Review: ‘Too Valuable to Die? The ethics of science and scientists going to war’

A hundred years ago this year, promising scientist Henry Moseley was killed in action at Gallipoli, Turkey. Despite his impressively young age — he died at age 27 — he had already made astonishing advances in physics, and had been put forward as a potential recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1916. Ernest Rutherford, Moseley’s supervisor, had been unable to convince the patriotic young man to stay behind. Upon hearing of Henry’s death, Rutherford embarked on a furious campaign to convince the UK of the importance of scientists, whose lives are too valuable to be wasted. His campaigning proved to be successful, and by the end of the war scientists, as a professional body, were protected.

Henry Moseley
Henry Moseley

How justified is Rutherford’s claim, though? Are there really people who are so valuable that they should not be sent to war, where others can be considered less important? It was this question that was put forward in the debate ‘Too Valuable to Die? The ethics of science and scientists going to war’, which took place at the Museum of the History of Science (MHS) on 13 October, in association with The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities.

The debate was tied in with the MHS’s extremely successful exhibition about Henry Moseley, which opened in May and has been extended to 16 January 2016 due to its immense popularity. Interestingly enough, as MHS director Silke Ackermann pointed out in her introduction to the debate, the exhibition has two titles: whereas the MHS itself titled it ‘Dear Harry’, to emphasise the personal nature of the exhibition, the Heritage Lottery Fund named it ‘A Scientist Lost to War’. The focus of the debate lay on the latter: the evening presented a general discussion on the nature of war and the role a scientist can and should play in it.

The debate was led by Silke Ackermann, while Liz Bruton, co-coordinator of the exhibition, and Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, presented their views on the ethics of scientists (not) going to war. Professor Biggar opened the debate, which, incidentally, usually took the form of a conversation or interview rather than that of a debate. His claim was that, of course, really everyone is too valuable — but, as Dr Bruton pointed out, certain professions are protected in wars because the people performing them may be of more use to the war effort at the home front than on the front lines.

The important question then becomes: should one be able to force people not to go to war, against their will? Moseley, for instance, was extremely stubborn and found it a matter of unquestionable duty to enlist. Here, Professor Biggar proposed a view with which some people may struggle: in a just war, he claimed, people have a duty to assist; in an unjust war, people do not have that duty. He added that this issue becomes more difficult in the modern era. Of course, as he was quick to add, people cannot always know whether the war they are fighting is a just one. Who, for instance, was fighting the more ‘just’ war at Gallipoli? Dr Bruton presented a convincing argument, which was the start of an extended discussion on the topic of justice in war: although the Ottoman Empire’s involvement on the German side was of course condemnable, the Gallipoli campaign was more just on the Turkish side because they were defending their homeland.

Battle of Gallipoli
Battle of Gallipoli

The debate then turned back to the topic of scientists and their role in the war. Dr Bruton, provocatively but deftly, took up a utilitarian stance: the Bletchley Park scientists may have caused others to fight on the front in their stead, but it has also been estimated that the Second World War was shortened by two whole years because of their decoding efforts. Purely numerically, more lives were saved than lost by not sending these scientists to the front. Interestingly, no mention was made of scientists who chose not to contribute to the war effort at all: Arthur Eddington, for instance, who was allowed to observe a solar eclipse to prove the general theory of relativity, rather than going to war; or Lise Meitner, who famously claimed, “I will have nothing to do with the bomb,” when she declined a position on the Manhattan Project.

In modern warfare, Dr Bruton’s argument applies even more strongly. As Professor Biggar pointed out, nowadays, if you do not save your scientists, you will lose the war. He then made another claim that must give one pause: the people making the bombs must remind themselves that it wasn’t them dropping them. There must be a pragmatic cut-off, he claimed, to determine who do and do not count as combatants. This is of course true, but, as one of the audience members pointed out in the question and answer session, a tank engineer very much knows what the tanks are going to be used for.

Dr Bruton raised an interesting point in reply: most of our technology today has a dual usage, and an impressive amount of it comes directly from war research and development. Whereas Fritz Haber developed the gas that devastated the trenches and witnessed its application on the battlefield, the Haber-Bosch process now feeds half the world due to its application in making fertilizer. Even so, claiming that science is ‘neither good nor bad’ might be taking it too far. As both debaters convincingly argued, though, if scientists can make a war end by doing their jobs in their laboratories, then by all means make them stay home.

Kanta Dihal

The exhibition ‘Dear Harry: Henry Moseley, A Scientist Lost to War’ at the Museum of the History of Science has been extended until 16 January 2016. For more information about upcoming TORCH events, please visit their website.

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