Saturday, October 15, 2005

EinsteinFest: “Beware of Rotten Compromises”

At what point does compromise betray moral depravity?

Whenever I watch a video or read a book about Anti-Semitism or the Second World War, I wonder about what I would have done in 1930s Germany. Watching Schlindler’s List is only one example of a morality play about compromise played out on the big screen. Reading about the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer also reminds me that there are times when compromise is worst solution possible. Making compromises with totalitarian, racism regimes doesn’t seem possible, but I wonder if I would have had the clarity and strength of conviction if I lived at that time.

Robert Schulman’s lecture this morning at EinsteinFest (“Beware of Rotten Compromises”- The Moral Foundations of Einstein’s Politics) reminded me of the critical dimensions of the moral dilemma in another context, this time in the United States in the 1940s. Einstein and Oppenheimer both faced similar compromises regarding building and deploying an atomic bomb. Einstein had made an attempt to warn the President in 1938 that Germany was probably well on the way to designing an atomic bomb. Whether or not that meant he wanted the United States to build and actually use the bomb before Germany is open to speculation. If he hadn’t been considered a security risk, if his liberal leanings were not obvious, and if his expertise was just oriented just a little bit more towards “practical” applications, what would he have done? Instead, the decision about compromise fell to Robert Oppenheimer.

It is clear Einstein always felt that Oppenheimer had made rotten compromises, that he had sublimated his autonomy and moral discretion in the service of authority. Ironically, those same authorities, under the witch hunt of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Joseph McCarthy, virtually destroyed Oppenheimer’s career.

The Hiroshima bomb developed under Oppenheimer’s direction (called Fatman) was about the size of a Volkswagen Bug and, to that point in history, was the most expensive pound-for-pound device ever manufactured. Without Einstein’s “miracle year” in which he demonstrated the tremendous power available in small amounts of matter, it is unlikely that there would have been a Manhattan Project or a Fatman bomb during the Second World War. I don’t think Einstein compromised his moral foundations in any way by his work on special relativity. With Oppenheimer, the situation is more difficult. He later opposed development of a hydrogen bomb when he was chair of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Maybe that was part of a belated attempt to rectify an earlier rotten compromise.

From my vantage point, Oppenheimer lacked the fortitude and independence of spirit which gave Einstein courage to remain a pacifist. But that judgement doesn’t help me ascertain whose example I would follow under similar conditions. Whether it be 1930s Germany where I would be faced with Anti-Semitism or 1940s United States where I could be faced with building a bomb to kill hundreds of thousands of people, I am not sure what I would do. But I will remember Einstein’s famous aphorism if and when I have tough moral decisions to make.

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