggests for me what Habermas’s “communicative rationality” requires to work: we can talk all we want, but if participants don’t talk from a place of “disquietness,” little will be accomplished. The emotional disposition and metaphysical framework we bring to discussions matter.

Anyway, if we think about moral reasoning in terms of “moral paradoxes,” we do not necessarily learn skills of “moral tradeoffs” (“paradoxes” and “tradeoffs” are not identical), and it is tradeoffs which define the hardest geopolitical and moral problems. Thus, we in Philosophy Classes can be led to believe we are wise moral reasoners, when really we might just be overconfident. “Moral Paradoxes” are fine in their place, but they must be taught alongside “Moral Tradeoffs,” something I fear doesn’t occur when philosophy is divided from politics, economics, military strategy, and the like. In my view, this is a dire problem which is concealed by “Moral Paradoxes” like “The Trolley Problem,” and this is why “The Trolley Problem” is not a neutral consideration: it can easily contribute to self-deception, overconfidence, and a failure to appreciate the nature and experience of deep and real decision, a topic explored in O.G. Rose Conversation #17 with John Trossi.

Basically, my hope is that “The Trolley Problem” is replaced by “The Ballistic Missile Defense Problem,” for “The Trolly Problem” will not (for example) help us understand what to do with people like Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, a topic expanded on in “Is Putin a Thomas More Who Caved?”


Another theme in our conversation was the incompleteness and impoverishment of “autonomous rationality,” for there are different kinds of rationality operating at different levels of social organization. These different rationalities overlap and often conflict, rendering it inadequate to simply claim that, “We need to do what is rational.” What might be rational for politicians to get elected (say installing a new ballistic missile system), could be geopolitically foolish (the new system could agitate other nations), and yet the only way a party might get elected is by supporting the missile system, which if they don’t do they won’t get into office to fix healthcare (trade-offs must be made). In this way, we could discuss “stacks” and “levels of rationality,” but that is another topic for another time.

When we think there is only “a rationality,” that rationality often just happens to reflect our thinking, and that means anyone who doesn’t think like us is “not rational,” which basically means it’s impossible to have a productive conversation with them. This marks the gradual death of democracy and possibility for “discourse”: people who don’t think like us end up framed as either uninformed, stupid, or evil (to allude to Being Wrong by Kathy Schulz).

Funny enough, in a sense, one of the problems with “autonomous rationality” is that it’s not rational enough: it only ascribes rationality to us and those like us while denying rationality to others. In this sense, as discussed regarding Benjamin Fondane and David Hume, “(non)rational thinking” ends up more rational than “autonomous rationality,” but that is indeed another topic for another time.


If war is politics by different means, is politics war by different means? If so, we should be slower to hate politics and to want nothing to do with them: they might be our last line of defense from ending up in war. Dr. Simpkin noted the importance of “discourse” in our conversation, which entails the idea of what politicians think they can and cannot do based on what they think the citizenry wants and thinks. We discussed then the value of defining terms, understanding hermeneutics, and grasping worldviews to avoid misunderstanding, which in terms of military strategy can be extremely dire. This is an example where philosophy can help politics, whereas often in the conversation I focused on how “concrete thinking” might help philosophy. Ultimately, a dialectic is best.

Dr. Simpkin and I discussed how metaphors matter, and how calling ballistic missile systems “ballistic missile system” could contribute to foreign nations interpreting the systems as aggressive, when really the systems are only practically useful for intercepting attacks. Perhaps we should use the language of “interceptive missile systems” instead? Hard to say, but “discourse” matters in politics, and misleading language can contribute to consequential mistake. “Discourse” is a meta-dimension of politics, and doing “discourse” well is a way philosophy can help politics, while politics can help philosophy be more concrete. To “discourse well,” again, we need to share terms, understand hermeneutics, and engage in an effort to grasp “different modes of being.” Henry Kissinger discusses how his talks with Mao required him to try to deeply immerse himself in Mao’s worldview, and Kissinger stresses that the reason his discussions with Mao went well is because they managed to grasp the “first principles” of one another. So it must go with politics and geopolitics, and a failure to appreciate metaphors and their formative roles in our thinking might contribute to failures in “discourse.”

