Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government


The Scientific Tragedy of the Atomic Bomb

Res Publica

December 1997

by Erica Cook

Throughout history, improperly used science has posed a great threat to society. With the development of the atomic bomb, science has unleashed the means to destroy the world and burdened future generations with its destructive presence. Such threats are the result of unethical science. While for centuries scientists have dedicated themselves to explaining the earth’s mysteries, they have often ignored the moral implications of their discoveries. In Richard Rhodes’ book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, scientist Robert Oppenheimer asserted that "it is a profound and necessary truth that the deep things in science are not found because they are useful; they are found because it was possible to find them." Although research is a scientist’s primary role, Oppenheimer’s statement is dangerous in its meaning. It implies that a scientist’s sole responsibility is to function as nature’s detective; a role too widely defined in its scope. Science, and its practicioner
s, should not be exempt from morality. Nearly all professions—such as medicine and education—are regulated by a basic ethical code. Just as doctors have an ethical responsibility to consider the consequences of their treatments, scientists should be held partially accountable for the applications of their discoveries.

In many ways, the greatest deficiency of modern science is its lack of moral standards. While the purpose of science is to discover knowledge, ethics are virtually absent from the discipline. This deficiency often causes scientists to investigate potentially evil subjects—like the atomic bomb—without ethical guidance. While delivering a lecture in 1936, physicist Francis W. Aston speculated about the consequences of atomic study, warning that:

there are those about us who say that [atomic] research should be stopped by law, alleging that man’s destructive powers are already large enough…Personally, I think there is no doubt that sub-atomic energy is all around us, and that one day man will release and control its almost infinite power. We cannot prevent him from doing so and can only hope that he will not use it exclusively in blowing up his next door neighbor. (141)

Such a statement foretold an era when science would harness the means to annihilate humanity; a condition that stems from a lack of ethics. As a discipline, science answers only questions regarding physical properties, processes and histories; its stringent use of the scientific method marks its distinction from other schools of thought. Moral standards were divorced from science long ago and redistributed to the realm of philosophy. As a result, science no longer has an ethical foundation.

All scientists should be required to learn ethical guidelines that would include absolute standards and exposure to those philosophical modes, such as utilitarianism and relativism, which produce ethical pitfalls. Scientists would then be forewarned of faulty philosophical reasoning; thus, they would possess the ethics necessary to measure the value of their work. Research conducted without applied ethics is morally bankrupt because when scientists lack morals, outside sources can more easily manipulate their work for destructive purposes. In such situations, scientists are likely to adopt the rationalizations of that party to justify their efforts. This dilemma occurred with many of the scientists who conducted nuclear research during WWII. Edward Teller recalled his agreement with President Roosevelt’s description of a scientist’s role in the war effort: "If scientists in free countries will not make weapons to defend the freedom of their countries than freedom will be
lost" (336). From this statement, Teller "believed Roosevelt was not proposing what scientists may do ’but something that was our duty and that we must do…’" (336).

Unfortunately, some scientists actually believe that research without ethics has substantial value. While promoting the value of research, Robert Oppenheimer promoted moral deficiency when he remarked:

It is not possible to be a scientist unless you believe that the knowledge of the world, and the power which this gives, is a thing which is of intrinsic value to humanity, and that you are using it to help in the spread of knowledge, and are willing to take the consequences. (761)

According to this description, a scientist’s only work would be to discover empowering knowledge for humanity; a notion that has value by itself. Such a premise is morally defunct because it does not consider the outcomes of a scientist’s work. If scientists were the only ones affected by their work, then consequences would be confined to the individual. Scientists, however, live in a world where all men use their discoveries and share the consequences. The wrong application of technology can detrimentally influence humanity.

Because scientific discoveries potentially affect all of humanity, scientists should be subject to a minimum of ethical standards when doing their research. For example, in 1934 the Hungarian theoretical physicist Leo Szilard prophetically noted that "the discoveries of scientists…have given weapons to mankind which may destroy our present civilization if we do not succeed in avoiding future wars" (214). Although Szilard was probably referring to military aircraft and "the horrors of strategic bombing…almost certainly he was thinking of atomic bombs" (214). Szilard knew that science was on the brink of developing the technology capable of destroying mankind. Accordingly, atomic research was concentrated in America during WWII. Named the Manhattan Project, this scheme involved a $2 billion investment and the gathering of the world’s greatest scientists, all to build the world’s most destructive weapon.

