Scientists’ Moral Obligations in the Nuclear Age



On October 22, 2002 The San Francisco Chronicle‘s headline read, “Resurgence of Nuclear Labs: Scientists Design New Weapons for Terror War, Plan New Underground Tests.”

The next day, on October 23, 2002, The San Francisco Chronicle published an article titled “The Shame of the Politicians” by Daniel Ellsberg.

What is the ethical challenge for scientists in the 21st century? As the current Bush Administration prepares for a war in Iraq, the use of nuclear weapons has been suggested again.  The politicians are the ones who supposedly represent the voice of the people and who decide in times of unrest if the military people will have the green light to push or not the button of destruction and suffering.  It is well known that after torturing humanity by war, the military people accuse the politicians, saying that they had just obeyed their command.  History has taught the wise that neither military personnel nor politicians are able to escape the condemnation of humanity after the destruction of war.  The Nuremberg trials have not been forgotten.  But it seems that the arrogance of power blinds military personnel as well as politicians to plan to kill and torture thousands, if not millions, of innocent civilians once again, and to once again take the risk of global catastrophe.

In this disgusted scenario play, there is a very large number of citizens, among whom are some of our friends and relatives, who make possible the evil of war.  They are the ones who build, maintain, and increase the war machine in every country every day.  They are doing it silently in their laboratories and offices, completely absorbed with numbers and equations, most of them completely isolated from social responsibilities by choice.  While they have always enjoyed high salaries and prestige from their societies, they have not been held accountable for the war crimes, the crimes against humanity that their bombs have committed.  They are the ones who have created such a monster which when unleashed will consume the whole world.  They are the ones who have built the biological, chemical, nuclear and conventional weapons.  Many citizens completely ignore the medical consequences of today’s wars (from depleted uranium in Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan) because they have been kept uninformed by their own governments.  Please see some of the results of using weapons made with depleted uranium at:

Scientists and engineers have built thousands of weapons of unthinkable destruction and they still continue to design new weapons for state terror.  Many of these scientists like to put Einstein’s picture on the wall of their offices but have not been interested to find out Einstein’s position on military research. They know Einstein more because of his scientific success than his ethical views. Einstein condemned war. On October 1, 1952, responding to questions about the atom bomb, he said: “You are mistaken in regarding me as a kind of chieftain of those scientists who abuse science for military purposes.  I have never worked in the field of applied science, let alone for the military.  I condemn the military mentality of our times just as you do.  Indeed, I have been a pacifist all my life and regard Gandhi as the only truly great political figure of our age.” 

Because of his moral views Einstein was marginalized and he was not associated with the Manhattan Project leading to the making of the atomic bomb. In a statement to the War Resisters International in 1931 he wrote, “I appeal to all men and women to declare that they will refuse to give any further assistance to war or to preparation of war” and later he wrote, “My pacifism is an instinctive feeling, a feeling that possesses me, because the murder of people is disgusting.  My attitude is not derived from any intellectual theory but is based on my deepest antipathy to every kind of cruelty and hatred.”  On February 16, 1931, addressing several hundred students at the California Institute of Technology, Einstein said,  “If you want your life’s work to be useful to mankind, it is not enough that you understand applied science as such.  Concern for man himself must always constitute the chief objective of all technological effort, concern for the big, unsolved problems of how to organize human work and the distribution of commodities in such a manner as to assure that the results of our scientific thinking may be a blessing to mankind, and not a curse.  Never forget this when you are pondering over your diagrams and equations”

Let the families and friends of those scientists and engineers working for the war machine ask them to consider the consequences of their work, and finally, to consider resigning, as I did on January 31, 2000, and as several other scientists have done.  They should not ignore the results of their work anymore, and they should not continue working on the death machine without being disturbed by the unilateral threats of their government to use nuclear weapons or any other weapons against sovereign nations.  They should know that according to the International Court of Justice, morally indefensible and legally impermissible war acts are about to be committed again.  These acts would not be possible without the work of their hands and minds.  They should know that it is time for them to be held accountable for any atrocious acts committed against humanity in the future.  When there are no longer scientists willing to fill the laboratories of death, these laboratories themselves will disappear too.

On October 29, 2002, an article in The Guardian titled “US Weapons Secrets Exposed” shows that the U.S. is developing a new generation of weapons that undermine and possibly violate international treaties on biological and chemical warfare.

Michael Anastasio, the nuclear weapons designer who was recently named director of Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, said, “I actually had a fear for the future viability of the lab.  It just feels very different now.  It’s a positive tone as opposed to a going out of business tone.”  It is time that the rest of the scientists outside of the weapons work area publicly condemn the work of their colleagues and their continuing involvement in promoting the proliferation of terror. 

Knowledge without character and science without humanity leads to violence, to paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi.  State violence, rather than terrorists, will lead our world into unthinkable agony and soon after, into extinction unless we soon match our knowledge and power with responsibility.

Mr. Andreas Toupadakis, Ph.D. is a Former Research Scientist of Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories.