Morality 101

by reestheskin on 21/07/2016

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Derek Bok states that some of those who were found guilty of criminal acts in the recent waves of corporate malfeasance in the US, scored very well on their ethics modules at Harvard. It is easy (and facile) to imagine that somehow doing a ‘course’ on a particular topic will produce a change in behaviour that is permanent and withstands countervailing forces (culture eats strategy,and culture eats morality etc, I hear you say). Those in universities should of course know better — producing changes in behaviour in response to an environmental stimulus is a paraphrase of one definition of learning. But the message doesn’t get through, largely because the academy has increasingly chosen to turn its professional tools away from examination of its own purpose. It is deemed rude to ask for evidence when everybody knows the sun goes round the earth.

Nor, if we are to believe Timothy Wilson, should we go in with the ‘null’ hypothesis that courses wishing to eradicate ‘isms’ may only be beneficial. The evidence points in a different direction: they make some people’s behaviour worse. I sometimes wonder if anybody is really too worried about whether these interventions work — they just want to tick boxes to comply with yet more rituals of verification (to use Michael Power’s phrase from the Audit Society).

Anyway these ramblings were by way of introduction for what is for me one of the clearest expositions of morality and the human condition. I have no idea why I cannot keep it out of my mind but maybe putting it down in writing might help. It comes from a short article by Jacob Bronowski, in a posthumous collection of his essays, ‘A sense of the future’. The article is “A moral for an age of plenty”  and it includes an account of the death of the physicist Louis Slotin.

Louis Slotin was a physicist in his mid thirties, working at Los Alamos in 1946. Bronowski described him so: ‘Slotin was good with his hands; he liked using his head; he was bright and a little daring — in short, he was like any other man anywhere who is happy in his work’. Just so.

Slotin was moving bits of plutonium closer together, but for obvious reasons, not too close. And as experts are tempted to do, he was using a screwdriver. His hand slipped. The monitors went through the roof. He immediately pulled the pieces of plutonium apart, and asked everybody to mark their precise positions at the time of the accident. The former meant he would die (9 days later, as it turned out); the latter allowed him to prognosticate on what would happen to the others (they survived).

Bronowski writes:

There are two things that make up morality. One is the sense that other people matter: the send of common loyalty….The other is a clear judgement of what is at stake: a cold knowledge, without a trace of deception, of precisely what will happen to oneself and to others if one plays the hero or the coward. This is the highest morality: to combine human love with an unflinching, a scientific judgement.

I actually think we are more lacking in the second than the former. Worse still,  we are less tolerant of evidence than we once were: we prefer to wallow smugly in our self-congratulatory goodness. We have been here before. Medicine only became useful when physicians learned this lesson.

[ And yes, people remarked that Slotin hadn’t followed protocol…]