Mutally Assured Destruction

Assured destruction

Assured destruction is a concept sometimes used in game theory and similar discussions to describe a condition where certain behaviors or choices are deterred because they will lead to the imposition by others of overwhelming punitive consequences.

The concept of assured destruction occasionally arises in the death penalty debate and biotechnology debate, though it is most well known in the context of nuclear strategy where it is most often discussed as mutually assured destruction — a deterrent strategy where both participants have the ability to respond overwhelmingly against whoever strikes first.

For an assured destruction strategy to be successful,

  • the threat must be known in advance,
  • the threat must be credible both in the opponent’s ability and moral willingness to retaliate,
  • the target of the strategy must behave based on rational self-interest to the extent that the threat will be effective in preventing the behavior.

Other examples of attempts to establish the conditions for assured destruction include:

  • Three-man cells in terrorist organizations, who establish interlocking treaties between each pair of the participants for the death of any party who refuses to cooperate.
  • Poison pills in stockholder agreements.
  • Highly punitive criminal and civil punishments for drug possession.

When the concept of assured destruction is applied in the doctrine of law, it is often criticized by proponents of the restorative justice and transformative justice movements, who point out that assured destruction doctrines are rarely implemented with rigor or integrity of due process. This is a major contributor to the controversy of the death penalty debate.

Psychologists, notably B. F. Skinner, are of the opinion that promises of punishment seem to play little or no role in deterrence of adult behavior. Challengers of the general application of assured destruction tactics point to the failure of post-facto measures to end standoffs presumed to lead to mutually assured destruction, as well as the role of martyrs and the effectiveness of suicide attacks in breaking or destabilizing the status quo whose upholding is often the intent of assured destruction.

Assured destruction tactics are not to be confused with "insurance" tactics such as retaliatory trade tariffs that are merely intended to compensate the aggrieved or to return conditions to the pre-existing "level playing field".

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