Rationalities can conflict, but without “discourse” it is unlikely we will manage to successfully organize those conflicting “discourses” into something productive. Game Theory came up in the discussion, and perhaps we believe today that we don’t need to consider “discourse” because a smart computer with the right “Game Theory” programming will manage to save us from “irrationality.” Hard to say, but our conversation explored why this might be wishful thinking: personally, I think Game Theory should unveil to us the category of “nonrationality” versus lead us into believing we can discover “truest rationality” — I think we need a third and new epistemological category. However, I will not belabor the point on Game Theory, for I have discussed it extensively elsewhere, say regarding my work on Benjamin Fondane or in my discussion with Lorenzo Barberis Canonico:

I would note that a reason I like Military Strategy and Foreign Policy is precisely because the fields suggest the inadequacy of “autonomous rationality” — both suggest that “the true isn’t the rational.”


The discussion with Dr. Simpkin was a real thrill, and the final point of our discussion that I’d like to focus on involves “The Rules of War,” which generally we might laugh at and mock. “War is hell,” we’ve been taught to say, which means “Anything goes.” War is a blackhole, and certainly I think there is truth to this sentiment (I myself have shared it). However, “Drone Ethics” has brought to my attention how “The Rules of War” might be the most important rules of all, for they are arguably our last line of defense against “the void.” Drones suggest the possibility of “indiscriminate killing,” which radically transforms the nature of the kind of force the government can use. Grégoire Chamayou has written on this topic brilliantly, and I cannot add anything to what he has already said: my point is mainly that when “anything goes in war,” we cannot stop a world where war is the beginning of “indiscriminate killing,” where any killing will prove acceptable. In that environment, why not use nukes, poison, torture, or anything at all?

There is a scene in A Man for All Seasons that comes to mind here, a dispute which emerges between William Roper and Thomas More. To quote it:

William Roper: “So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!”

Sir Thomas More: “Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?”

William Roper: “Yes, cut down every law in England to do that!”

Sir Thomas More: “Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ‘round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!”

The last sentence brings to mind the Rules of War. A reason we can be tempted to break these rules is precisely because they seem to benefit our enemies, which is to say that the rules hold us back. “War is hell,” we can reason, and why should we handicap ourselves? It then seems rational not to follow the “Rules of War,” as arguably Roper was making the point that it was irrational (and even immoral) for Thomas More to follow the laws when they entailed punishing More for something for which More was innocent and/or which opposed Scripture. And yet More remained adamant that law must be respected, as if failure to do so could mark the end of civilization.

“War is hell,” we often say, and indeed, there’s a good argument to be made that war is a kind of “black hole” in which up becomes down and right become left. But perhaps it is “indiscriminate killing” which is hell, a form of “unbound war,” which is slightly different from many if not all forms of warfare fought throughout history. Most wars have followed rules and entailed laws, and these have arguably “held back” the ultimate “Hell of War” from boiling over and becoming “indiscriminate killing.” In this way, the “Rules of War” are our final line of defense holding back the omega, and thus the phrase “War is hell” might be problematic, for the phrase suggests that “it is already too late.” Indeed, we might be down to our last line of defense, but “indiscriminate killing” is yet to be unleashed.

On this final point, I hope we can begin to see why the debate about “Drone Ethics” is so critical, and why also I think it is problematic for us to spend the majority of our time in Ethics discussing “Trolley Problems.” “The Trolley Problem” is not holding back the transformation of war into “indiscriminate killing,” at which point war really will be hell. “The Trolley Problem” does not teach us to think in terms of complex and difficult “Moral Tradeoffs,” only to consider some “Moral Paradoxes” that don’t require radical socioeconomic consequences and deep emotional anxiety. Unless we are dealing with anxiety, we are probably not dealing with “a real decision”: we are simply enjoying something interesting to pass the time.

Discourse matters, as discussed before, and I am convinced that the phrase “war is hell” is problematic (metaphors matter), and that it contributes to the notion that the rules and ethics of warfare are ridiculous, benefiting only our enemy. Indeed, they do benefit our enemy, but “for our own safety’s sake.” Once that line of defense is down, though unimaginable now, we might just find ourselves longing for war.




For more by Dr. James Simpkin, please visit:



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O.G. Rose

Iowa. Broken Pencil. Allegory. Write Launch. Ponder. Pidgeonholes. W&M. Poydras. Toho. ellipsis. O:JA&L. West Trade. UNO. Pushcart. https://linktr.ee/ogrose