The Moral Un-Neutrality of Science
Charles P. Snow
Charles Percy Snow (1905-1980) is best known as
author of the serialized work entitled Strangers and Brothers.
His schooling was in chemistry and physics, and during World War
II he served as director of technical personnel for Britain's
Ministry of Labour. In 1957 he was knighted, and in 1964 he was
named baron for his services to the Ministry of Labour. In
addition to his work in the sciences, Snow was the author of
much short fiction published by London's Sunday Times. His
novels include Death Under Sail, New Lives for Old, and The
Scientists are the most important occupational group in the world
today. At this moment, what they do is of passionate concern to the
whole of human society. At this moment, the scientists have little
influence on the world effect of what they do. Yet, potentially, they
can have great influence. The rest of the world is frightened both of
what they do -- that is, of the intellectual discoveries of
science-and of its effect. The rest of the world, transferring its
fears, is frightened of the scientists themselves and tends to think
of them as radically different from other men.
As an ex-scientist, if I may call myself so, I know that is nonsense.
I have even tried to express in fiction some kinds of scientific
temperament and scientific experience. I know well enough that
scientists are very much like other men. After all, we are all human,
even if some of us don't give that appearance. I think I would be
prepared to risk a generalization. The scientists I have known (and
because of my official life I have known as many as anyone in the
world) have been in certain respects just perceptibly more morally
admirable than most other groups of intelligent men.
That is a sweeping statement, and I mean it only in a statistical
sense. But I think there is just a little in it. The moral qualities I
admire in scientists are quite simple ones, but I am very suspicious
of attempts to oversubtilize moral qualities. It is nearly always a
sign, not of true sophistication, but of a specific kind of
triviality. So I admire in scientists very simple virtues --like
courage, truth-telling, kindness -- in which, judged by the low
standards which the rest of us manage to achieve, the scientists are
not deficient. I think on the whole the scientists make slightly
better husbands and fathers than most of us, and I admire them for it.
I don't know the figures, and I should be curious to have them sorted
out, but I am prepared to bet that the proportion of divorces among
scientists is slightly but significantly less than that among other
groups of similar education and income. I do not apologize for
considering that a good thing.
A close friend of mine is a very distinguished scientist. He is also
one of the few scientists I know who has lived what we used to call a
Bohemian life. When we were both younger, he thought he would
undertake historical research to see how many great scientists had
been as fond of women as he was. I think he would have felt mildly
supported if he could have found a precedent. I remember his reporting
to me that his researches hadn't had any luck. The really great
scientists seemed to vary from a few neutral characters to a large
number who were depressingly "normal." The only gleam of
comfort was to be found in the life of Jerome Cardan; and Cardan
wasn't anything like enough to outweigh all the others.
So scientists are not much different from other men. They are
certainly no worse than other men. But they do differ from other men
in one thing. That is the point I started with. Whether they like it
or not, what they do is of critical importance for the human race.
Intellectually, it has transformed the climate of our time. Socially,
it will decide whether we live or die, and how we live or die. It
holds decisive powers for good and evil. That is the situation in
which the scientists find themselves. They may not have asked for it,
or may only have asked for it in part, but they cannot escape it. They
think, many of the most sensitive of them, that they don't deserve to
have this weight of responsibility heaved upon them. All they want to
do is to get on with their work. I sympathize. But the scientists
can't escape the responsibility -- any more than they, or the rest of
us, can escape the gravity of the moment in which we stand.
Doctrine of Ethical Neutrality
There is of course one way to contract out. It has been a favorite
way for intellectual persons caught in the midst of water too rough
It consists of the invention of categories -- or, if you like, of the
division of moral labor. That is, the scientists who want to contract
out say, we produce the tools. We stop there. It is for you -- the
rest of the world, the politicians -- to say how the tools are used.
