President's Corner

We live in a society where most people make their livelihood by getting paid for services rendered. This mode of cooperation, based on the principle of exchange, imposes responsibilities on the participants. These are some­times explicitly spelled out in profes­sional ethics.

The nature of some of the professions is such that the responsibilities of the professional person rendering services to different people do not necessarily conflict. Although a phy­sician may inadvertently curtail services to one patient because he must serve another, he does not thereby automatically harm the one because he helps the other.

Other professionals, for example, lawyers who are required to serve the interests of a client, often must work against the interests of the client’s rivals, competitors or opponents. This circumstance, acknowledged to be in­herent in the legal profession, is therefore generally accepted.

Similarly, it has been taken as a matter of course through the ages that a ‘soldier “serves his country” and eschews politics. Generally, this has been interpreted to mean that the interests of his country are determined by others, particularly politicians.The soldier’s duty is to further these interests, often by acts of violence, such being natural to his profession. When violent, the services rendered by the soldier for his country very definitely harm others. Moreover, a soldier sometimes does harm to his own country if the war in which he fights was a consequence of a disastrous policy which the soldier was not able (by the ethics of his profession) to question. But this circumstance is also acknowledged to be inherent in the profession of the soldier and therefore generally accepted as unavoidable.

In each of the three instances cited we have rather clear indications of a professional ethos: in the case of the physician, loyalty to the patient or, as implied in the Hippocra­tic Oath, to humanity in general; in the case of the lawyer, loyalty to the client within limits imposed by law; in the case of the soldier, loyalty to his state, in general without any con­straints, especially since the weapons of total destruction have done away with all traditional constraints in war – e.g., sparing civilians.

What about us who call ourselves scientists? Do we have responsibili­ties? If so, what are they? Although analogues of the Hippocratic Oath have been proposed for scientists, they have not been accepted. A scientist does not need a license to “practise”. And it is not clear whom he is supposed to serve. For this reason no generally recognized ethical constraints restrict the activity of a scientist, as disbar­ment restricts the lawyer or a poten­tial malpractice suit restricts a doctor. There is nothing except his own conscience and the opinion of respected colleagues that prevents a psychologist, for instance, from desig­ning ways of persuading people to buy things they don’t need for prices they can’t afford to impress people they don’t like. Similarly, there is nothing except his own conscience and possibly opinions of respected colleagues to inhibit a chemist from working on an effective method of poisoning water reservoirs, a biologist from developing a pathogenic organism against which there is no protection, or a physicist from developing ways of delivering this death-dealing organism without its arrival being detected.

Human life now stands in danger of being extinguished on this planet, and this danger stems entirely from a technology aimed at total destruction.

This technology was made possible by rapid advances of science, coupled with the refusal of many scientists to abandon the conception of science as a “value free” mode of thinking. In this conception science is exclusively instrumental – an enterprise that can find effective means of attaining given goals but chooses to be powerless to evaluate the goals themselves. In other words, the conception of “value free” science makes the profession of the scientist appear similar to that of the soldier.

In contrast to the soldier, all of whose service is to a nation’s power elite,the scientist has served ordinary people by providing means of reducing misery and drudgery, of emancipating human beings from irrational fear and superstitions, of teaching ways of reaching consensus on what is objec­tively true. This promise of science in the service of humanity is incompatible with the threats scientists generate when they choose to serve power exclusively.

One can discern in this dichotomy a social responsibility of the scientist: namely,to refuse to be co-opted into the service of the war machine. The respon­sibility of organizations of scientists such as ours has also become clear: namely, to explore alternative oppor­tunities for creative scientific work.

Surely these exist in every field. Scientists interested in space tech­nology, for instance, could work on surveillance techniques that could make data immediately available to everyone, thus undermining the base of military secrecy. Surely enough imaginative use can be made of exciting new discoveries in biology to entice biologists, especially the young, away from biological warfare research. There is plenty of work for economists to show how the transition from a war to a peace economy can be made with the minimum pain.

In short, we could make our task the finding of alternative fields of endeavour to induce a “brain drain” away from military research and to widen the scope of scientific research directed toward survival. This would create opportunities for governments genuinely dedicated to the pursuit of peace to shift their support to these areas.

— A.R.

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