Tuesday, October 06, 2009

On Responsibility and Indifference

This post was triggered by reading about J R Oppenheimer's reaction at the successful detonation of a trial atomb bomb, a little prior to bombing of Hiroshima:
Dr. Oppenheimer, on whom had rested a very heavy burden, grew tenser as the last seconds ticked off. He scarcely breathed. He held on to a post to steady himself. For the last few seconds, he stared directly ahead and then when the announcer shouted "Now!" and there came this tremendous burst of light followed shortly thereafter by the deep growling roar of the explosion, his face relaxed into an expression of tremendous relief

To put his reaction in perspective, the bombs killed as many as 140,000 people in Hiroshima alone.

In this case, I am willing to grant he did not have any malice towards the thousands of innocent people in Hiroshima. He was just doing his job. Neither can it be said that he was unaware of the destruction the bomb was going to cause. Hence it is neither malice, nor ignorance. But this was an extremely violent act.

The bombing was a pressure tactic to force Japan to adhere to the terms of surrender.

To be sure, most of us are not directly engaged in destructive acts. However, we are ignorant of the long-term or otherwise distant implications of our acts (on ourselves, as well as on others and on our environment), as is amply borne out by psychological neuroses and environmental pollution. A measure of obliviousness seems to be essential if one is to enjoy the fruits of civilized society.

To what extent is an individual responsible for the consequences of acts in which he acts as a conduit, or a participant? What are your reactions and thoughts on this?

Is absence of malice enough?

(A related earlier post)


Anonymous said...


You are reading Oppenheimer's reported thoughts and the Wiki link also provides that he thought that : "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

It is too simplistic a reading and you are giving way too much benefit of doubt to him in not knowing in advance that many would be killed. Even a simple bomb would kill people and destroy property and it seemed a game to him and that is why he is reported to have exclaimed: " It worked".

Purposeful violent act of this proportion cannot be compared with the one's you seem to be pointing towards in the latter part of the blog post.

That we are unaware of the acts we commit every day which are filled with malice can be explained away and benefit of doubt earned the way you give it away so easily to Oppenheimer. My mother hit me when i was 6 to punish me for putting my finger in the electric plug as it was a game for me. I slapped mine for doing the same as repeated attempts to get her off did not drive the point home. She will probably do the same to her's ( if she has any). So my mother is a culprit because her's was and I am and mine will be....


perhaps you look at everything too much from YOUR OWN perspective. A shift perhaps will make available other perspectives too which you will be surprised to know are yours too. As an experiment, take up one perspective you have about something you feel strongly about and verify it and talk about it to 10 different people ( whom you think are given to thoughtful thinking like yourself) and LISTEN to what they say. Instead of 'believing' in your perspective , try listening to theirs and then see what happens to your original premise.

with best intentions!

Susan said...

To what extent is an individual responsible for the consequences of acts in which he acts as a conduit, or a participant? What are your reactions and thoughts on this?

-He/she is responsible in the sense that he/she is the cause for the consequences, individually or collectively. As far as moral responsibility goes, any set of rules may seem questionable and there could be no definite answer.

Is absence of malice enough?

- Depends on the context.
For humanity in present state, complete absence of malice itself can do wonders. Removal of ignorance on top of it may be a bit too much to ask for...though they may be inter related in a way.
In a broader sense, may be it does not matter either way. nature doesn't seem to be bothered by it or else it might have been eradicated by now.

Rick Bomstein said...


Interesting post. I am actually reading Freeman Dyson's biography right now (Disturbing the Universe), in which he discusses his friendship with Oppenheimer (and the complexities of the man ultimately responsible for designing the bomb). I think your question is legitimate, particularly given that none of us can understand what it was like to be involved in that project at that time (not knowing if or when the Germans would get their own bomb), and certainly not what it was like to be Oppenheimer.

Perhaps more interestingly, Dyson has a passage about how he (during WWII) abandoned his own principles one by one, ultimately morphing from a committed pacifist to a willing participant in large-scale murder. Judging the motivations of others is a difficult task indeed...

"I began to look backward and to ask myself how it happened that I let myself become involved in this crazy game of murder. Since the beginning of the war I had been retreating step by step from one moral position to another, until at the end I had no moral position at all. At the beginning of the war I believed fiercely in the brotherhood of man, called myself a follower of Gandhi, and was morally opposed to all violence. After a year of war I retreated and said, unfortunately non-violent resistance against Hitler is impracticable, but I am still morally opposed to bombing. A few years later I said, unfortunately it seems that bombing is necessary in order to win the war, and so I am willing to go to work for Bomber Command, but I am still morally opposed to bombing cities indiscriminately. After I arrived at Bomber Command I said, unfortunately it turns out that we are after all bombing cities indiscriminately, but this is morally justified as it is helping to win the war. A year later I said, unfortunately it seems that our bombing is not really helping to win the war, but at least I am morally justified in working to save the lives of the bomber crews. In the last spring of the war I could no longer find any excuses. Mike had fought single-handed the battle of the escape hatches and had indeed saved many lives. I had saved none. I had surrendered one moral principle after another, and in the end it was all for nothing."

Harmanjit Singh said...

Rick: thanks for your response. So is /any/ principle (moral or otherwise) inviolable?

Each principle can be countered by corner conditions in which it is seen to reach its limits of sensibility.

Rick Bomstein said...