Despite any peaceful benefits achieved from nuclear technology, its predominant application can still destroy mankind. As citizens of the society that will inherit their discoveries, scientists have a moral duty to consider the consequences of their work. Men have done much to liberate themselves through science. Yet when they use it improperly, they have also caused some of humanity’s greatest miseries. For example, during World War I, poison gases—such as chlorpicrin and dichlorethyl sulfide—were used to efficiently immobilize and kill soldiers. More effective than a thousand bullets, these compounds caused masses of inhumane deaths and many other injuries. Although a blatant violation of the Hague Convention, the method was justified as "a way of saving countless lives, if it meant that the war could be brought to an end sooner" (93). This premise paradoxically sanctions the use of killing as a means of preserving life. Science is used to introduce new and im
moral mechanisms which are historically permanent and intensify violence. Human talents that could have improved humanity are abandoned for more violent pursuits. In this capacity, scientists use their skills to destroy their brothers, convincing themselves that their efforts are humanitarian. The creators of the gasses, "like bargain hunters, imagined they were spending a pittance of tens of thousands of lives to save a purseful more" (95). Using science this way for the preservation of life is morally bankrupt; human lives are not guaranteed. Every time a scientific development—such as gassing—is used to kill more efficiently, a destructive precedent is established for future generations to supersede. Thus, the nature of science is perverted, establishing a new standard of human cruelty; ironically, the occupation that discovers cures for illness also develops methods of mass destruction.

Despite ethical obligations, scientists should not be held responsible for every application of their work because they cannot predict the future. Ethical responsibilities do not obligate a scientist to improve society but to at least morally question his work. It is when deliberate research is conducted for destructive purposes and rationalized as humanitarian that great dilemmas arise. Historically, the destruction during WWI established a precedent for using atomic weapons and saturation bombing in World War II. The old methods of destruction had become inefficient; therefore, new techniques were required. Accordingly, the "most compact, efficient, inexpensive, inexorable mechanisms of total death are nuclear weapons. Since 1945 they have therefore come to dominate the field" (779). Like their predecessors, the new breed of scientists rationalized their atomic developments for shortening the war, ending Hitler’s terror and saving lives. While justifying the
necessity of atomic research after the war, Robert Oppenheimer asserted:

The reason we did this job was because it was an organic necessity. If you are a scientist you cannot stop such a thing…you believe that it is good to find out how the world works; that it is good to find out what the realities are; that it is good to turn over to mankind…the greatest possible power to control the world and to deal with it according to its lights and values. (761)

Although it is a noble intention to empower the world, Oppenheimer’s statement indulges in ethical rationalizations which have no moral foundation. Mankind’s control of nature is by its values, which is a belief or condition held in high esteem. Knowledge given to the contemporary world would be wasted because it is obsessed with expanding destruction.

Despite their role in the discovery of knowledge, scientists are not the only parties at fault for the destructive application of science. Once knowledge leaves a scientist’s hands, he often has little control over how his discoveries will be used. For example, the American military wanted to utilize the atomic bomb before the technology was replicated, thereby using their atomic monopoly to cement a dominant role in the postwar era. "When other countries acquired nuclear weapons, as they would in ’just a few years,’ that advantage would be lost" (637). Rather than share the information, it would be used to intimidate other countries into complying with American political objectives. President Truman’s Secretary of State James Byrnes believed "international relations worked like domestic politics as money was to banking, a medium of enriching exchange. Only naifs and fools gave it away" (635).

When the Trinity test proved its reliability, the atomic bomb became a political weapon removed from the scientific realm. Two atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; cities filled with innocent men, women and children that were vaporized in seconds. Telling themselves it was in the world’s best interest, American political and military personnel created reasons for the bomb’s use and its evil was unleashed. For example, former U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson ironically justified the bombings mainly as a humanitarian endeavor. His:

chief purpose was to end the war in victory with the least possible cost in the lives of the men…In the light of the alternatives…which were open to us I believe that no man…holding in his hands a weapon of such possibilities…could have failed to use it and afterwards looked his countrymen in the face. (696)

This statement is a prime example of the danger ethically unguided science and politics pose to mankind. When both are manipulated, the world is endangered by great opportunities for destruction. Politicians eager to pursue their agendas manipulate science for their own ends, while scientists eager to empower the world unleash harmful information. Ultimately, scientists should be careful because their efforts are the primary source of harmful technology.

The world was irrevocably changed with the initiation of the nuclear era. Although not currently embroiled in war, the world has spent half a century in preparation for nuclear fallout. Many people would argue that the devices themselves created peace, but it is an existence established through fear. Danish theoretical physicist, Niels Bohr recognized that nuclear technology had engulfed the world "in a new situation that cannot be resolved by war" (532). When nuclear weapons "spread to other countries…no one would be able any longer to win. A spasm of nuclear destruction would be possible. But not war" (532). Because he believed such a future was inevitable, he envisioned a world so terrorized by nuclear weapons that it would unify mankind. Nevertheless, Bohr and his compatriots were not rationalizing peace but a nuclear cold war. The future they foretold has become psychologically imprisoned by fear and hatred; a world unable to distinguish between
fear and safety. I. I. Rabi remarked that:

the lesson we should learn from all this…and the frightening thing we did learn during the course of the war, was…how it is easy to kill people when you turn your mind to it. When you turn the resources of modern science to the problem of killing people, you realize how vulnerable they really are. (779)

Rabi’s statement is the crux of unethical science. Scientists must be subject to ethical guidelines lest their efforts let mankind destroy itself.

Erica Cook is a senior from North Canton, Ohio studying Political Science and Journalism-English.


Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Simon and Schuster, 1986.

Get Email Updates

Subscribe to the Email Update