By Richard Mason
Experiences J. Robert Oppenheimer’s option to settle for management of the long island venture.
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Extra info for Oppenheimer's Choice: Reflections from Moral Philosophy
At the start of Oppenheimer’s career, a choice of fundamental physics contained no more moral or ethical implications than a choice of botany or paleontology. His position by 1942 has parallels among scientists who started impeccably theoretical careers in genetics or molecular biology in the 1960s to run into starkly practical questions of power and corporate greed by the end of the century. This shows a paradox, if not a contradiction, in a supposed ethic of virtues. It is arguable that Oppenheimer in 1942 acted just as an American physicist should act, as an American physicist.
One reply might be to agree, but to point out that this is not what is being discussed. The place for individual responsibility in a large project that was—perhaps—going to proceed anyway is a theme for chapters 5 and 7. For now the point is more personal: Oppenheimer’s role in the project—not the inal use of the bomb, but its irst steps. At that stage, questions about his part are not irrelevant. If it is worth asking how an individual should act, then it seems necessary irst to work out how to see and identify actions.
But the upshot seems plain enough. Knowledge is needed to direct the ship of state: knowledge possessed by a few and suspected by the many. For Plato, those who would have the appropriate knowledge would be the philosopher-kings who had completed the curriculum outlined in Book VII of the Republic: not a training in political skills but an education in pure science. The practice of government required qualiications that would be limited to the ruling elite. Enlightenment was essential for a few but dangerous for the many.