6. The ethical obligations of scientists

Behind the issue of the scientist’s relationship to the state there lurk several questions. Does the scientist have a responsibility to serve her nation if she is asked to do so by her government? Is there an obligation for all citizens to put aside other loyalties, including that to the scientific republic, in the event of what is judged by political leaders a situation requiring national service? Or do scientists have the right, or even the obligation, to weigh the ethical or moral import of what they are being asked by the state to do, and to refuse to serve if they find their government’s cause or means of attaining it ethically or morally wanting? These are fraught questions that bear, of course, on a scientist’s decision to help build a weapon like poison gas or an atomic bomb.

It is possible to suggest that there is no need for individual handwringing over these questions. In an authoritarian state, naturally, citizens have no choice: they can be, and usually are, conscripted into service. In a pluralist state, conscription can occur during time of war, as in Britain in 1916-18 and the United States in 1942-5. More often, and even during war, the pluralist state must ask its citizens for their help. It must persuade them that an emergency exists, or great danger looms, and that their involvement in the war effort is essential to ending the emergency or warding off the danger. Citizens in a democracy must be its defenders; all must do their part as shareholders in a system that protects and rewards them. Young men (and sometimes women) must fight, farmers must grow more food, workers must shoulder the wheel to increase industrial output, and scientists must contribute their expertise to the war effort. Moral considerations do not apply because the state itself, and the international system in which it participates, are amoral. Governments decide what to do based on national interest, not on what is right or just or moral. This is the realist paradigm of government, expressed most extremely by Benedetto Croce (an admirer of Machiavelli), and more plausibly during the twentieth century by the American scholar/diplomat George Kennan. The combination of state coercion or political obligation and a belief in the need for realism in international affairs makes the scientist’s choice easy: one serves the state because one ought to do so, and because there is no need to make a moral decision when doing so.36

But it is precisely during wartime that the realist paradigm falters, for war by definition raises moral issues of the profoundest sort. These start with the justice of the war itself. Scientists in an authoritarian country cannot assume that a war entered into by their government is popularly condoned or based on generally accepted principles of international law: dictators are known to flout these standards of right and wrong. (Authoritarian states are not always in the wrong when it comes to fighting; the Soviet Union was engaged in self-defense after Germany attacked it in June 1941.) Nor is it entirely safe to assume that a nation with a pluralist form of government will embark only on a just war. Wars of empire—the British in India and South Africa, the Americans in the Philippines, the French in Indochina—are morally problematic, and, even after the end of formal empire, adventures from Suez to Saigon suggest that democracies sometimes go to war for the wrong reasons. These are matters concerned with jus ad bellum—the justice of war. Equally complicated are issues of jus in bello, justice in war. A nation might go to war for good reason: because it is attacked or is in imminent danger of attack, because it wishes to stop aggression, or because it is determined to end a genocide or the terrible suffering of another nation’s people. Yet in its just wars it must fight well and fairly, doing only what damage is necessary to defend itself or halt aggressions or stop the slaughter of innocents. In the realm of jus in bello lies the real vexation for scientists who serve the state.37

There is a scientific counterpart to Crocean realism, as applied to international relations. It is best represented by Percy W Bridgman, who was Robert Oppenheimer’s physics teacher at Harvard. Even after the Second World War, Bridgman claimed that scientists were meant only to seek the truth and then to publicize it. What politicians and policymakers do with the truth thus uncovered is up to them and to the societies they represent, not to the scientists who make the discoveries. To demand scientific responsibility for the terrible things done with their discoveries is to put science in thrall to the state, chilling scientific research by insisting implicitly that it remain safe, free of any possible application to harmful purposes. A biologist might be constrained from working with microbes that, if misused, might cause an epidemic, but if used properly could eradicate a disease. An experiment in genetics could be used by a state to enforce a policy of racist eugenics—or lead to a cure for diabetes or cerebral palsy. It must remain for the scientist, according to Bridgman, to conduct her work without fear that the state will do the wrong thing with its result. Science must be amoral.38

Bridgman’s ‘ethical positivism’ became problematic in the extreme for the physicists and chemists who designed and built the atomic bomb. It remained possible to argue, in 1945, that the bomb was, as Irving Langmuir wrote, an ‘accident’ onto which scientists had stumbled, or that the bomb in essence already existed as a force of nature, which scientists had thus not so much invented as discovered. But most of those involved in the atom bomb project felt differently. Had they not solved the structure of the atom and made its nucleus fission? Had they not taken it upon themselves in 1939 or 1940 to stop publicizing their findings in the international republic of science for security reasons, and to entreat the US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt to authorize the building of the bomb? Had they not constructed a graphite-moderated pile to elicit a chain reaction in uranium, fashioned great factories to produce the bomb’s nuclear fuel, worked months on end in the New Mexico desert to refine the bomb’s shape and design, forge its metal jacket, and fabricate its delicate triggering mechanism? In H. G. Wells’s The World Set Free, Wells Holsten learns how to make radioactivity. Afterward, he ‘felt like an imbecile who has presented a box full of loaded revolvers to a Creche’. ‘I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds,’ thought Oppenheimer as he watched the mushroom cloud rise over Alamogordo at dawn on 16 July 1945. Another physicist put it more prosaically: ‘Now we are all sons of bitches.’39

Decent and humane by nearly all accounts, the scientists from many nations delivered to the US military an atomic bomb. They knew that the bomb would be used against an enemy (though some hoped that after Germany surrendered the bomb would not be dropped on Japan, a lesser evil in their view), and they suspected how awesomely destructive it would be. They nevertheless convinced themselves that the bomb should be built and used, not so much because it represented human progress, or because they as scientists were amoral with respect to politics and military strategy, but rather because they believed that using the bomb would defeat the enemy more quickly than not using the bomb and thus save human lives on all sides. In this calculation, considerations of jus in bello yielded to jus ad bellum: any means can be employed if the cause is represented as just and the aim is to end a combat as soon as possible—which is, presumably, a universal desire. Shorter wars mean fewer people die. There is a logic to that, though hardly an impeccable logic; as Michael Walzer points out, it is not clear why civilians in Hiroshima sacrificed their rights to remain unharmed during the war. Nor would Americans have looked benignly on an atomic bombing of Philadelphia had the Japanese possessed the bomb and felt the need to shorten the war and thus save lives on all sides.40

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