Hippocrates and the Holocaust
"A Hippocratic oath-`I say NO to everything that helps promote wars and lets people die" may not only be an intellectual game. How would a binding scientific ethic appear that soberly and rationally confronts the possible apocalypse? On one side, gthere is no denying or forgetting the accumulated knowledge. On the other side, everything that can be done is separated from everything that may be done."
Hippocrates and the Holocaust
On the Responsibility of Science in a Dark Time
By Walter Jens
[This article is translated from the German on the World Wide Web. Walter Jens, born in 1923, is professor of rhetoric at the University of Tubingen.]
Up to today the natural science enlightenment has not realized but reversed the chance of enlightenment. Visions are crucial, the original "project" to raise humanity to a second nature liberated from pressures and foreign determinations aiming at the autonomy not self-sufficiency of subjects and contributing to the re-reconciliation of science and morality. Such visions are not lacking.
Albert Einstein's design of a new way of thinking transcending domination and Albert Schweitzer's definition of ethics as "reverence for life", above all "renewal of culture" as in Schweitzer's treatise "Culture and Criticism" are only possible if ethics becomes again the cause of thinking persons and individuals assert themselves in society as ethical personalities. To the extent that we realize this, society will become an ethical society out of a pure natural reality. In possession of the absolute standard of the ethical, we will no longer allow principles of expediency and the most vulgar opportunity to be made palatable as ethics. In grand pedantry, all oppositions, convictions and ideals can be measured with standards adjusted through the absolute ethic of reverence for life.
Only what is consistent with humanity should be validated.. Is this announcement from the time of the First World War written in the primeval African forest with warring "cultural nations" hurled before his feet only a dramatic, emotional declaration? Is this only a challenge formulated in a very idealistic style to the rulers, the "demented authorities", as Schweitzer wrote, the "political dictators" who "glorify human rights at banquets and crush them in their actions"?
No, it is more, much more, the angry penitential call of a man, a natural scientist, physician and theologian whose baroque preaching: "Repent, before it is too late" was directed not only to the governing but also to his own guild who offer their knowledge in the service of power and the service of war!
Viewed this way, Albert Schweitzer alongside Einstein and Georg Friedrich Nicolai was among that handful of just persons who long before nuclear fission thought through the question how the original sin of science - Protagoras' triumph over the poet of Antigone! - could be rescinded - out of what conviction and for what inalienable ethical premises... a question conceptualized today in a moment when the dialectic of omnipotence and powerlessness appears in its extreme and final consequence. "However long and even if it lasts eternally", as Gunther Anders prophesied in the "Antiquatedness of Humanity", "this age is the last. Its differentia specifica, the possibility of our self-extinction, can never end but is the end itself".
In this situation the total triumph of scientific discovery could mean the end of all research. In this situation, two things are indispensable: first, a sober summary referring to yesterday. Reflecting, collecting and listing all the inventions contribute to moving closer the "last epidemic" - the threatening holocaust. Fritz Haber, the "father of the gas war", and Edward Teller are invited to a great imaginary disputation. Einstein would comment on his letter to the president. Oppenheimer would speak. Brecht adds the remark that scientists should consider that there are only defeats and no victories any more in the age of nuclear wars and that supposed victories are the most graceless defeats. "When the first announcements (of the dropping of bombs on Hiroshima) reached Los Angeles", we read in Brecht's journal, "people knew this meant the end of the dreaded war and the return of sons and brothers. However the big city was in astonishing mourning." The playwright heard only fear from chauffers and sellers at the fruit markets. "It was victory but also the disgrace of defeat."
Elaborating the history of their discipline together with its dialectic would be the first task of the natural scientist in the sign of the threatening catastrophe - mourning work, not apportioning of blame. Secondly, historical analysis turned to the present must follow scientific-theoretical reflection on the responsibility of physicists, biologists and medical doctors in a moment when they lost their innocence once and for all - a neutrality exempt from time. A disputation could be staged, a polemical argument between Edward Teller and James Franck.