Well put. Reminds me of the old philosophical riddle about a train headed for a group of 10 people, but you can pull a switch that will move it to a track with only one person. Would you pull the switch? Should you? What if the situations were reversed (so the train is headed for the single person)? Isn't not pulling the switch in that situation the same as pulling the switch in the other? (There is yet another variation that asks, if one is willing to pull the switch in the first scenario, what about throwing someone onto the track to stop the train? Same result (and morally equivalent), but obviously far fewer people would do it...)

This can be applied to the Oppenheimer example (in two ways). First, one can argue (as many do) that Oppenheimer actually saved lives by creating the bomb, since without it the Japanese would never have stopped fighting. This is of course impossible to prove one way or another. But the point is that it absolves Oppenheimer of responsibility for killing about 200,000 Japanese, since on net he saved lives (including Japanese who would have been killed in a US invasion).

The second issue is whether--if Oppenheimer truly believed this to be the case--it matters whether he was correct or not. Let's take it a step further. What if Oppenheimer believed he had been visited by an alien race that told him they would destroy the Earth unless he created a bomb to drop on Japan? From his perspective, the bombs he created actually saved billions of lives! How can we fault him for that?

Along similar lines, the first thing I thought of when I saw your comment was Camus' The Stranger, in which the "hero" kills another man, but is then punished primarily because he is seen to be callous and uncaring. In other words, society feels compelled to punish him not so much for committing the crime, but rather because he does not regret it.

Of course, this is not so different from the "justice" currently practiced by most of society. In the US, we have "hate crime" statutes, which means punching someone carries a stiffer penalty if a jury believes I did it because the other person was black, or homosexual, or some other protected minority. So here again, we are reading tea leaves to divine people's intentions.

To me, the bottom line is that I only have control over my own life (and even that is debatable due to the vagaries of free will). But of course that is ducking the question...

I guess my answer is that in order for humans to live with some semblance of peace and harmony, it seems rules are required. Unfortunately, these rules will (by necessity) end up being completely random and arbitrary, but they will nevertheless provide a sense (albeit illusory) of fairness.

BTW, I've attached a link to a NY Times piece by Steven Pinker that deals with many of these issues - a fascinating read:



Harmanjit Singh said...

Hi Rick, well put.

Let me think about these issues and I'll respond...

Harmanjit Singh said...

Hi Rick,

For the majority of humans, who are engaged in the struggle for survival, abstract morality and thoughts of consequences for the world are probably luxuries. (at the risk of sounding elitist) Some laws and rules are probably ok for them.

My question is for those who are privileged amongst us, who have that luxury of choice and considered action.

The question is also significant because one of the criticisms of technology is that no matter how carefully it is designed, nature is so complex that we will end up disturbing the finely balanced harmony.

The question is: How much to think about consequences, while living one's life? Too much, and there is paralysis. Too little, and there is unintended harm.

I am inclined to answer that since consequences are in theory infinitely stretched into the future, it is an unliveable ideal to seek to have the best possible outcome for any action. What is more practical is to accept that some harm is inevitable in living, and larger actions (e.g. building a big dam, or firing a rocket) should involve proportionally larger thought. A starting definition of "larger" can be in terms of expenditure (or consumption) of energy.

Rick Bomstein said...


But doesn't such an approach introduce the concept that some actions are more consequential than others? Also that some outcomes are preferable to others?

Further, to the extent we try to make such calculations we are by necessity not living in the moment, but rather trying to control an indeterminate (at least as far as we know) future.

I would argue that a preferable approach is to eschew all such calculations and simple live in the manner we think "best" from moment to moment. Since we cannot know what is "best" for the future (and indeed, cannot even define what that would mean), we should base actions on present conditions rather than predictions of the future. As Thict Nhat Hanh once put it:

"The best way of preparing for the future is to take good care of the present, because we know that if the present is made up of the past, then the future will be made up of the present. All we need to be responsible for is the present moment. Only the present is within our reach. To care for the present is to care for the future."

Harmanjit Singh said...

Hi Rick

Causation is a fact of life. Planning for the future has enabled flourishing of humans as compared to other species (not considering the adverse effects of rapid technological progress).

I consider planned convenience as a valid goal. Happiness (and the contemplation of life and existence, and deep thinking) can be enabled by comfort, security and prosperity.

Even though it doesn't "ultimately" matter, something may be of preference in our limited life term.

To engage in "worthwhile" activities which have temporal consequences, knowing that they don't ultimately matter (as you once mentioned in your blog post "Who is the absurd man" about the inventors of DNA), seems to me to be a sensible attitude. :-)

Rick Bomstein said...


You say: "Happiness (and the contemplation of life and existence, and deep thinking) can be enabled by comfort, security and prosperity." While true, could you not also say the same things contribute to our anxieties and fears?

The poor man who toils dawn to dusk has no time for deep thinking, yet he is also spared from worries about whether or not his life has meaning, or if he has enough saved for retirement, or whether he has the "right" friends, etc. Perhaps more pertinently, animals such as dolphins seem extraordinarily happy despite their complete lack of knowledge, technology, etc.

I guess my question is whether we are really "better off" due to what we consider human progress ("better" defined as happier). Studies of human happiness have shown a remarkable lack of correlation between happiness and wealth--once we have enough to eat and a place to live, "more" does not make us happier.

That said, I certainly agree with your point about having preferences and engaging in "worthwhile" activities - if nothing else, it keeps things interesting...