Bringing Philosophy to Life Episode #19
BRINGING PHILOSOPHY TO LIFE #19:
In the previous episode, I quoted a line from Christopher Nolan’s latest film in which it was said “[President] Truman told his staff never again to admit that “crybaby” to his office.” Nolan’s film drew heavily on the book American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin that is currently at the top of the New York Times list of bestselling nonfiction. In the book, the account of Truman’s words concerning Oppenheimer and his worry about what he accomplished by developing the atomic bomb is more elaborate.
Oppenheimer was meeting with President Truman in the Oval Office when he said “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands” (American Prometheus, Kindle Version, p. 332). Truman reportedly responded by saying that as the Commander-In-Chief, it was he who ordered dropping the bomb—he was the one with blood on his hands. According to Bird and Sherwin, Truman later told Dean Acheson: “I don’t want to see that son-of-a-bitch in this office ever again.” Later, in May of 1946, Truman wrote to Acheson and described Oppenheimer as a “cry-baby scientist” (p. 332).
In this episode, I will take a closer look at the role of scientists in concrete human affairs and their ethical responsibility for the part they played in developing the theory and the technology related to nuclear weapons. I will also consider the medical advice and practice related to the Covid pandemic as well as the research and recommendations by scientists concerning the current environmental crisis. Was Dr. Anthony Fauci, former Medical Advisor to the President of the United States, a crybaby? Are the scientists who link the depletion of vital natural resources, such as ground water, to excessive global warming crybabies? What about the scientists who are alarmed about the link between human use of fossil fuels and the global warming they believe is already causing environmental disaster?
The nuclear threat that worried Oppenheimer not only persists but has grown to a nightmarish level. On August 29, 2023, The Economist published a piece titled “Oppenheimer’s Nightmares” that claims the new nuclear arms race will be “harder to stop than the contest of the cold war.” The current treaty between Russia and the United States, called “New Start,” began in 2011. It is no longer in effect, although the stipulated limit on the number of nuclear warheads is still being observed. Under “New Start” both sides regularly notified each other about the movement of missiles and bombers, and there were regular inspections. Those notifications have stopped, and there have been no inspections since March 2020. “The danger of ‘a chain reaction that would destroy the entire world’— the words spoken by Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, at the end of Christopher Nolan’s eponymous film—looms ever larger” (The Economist, August 29, 2023). In accord with the treaty, the number of nuclear warheads declined from 70,400 in 1986 to 12,500 today, but that process is coming to an end for four main reasons: “America’s abandonment of agreements, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s nuclear build-up, and disruptive technology” (The Economist, August 29, 2023). In 2002 President George W. Bush withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, an agreement that limited anti-missile defenses. The U.S. reportedly terminated the agreement because of threats from North Korea and Iran. “In 2019 another Republican president, Donald Trump, pulled out of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (which limited that category of missiles), citing cheating by Russia and China’s rise” (The Economist, August 29, 2023).
“New Start” will expire in February of 2026; it will probably not be renewed or replaced. “For that, blame Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its repeated threats to use nuclear weapons. … Each side has since become ever less certain about the other’s posture, magnifying the risk of nuclear brinkmanship—especially at a time when the Kremlin is at war. Poland says Russia has started moving tactical weapons to Belarus” (The Economist, August 29, 2023). According to that same report, The Pentagon estimates that China’s stockpile of nuclear weapons may be as large as 1,500 by 2035. And, finally, “New technologies could aggravate matters. Hypersonic missiles are harder to detect and shoot down than ballistic ones. Improvements in sensors and accuracy heighten worries about a disabling surprise attack. The spread of AI raises questions of how far nuclear war might be fought by computers” The Economist, August 29, 2023). “On screen Oppenheimer is told that he has given people ‘the power to destroy themselves.’ The question now is whether humanity still has the power to save itself in the face of new nuclear nightmares” (The Economist, August 29, 2023).
