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Obedience is the psychological mechanism that links individual action to political purpose

Obedience is the psychological mechanism that links individual action to political purpose Obedience is the psychological mechanism that links individual action to political purpose
Source : Fraxel via Giphy
The Physicists
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The Physicists
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#atomic bomb
#Obéissance
#physicits
#war
#World war two

The discovery of atomic fission broke up the world of international physics. 'This has killed a beautiful subject,' said Mark Oliphant, the father-figure of Australian physics, in 1945, after the bombs had dropped. In intellectual terms, he has not turned out right. But in spiritual or moral terms, I sometimes think he has.

A good deal of the international community of science remains in other fields — in great areas of biology, for example. Many biologists are feeling the identical liberation, the identical joy at taking part in a magnanimous enterprise, that physicists felt in the Twenties. It is more than likely that the moral and intellectual leadership of science will pass to the biologists, and it is among them that we shall find the Einsteins, Rutherfords and Bohrs of the next generation.

Physicists have had a bitterer task. With the discovery of fission, and with some technical breakthroughs in electronics, physicists became, almost overnight, the most important military resource a nation-state could call on. A large number of physicists became soldiers-not-in-uniform. So they have remained, in the advanced societies, ever since.

It is very difficult to see what else they could have done. All this began in the Hitler war. Most scientists thought then that Nazism was as near absolute evil as a human society can manage. I myself think so, without qualification. That being so, Nazism had to be fought, and since the Nazis might make fission bombs — which we thought possible until 1944 and which was a constant nightmare if one was remotely in the know — well, then, we had to make them too. Unless one was an unlimited pacifist, there was nothing else to do. And unlimited pacifism is a position which most of us cannot sustain.

Therefore I respect, and to a large extent share, the moral attitudes of those scientists who devoted themselves to making the bomb. But the trouble is, when you get on to any kind of moral escalator, to know whether you're ever going to be able to get off. When scientists become soldiers, they give up something, so imperceptibly that they don't realize it, of the full scientific life. Not intellectually. I see no evidence that scientific work on weapons of maximum destruction has been in any intellectual respect different from other scientific work. But there is a moral difference.

It may be — and scientists who are better men than I am often take this attitude, and I have tried to represent it faithfully in one of my books — that this is a moral price which, in certain circumstances, has to be paid. Nevertheless, it is no good pretending that there is not a moral price. Soldiers have to obey. That is the foundation of their morality. It is not the foundation of the scientific morality. Scientists have to question, and if necessary to rebel. I don't want to be misunderstood. I am no anarchist. I am not suggesting that loyalty is not a prime virtue. I am not saying that all rebellion is good. But I am saying that loyalty can easily turn into conformity, and that conformity can often be a cloak for the timid and self-seeking. So can obedience, carried to the limit. When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find that far more, and more hideous, crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion. If you doubt that, read William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. The German officer corps were brought up in the most rigorous code of obedience. To themselves, no more honourable and God-fearing body of men could conceivably exist. Yet in the name of obedience they were party to, and assisted in, the most wicked large-scale actions in the history of the world.

Scientists must not go that way. Yet the duty to question is not much of a support when you're living in the middle of an organized society. I speak with feeling here. I was an official for twenty years. I went into official life at the beginning of the war, for the reasons that prompted my scientific friends to make weapons. I stayed in that life until a year ago, for the same reason that made my scientific friends turn into civilian soldiers. The official's life in England is not quite so disciplined as a soldier's, but it is very nearly so. I think I know the virtues, which are very great, of the men who live that disciplined life. I also know what for me was the moral trap. I, too, had got on to an escalator. I can put the result in a sentence: I was hiding behind the institution, I was losing the power to say 'No'.

Only a very bold man, when he is a member of an organized society, can keep the power to say 'No'. I tell you that, not being a very bold man or one who finds it congenial to stand alone, away from his colleagues. We can't expect many scientists to do it. Is there any tougher ground for them to stand on? I suggest to you that there is. I believe that there is a spring of moral action in the scientific activity which is at least as strong as the search for truth. The name of this spring is Knowledge. Scientists know certain things in a fashion more immediate and more certain than those who don't know what science is. Unless we are abnormally weak or abnormally wicked men, this knowledge is bound to shape our actions. Most of us are timid, but to an extent, knowledge gives us guts. Perhaps it can give us guts strong enough for the jobs in hand.

Let me take the most obvious example. All physical scientists know that it is astonishingly easy to make plutonium. We know this, not as a journalistic fact at second hand, but as a fact in our own experience. We can work out the number of scientific and engineering personnel it needs for a nation-state to equip itself with fission and fusion bombs. We know that for a dozen or more states, it would only take perhaps five years, perhaps less. Even the best informed of us always exaggerate these periods.

This we know, with the certainty of — what shall I call it — engineering truth. We also, most of us, are familiar with statistics and the nature of odds. We know, with the certainty of established truth, that if enough of these weapons are made, by enough different states, some of them are going to blow up — through accident, or folly, or madness; but the numbers don't matter, what does matter is the nature of the statistical fact. All this we know. We know it in a more direct sense than any politician can know it, because it comes from our direct experience. It is part of our minds. Are we going to let it happen?

All this we know. It throws upon scientists a direct and formal responsibility. It is not enough to say scientists have a responsibility as citizens. They have a much greater one than that, and one different in kind. For scientists have a moral imperative to say what they know. It is going to make them unpopular in their own nation-states. It may do worse than make them unpopular. That doesn't matter. Or at least, it does matter to you and me, but it must not count in the face of the risks.

For we genuinely know the risks. We are faced with an either/or and we haven't much time. The either is acceptance of a restriction of nuclear armaments. This is going to begin, just as a token, with an agreement on the stopping of nuclear tests. The United States is not going to get the 99.9 per cent 'security' that it has been asking for. This is unobtainable, though there are other bargains that the United States could probably secure. I am not going to conceal from you that this course involves certain risks. They are quite obvious, and no honest man is going to blink them. That is the either. The or is not a risk but a certainty. It is this. There is no agreement on tests. The nuclear arms race between the United States and the USSR not only continues but accelerates. Other countries join in. Within, at the most, six years, China and six other states have a stock of nuclear bombs. Within, at the most, ten years, some of those bombs are going off. I am saying this as responsibly as I can. That is the certainty. On the one side, therefore, we have a finite risk. On the other side, we have a certainty of disaster. Between a wish and a certainty, a sane man does not hesitate.

It is the plain duty of scientists to explain the either/or. It is a duty which seems to me to live in the moral nature of the scientific activity itself.

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