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Nuclear Weapons and the Moral Accountability of the Йmigrй Scientists

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Essay title: Nuclear Weapons and the Moral Accountability of the Йmigrй Scientists


In the years following the discovery of nuclear fission, the prospects of this new phenomena having some technological application (in the form of a bomb) were gradually realised. During this period, Leo Szilard and fellow йmigrй scientists involved in the Manhattan Project became clearly entangled between their moral obligations to the United States, to the scientific community, and possibly even to their homeland in Europe. By analysing the details of key events, this paper will aim to explain exactly what their moral obligations to each party were, and to what extent these obligations were adhered to, up until VJ-Day . By the conclusion it will be clear that the йmigrйs primarily honoured their obligations to the U.S. government over and above those to the scientific community.

Experiment and Censorship:

Even four years before fission was proven, Szilard intuitively sensed its possibility. What’s more striking were his efforts to censor his first successful chain reaction experiment with Enrico Fermi in 1939. Both the experiment, and the censorship of it begged two important moral questions: Were Szilard and colleagues morally justified in exclusively deciding not to publish information which (according to them) if made public, could have been used by the Nazis to help them do the unthinkable? And were they morally justified in trying to discover such facts knowing that, if they found what they were looking for, it could lead to such a deadly weapon?

Both questions must take into consideration that, at the time of Szilard’s experiment, the U.S. was still more than 3 years from declaring war on their only WWII enemy, Japan (and not Germany). There is a possibility that йmigrйs decision may have been influenced by the fact that the Nazis posed a threat to their European homeland. But even leaving this aside, it would be difficult to conclude that by not sharing this information, that the decision of the йmigrйs was morally justified. The йmigrйs should have known that, if correct, this data was going to have an impact not only on science, but (as later realised) the future security of nations, including their own. By choosing to censor this information, they unequivocally forgoed their moral obligation to the scientific community (which was to disclose it). What’s more by taking this stance, they were not even (as they believed) acting in the best interests of their country. There is no historical record of the йmigrйs even considering to consult the government, which (unlike the scientists) had been elected by the people to make decisions (on their behalf) about issues such as this, which would ultimately impact on their lives. So, presuming they were not considering this course of action, censoring these results was clearly not morally justified to science or their government.

With reference to the second question, and in defence of the йmigrйs, there is little doubt that they were morally justified (both to science and their country) in carrying out this research which could, if successful (and whether they knew of its potential or not) assist in the creation of such deadly technology. In fact, they would have been in breach of their moral duties to both the scientific community and their government, if they had not decided to proceed on those grounds. Similarly, an astrophysicist has a moral duty to their government and to science to look for threatening asteroids which (with reference to the first question), if found, must be disclosed to at least one (or both) parties in order to fulfil their moral obligation to them. This leads to the final two questions of this essay: Were the йmigrйs morally justified in championing (in the way they did) the need for building a nuclear weapon? And of greater importance, were they morally justified in (as they did) advising the government on its use?

Circumstances, Motives and the Advisory Role:

Again, their circumstances raised at the beginning of the third paragraph may have had some bearing here, but will not be considered in depth. If these circumstances did influence the йmigrйs need for a weapon, their moral responsibilities to U.S. government and the scientific community was in direct competition for, if not superseded by, what they saw as their moral responsibility to the people of their homeland. Despite how influential these circumstances were, the йmigrйs should be commended in having (unlike most of their colleagues) the foresight to correctly predict how close the world was to realising nuclear weaponry. The most concerning aspect of their involvement however, was their urgency to have the bomb built before the Nazis. Their only obligations as scientists were to assess and advise on (based on the evidence they had)

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