On August 28, 2023, The New York Times began a series of articles designed to explore a hidden aspect of the current environmental crisis. According to the Times, “another climate crisis is unfolding, underfoot and out of view. Many of the aquifers that supply 90 percent of the nation’s water systems, and which have transformed vast stretches of America into some of the world’s most bountiful farmland, are being severely depleted. These declines are threatening irreversible harm to the American economy and society as a whole” (Mira Rojanasakul, Christopher Flavelle, Blacki Migliozzi, and Eli Murray, The New York Times, August 28, 2023,). What makes this significant news is that the authors interviewed “more than 100 experts, traveling the country and creating a comprehensive database using millions of readings from monitoring sites. The investigation reveals how America’s life-giving resource is being exhausted in much of the country, and in many cases it won’t come back. Huge industrial farms and sprawling cities are draining aquifers that could take centuries or millenniums to replenish themselves if they recover at all” (The New York Times, August 28, 2023).” The most alarming part of this report is the claim that the damage being done is “irreversible” and that the ground water, which has been collecting for thousands of years, “won’t come back.”
Another aspect of this story poses a question from that branch of philosophy known as epistemology—the theory of knowledge. Consider this excerpt from The New York Times report:
To get the clearest picture possible of the state of groundwater in the United States, The Times interviewed scientists, policymakers, and hydrological experts in addition to building its national database of millions of measurements from wells used to measure groundwater depth.
The analysis of that data, some of it collected from wells that have been tracked for a century, enabled The Times to cross-reference water levels over time with crop cover and population patterns. Results were also compared against readings from sophisticated satellites that can estimate groundwater changes from space by measuring subtle shifts in gravity.
Recent data from those satellites, which are operated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and funded by NASA, also show aquifers in decline (The New York Times, August 28, 2023).
The form of knowledge that we find in the sciences is fallible, not certain. That means scientific conclusions are always open to being questioned, reexamined, and revised considering new information and better ways of thinking and formulating what we discover. Rather than being a weakness in scientific knowledge, this feature is one of its great strengths, as is made clear by philosophers such as Karl Popper and C.S. Peirce. If scientific claims to knowledge cannot be refuted and revised, we have dogma, not the kind of knowledge we need to adjust to a changing world and to our previous errors. Peirce calls this form of knowledge “asymptotic,” which means that we never reach a final resting place but that we can make progress, especially by rejecting what seems to be false. For example, during previous pandemics many people attributed the cause of the disease to evil spirits and turned to witch doctors. Now we focus on scientific explanations, even though there is no consensus about what caused the current outbreak of Covid-19. Even when scientists do reach consensus, such claims are also open to reexamination and revision. It is a grave mistake, however, to conclude from the fallible nature of science that there is no knowledge or that total skepticism is justified. The empirical sciences do not produce absolute knowledge, but they do offer hypothetical knowledge that is extremely valuable for the kind of life that limited human beings live in a finite world.
President Truman’s designation of Oppenheimer as a “crybaby” encourages the dismissal of science that is popular today in some segments of the political realm. Simply denying human responsibility for global warming or dismissing the notion of a “tipping point” beyond which recovery is impossible is not a responsible approach. This is especially true when we are considering the possibility of nuclear war, climate change that might lead to the extinction of the human species, or a pandemic that could kill billions of people.
The philosophical distinction between (a) universal principles and (b) applying those principles in the actual world is especially important when we make moral judgments. To help clarify the difference, I would distinguish between “morality” and “ethics.” Morality is concerned with what is good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust, and similar values. Here is my definition of ethics: The rational analysis and justification of fundamental moral concepts, decisions, and actions. The moral question Robert Oppenheimer had in mind when he talked with President Truman about having “blood on his hands” concerned whether it was right to develop a weapon that in 1945 killed more than one hundred thousand civilians in Japan. It is also about our responsibility to stop the spread of such weapons and the development of even more powerful ones.
