Thursday, June 23, 2011

Accounting for the Dearth of Ex Ante Ethical Reasoning with Regard to Technology

“When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success.”—J. Robert Oppenheimer

I found this remark quoted in Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice (2009): 211. See: In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: USAEC Transcript of the Hearing before Personnel Security Board (Washington, DC: Government Publishing Office, 1954).

Consider: [….]

NEWTON: Möbius. What about the—the Principle of Universal Discovery?

MÖBIUS: Yes, something on those lines, too. I did it out of curiosity, as a practical corollary to my theoretical investigations. Why play the innocent? We have to face the consequences of our scientific thinking. It was my duty to work out the effects that would be produced by my Unitary Theory of Elementary Particles and by my discoveries in the field of gravitation. The result is—devastating. New and inconceivable forces would be unleashed, making possible a technical advance that would transcend the wildest flights of fancy if my findings were to fall into the hands of mankind.

EINSTEIN: And that can scarcely be avoided.

NEWTON: The only question is: who’s going to get at them first?

MÖBIUS laughs.

MÖBIUS: You’d like that for your own Intelligence Service, wouldn’t you, Kilton, and the military machine behind it?

NEWTON: And why not? It seems to me, if it can restore the greatest physicist of all time to the confraternity of the physical sciences, any military machine is a sacred instrument. It’s nothing more nor less than a question of the freedom of scientific knowledge. It doesn’t matter who guarantees that freedom. I give my services to any system, providing that system leaves me alone. I know there’s a lot of talk nowadays about physicists’ moral responsibilities. We suddenly find ourselves confronted with our own fears and we have a fit of morality. This is nonsense. We have far-reaching, pioneering work to do and that’s all that should concern us. Whether or not humanity has the wit to follow the new trails that we are blazing is its own look-out, not ours.


MÖBIUS: Extraordinary. Each of you is trying to palm off a different theory, yet the reality you offer me is the same in both cases: a prison. I’d prefer the madhouse. Here at least I feel safe from the exactions of power politicians.

EINSTEIN: But after all, one must take certain risks.

MÖBIUS: There are certain risks that one may not take: the destruction of humanity is one. We know what the world has done with the weapons it already possesses; we can imagine what it would do with those that my researches make possible, and it is these considerations that governed my conduct. I was poor. I had a wife and three children. Fame beckoned from the university; industry tempted me with money. Both courses were too dangerous. I should have had to publish my researches, and the consequences would have been the overthrow of all scientific knowledge and the breakdown of the economic structure of our society. A sense of responsibility compelled me to choose another course. I threw up my academic career, said no to industry, and abandoned my family to its fate. I took on the fool’s cap and bells. I let it be known that King Solomon kept appearing to me, and before long, I was clapped into a madhouse.

NEWTON: But that couldn’t solve anything.


MÖBIUS: You must stay with me here in the madhouse.

NEWTON: What! Us?

MÖBIUS: Both of you.



MÖBIUS: You inform your superiors that you have made a mistake, that I really am mad.

EINSTEIN: Then we’d be stuck here for the rest of our lives. Nobody’s going to lose any sleep over a broken-down spy.

MÖBIUS: But it’s the one chance I have to remain undetected. Only in the madhouse can we be free. Only in the madhouse can we think our own thoughts. Outside they would be dynamite.

NEWTON: But damn it all, we’re not mad.

MÖBIUS: But we are murderers.

They stare at him in perplexity.

NEWTON: I resent that!

MÖBIUS: Anyone who takes life is a murderer, and we have taken life. [….]

From Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play, The Physicists (James Kirkup, tr.) (New York: Grove Press, 1964 [1962]).


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