Thursday, September 17, 2015

The sin of the scientist

Isaac Asimov
In an article published in 1969 with the same title as this one, Isaac Asimov argued that science should be subject to ethical constraints, and analyzed several cases in which a scientific discovery could be considered morally unacceptable. I consider here a few cases, not necessarily the same as those chosen by Asimov, and later will comment on his conclusion.
  • The medical experiments with the Jews in concentration camps by Dr. Mengele and other Nazi doctors, or by the Japanese with their American prisoners. Even in such a blatant case, the perpetrators could find an ethical justification on their deeds, arguing that, as their victims were inferior beings who had no right to life, it was right to use them for experiments that could be beneficial to other human beings that enjoyed that right. It is an unacceptable justification, but they probably used it to silence their conscience.
  • The two atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. This act of war killed over 200,000 non-combatant civilians. During most of Western history, including the first World War, this would have been considered unacceptable. The justification was that dropping the bombs saved the lives of thousands of soldiers, who would have died if the fighting had been prolonged. Is this enough, or are we again comparing the lives of two groups of human beings, some of which are considered more valuable than others? Anyway, Sergeant Leroy Lehman, who recognized Hiroshima before the release of the bomb, ended his days in a monastery.
  • The same argument (that the lives of some human beings are more valuable than those of others) has been used in other circumstances. Sometimes, to increase the strength of the argument, even the human quality of the victims is denied. Some cases are obvious, both in history (slavery) and now (abortion).
First atomic bomb explosion in Alamogordo
In his article, Asimov concluded that there are cases where science has led to morally unjustifiable progress, and pointed at the use of poison gases as a war weapon whose sole purpose was killing human beings. It is noteworthy that the author of this discovery (Fritz Haber) was later awarded the Nobel Prize, not for poison gas, of course, but for other important findings in the field of chemistry (a process for synthesizing ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen).

The same post in Spanish
Thematic Thread on Science in General: Previous Next
Manuel Alfonseca


  1. Interesting post. I too believe science should have ethics attached. I always think of Frankenstein - do we have the right to do what nature does better, simply in the name of science?

    1. Yes, you are right, Frankenstein is apropos, although fictional. And the original novel was much more concerned with the ethics of the research than the film adaptations! In fact, Victor Frankenstein, although he tries to present himself as the victim of the monster, is the real villain in the novel.