One difficulty with seeking agreement concerning ethical questions comes from the widespread tendency to confuse moral issues with values from other areas of human activity. Too often, so-called moral leaders conflate economic, aesthetic, political, and religious values with moral concerns. As I have argued in previous episodes in this series, only moral claims that have universal application can be rationally justified. What we eat and drink, who we love and choose as life companions (or not), what we read or view, what kind of work we do, and whether we own property and other forms of wealth, are concerns that are not themselves moral issues, though they often have moral implications. Economic values (including the amount of wealth we seek), sexual desires and preferences, aesthetic taste, physical pleasures, and how we choose to spend our personal time are subjective and relative values. They give rise to what Immanuel Kant called “hypothetical imperatives.” If you seek this, then do that. Such value claims are not universal, and they are generally open to individual choice and usually depend on the hand we were dealt at birth or the environment we inhabit for other reasons. What we seek in this category of values, is often subjective and relative.
This is not true of the kind of moral values that are directly related to the three examples I chose for this episode: (1) the threat of nuclear war, (2) the possible tipping point in the climate that seems likely unless we change the way we are altering the natural environment, and (3) how we respond to a global pandemic. Such claims are neither subjective nor relative. They require what Kant called a “categorical imperative,” an unconditional moral obligation that is binding in all circumstances and is not dependent on a person's inclination or purpose. Limiting moral principles to what is universal not only simplifies the process, but it also helps us focus on what really matters. The future of planet Earth matters to the human species and to all other species as well. When Oppenheimer thought about the universal implications of the weapon he helped develop, his nightmares began. Initially, he worried about the possibility that simply testing the atom bomb might cause a chain reaction that would destroy the globe. Then he realized that proliferation of such weapons and the development of the hydrogen bomb entailed another kind of reaction that could put such weapons in the hands of irresponsible nations and individuals, possibly leading to Doomsday.
I embrace Kant’s idea of a categorical imperative concerning universal moral values and his claim that “autonomy of the will” is the “supreme principle of morality.” Only moral values that are freely chosen can be rationally justified. Kant puts it this way: “Autonomy is that characteristic of the will through which it is a law to itself, independent of all other characteristics of the objects of willing (Kant’s Foundations of Ethics, second edition, translated by Leo Rauch and Lieselotte Anderson, Agora Publications, 2007, p. 440). Autonomy has two dimensions: (1) the laws we make for ourselves to regulate our personal lives and (2) the laws we enact as members of a community through the political process. Laws that are forced on us from the outside (heteronomy) have no moral force. That is why democracy alone can provide the political structure that is morally binding. The universal status of that principle comes from the fact that all of us, as moral agents, can choose it. No other moral principle can provide that justification.
Now let’s return to Oppenheimer’s nightmare. It is too late to ask whether the atom bomb should have been developed. It exists, along with the subsequent expansion of nuclear weapons and the global delivery systems that can now send them anywhere, anytime. The immediate question concerns how we can control the monster we have created. Here is a suggestion: No individual, no nation, no corporation, and no organization should be allowed to possess and control nuclear weapons. To achieve that goal, I propose that all nuclear weapons should be placed under the control of the United Nations. If that were to happen, there would be a decision-making body that has the power and authority to prevent nuclear development and proliferation. That would require difficult negotiations and some important changes to the UN as it now exists. I know that is not likely to happen soon, but in principle it could happen.
Nationalism is probably the major barrier to my proposal. John Bolton, who was the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations from 2005 to 2006, strongly resisted even modest delegation of U.S. power for the sake of international cooperation, and today’s MAGA Republicans have joined earlier “America first” initiatives that fostered xenophobia and racism rather than the common good for all of humanity. This is true not only in the United States but throughout the world. Vladimir Putin in Russia, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and Marine LePen in France are other extreme examples of nationalist leaders who would strongly oppose my suggestion.
This example of a potential nuclear war supports the need for a moral vision for the entire globe, a change from nationalism to democratic globalism. How is it possible to justify the claim that taking the risk of destroying humanity and the other species that inhabit this planet is worth taking?