Teller: "Science is not responsible for the laws of nature. Its task is merely to find out how these laws function. The challenge of the scientist consists in finding ways to make these laws subject to the human will. On the other hand, the function of the scientist is not to decide whether bombs are built, whether they are used or how they are used." As a response, James Franck and his team protest: "In the past, scientists could refuse all direct responsibility for humanity's use of their unselfish discoveries. Now we are forced to be active because the successes achieved in the area of nuclear energy are bound with infinitely greater dangers than all inventions of the past." Here is Edward Teller and there is James Franck. The decision who has right and morality on his side seems simple but in truth is not.
The majority of scientists still speak like Franck but act like Teller. Where are the reasons for the schizophrenia causing naturalists to leave the exploitation of their research to the powerful even though they knew first that the decision-making authorities (one thinks of the mockery of physicists by General Groves in dropping bombs on Nagasaki) did not consider the scruples of researchers, even though secondly they had a very different presentiment than their predecessors "about the atrocities against humanity" to which the mastery of nature can lead, to speak with Brecht, although thirdly they must be taught through history that the most barbaric powers like to use seemingly apolitical scientists to convert their goals into reality and although fourthly and lastly they must recognize today the extent to which supposedly free basic research was driven from 1984 by the demands of the armament lobby and military bureaucrats.
Although, although, although! What is the reason? Why this accumulated responsibility of science despite the knowledge, awareness of problems and high moral standards of thousands of scientists, despite all the insight in human ambivalence, seemingly incorruptible research and general renunciation on war-promoting activity? What causes the worldwide timidity to resist where one's own ruin has long threatened with the destruction of the other? What is the reason for secret complicity with a power openly aiming at the elimination of the adversary on the part of enlightened scientists who promote suicide not only murder?
This schizophrenia is rampant because individual scientists not science have a binding moral code in the sense of a hippocratic oath for doctors and thus do not see themselves in a position for analyzing scientifically with their own resources the congruence of ethics and science made imperative by the potential holocaust... This is the condition sine qua non of the comprehensive refusal of a science which sees its goal, relieving the travail of human existence, inverted into its opposite by submissiveness to the military industry.
Science should strive to fulfill that postulate uniting responsibility ethics - reflecting on consequences - and a conviction ethics which the philosopher and theologian Kurt Weisshaupt proposed ten years ago in his essay "On the Irresponsibility of the Scientist": "The sciences must advance from individual and subjective to an inter-subjective and scientific justification strategy. As a research complex, every science has to develop a scientific ethic which concretizes decisional processes and responsibility on all planes within science in relation to the real life world."
A scientific ethic can be formed as a binding social morality capable of consensus. The integrity of researchers, as Albert Einstein said, "may be more important for their generation and for the course of history than pure intellectual achievements." (... ) A scientific ethic in the sense of the hippocratic oath is indispensable for overcoming the division of labor in vocation and privacy in a late but not yet last hour... Regarding schizophrenia, Karl Jaspers said in the treatise "The Atomic Bomb and the Future of Humanity": "Where vocational work is carried out, the other, the conscience, is silent." The executing one does not see himself as responsible for executing the command in his profession. The final goal or ultimate objective is not considered since it is not one's affair. When this whole is a crime, he did not command it."
Overcoming the discrepancy of science and ethics through sober self-reflections on the consequences of one's action, the little oversimplifications about the great perversions, means complementing the obligation of serving the illumination of the verum with the self-command that says: when the verum becomes a fetish, enlarging the humanity potential is not a challenge of science but an offense against its function since its correlate, the bonum, disappears from view.
Verum et bonum, one is not possible without the other, has to develop a new kind of thinking in the sense of Einstein's demand that the survival of humanity is at stake. Verum et bonum is the maxim of a science aware of its social obligation and of the sophoclean identity of human greatness and human hubris (verum sine bono).
A hippocratic oath - "I say No to everything that helps promote war and lets me, people like me and the world in which I live, die" - is good and beautiful. Nothing can be said against a binding scientific ethic that makes everyone who violates its prohibitions into an outcast unendurable in the ranks of science, as Brecht would say. However this may not only be an intellectual game. How would the premises of a binding scientific ethic appear, a morality historically derived and not only designed ad hoc that soberly and rationally confronts the possible apocalypse?...
On one side there is no denying or forgetting the accumulated knowledge. "What was once conceived", we read in Durrenmatt's "The Physicist", cannot be retracted." On the other side, "everything that can be done" is separated from "everything that may be done." Science first proves itself as human and masterful in limitation through voluntary renunciation...
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