The tools may be used for purposes which most of us would regard as
bad. If so, we are sorry. But as scientists, that is no concern of
This is the doctrine of the ethical neutrality of science. I can't
accept it for an instant. I don't believe any scientist of serious
feeling can accept it. It is hard, some think, to find the precise
statements which will prove it wrong. Yet we nearly all feel
intuitively that the invention of comfortable categories is a moral
trap. It is one of the easier methods of letting the conscience rust.
It is exactly what the early 19th century economists, such as Ricardo,
did in the face of the facts of the first industrial revolution. We
wonder now how men, intelligent men, can have been so morally blind.
We realize how the exposure of that moral blindness gave Marxism its
apocalyptic force. We are now, in the middle of the scientific or
second industrial revolution, in something like the same position as
Ricardo. Are we going to let our consciences rust? Can we ignore that
intimation we nearly all have, that scientists have a unique
responsibility? Can we believe it, that science is morally neutral?
To me -- it would be dishonest to pretend otherwise -- there is only
one answer to those questions. Yet I have been brought up in the
presence of the same intellectual categories as most western
scientists. It would also be dishonest to pretend that I find it easy
to construct a rationale which expresses what I now believe. The best
I can hope for is to fire a few sighting shots. Perhaps someone who
sees more clearly than I can will come along and make a real job of
The Beauty of Science
Let me begin with a remark which seems some way off the point. Anyone
who has ever worked in any science knows how much esthetic joy he has
obtained. That is, in the actual activity of science, in the process
of making a discovery, however humble it is, one can't help feeling an
awareness of beauty. The subjective experience, the esthetic
satisfaction, seems exactly the same as the satisfaction one gets from
writing a poem or a novel, or composing a piece of music. I don't
think anyone has succeeded in distinguishing between them. The
literature of scientific discovery is full of this esthetic joy. The
very best communication of it that I know comes in G. H. Hardy's book,
A Mathematician's Apology. Graham Greene once said he thought
that, along with Henry James's prefaces, this was the best account of
the artistic experience ever written. But one meets the same thing
throughout the history of science. Bolyai's great yell of triumph when
he saw he could construct a self-consistent, non-Euclidean geometry;
Rutherford's revelation to his colleagues that he knew what the atom
was like; Darwin's slow, patient, timorous certainty that at last he
had got there-all these are voices, different voices, of esthetic
That is not the end of it. The result of the activity of science, the
actual finished piece of scientific work, has an esthetic value in
itself. The judgments passed on it by other scientists will more often
than not be expressed in esthetic terms: "That's beautiful!"
or "That really is very pretty!" (as the understating
English tend to say). The esthetics of scientific constructs, like the
esthetics of works of art, are variegated. We think some of the great
syntheses, like Newton's, beautiful because of their classical
simplicity, but we see a different kind of beauty in the relativistic
extension of the wave equation or the interpretation of the structure
of deoxyribonucleic acid, perhaps because of the touch of
unexpectedness. Scientists know their kinds of beauty when they see
them. They are suspicious, and scientific history shows they have
always been right to have been so, when a subject is in an "ugly"
state. For example, more physicists feel in their bones that the
present bizarre assembly of nuclear particles, as grotesque as a stamp
collection, can't possibly be, in the long run, the last word.
We should not restrict the esthetic values to what we call "pure"
science. Applied science has its beauties, which are, in my view,
identical in nature. The magnetron has been a marvelously useful
device, but it was a beautiful device, not exactly apart from its
utility but because it did, with such supreme economy, precisely what
it was designed to do. Right down in the field of development, the
esthetic experience is as real to engineers. When they forget it, when
they begin to design heavy-power equipment about twice as heavy as it
needs to be, engineers are the first to know that they are lacking
There is no doubt, then, about the esthetic content of science, both
in the activity and the result. But esthetics has no connection with
morals, say the categorizers. I don't want to waste time on peripheral
issues -- but are you quite sure of that? Or is it possible that these
categories are inventions to make us evade the human and social
conditions in which we now exist? But let us move straight on to
something else, which is right in the grain of the activity of science
and which is at the same time quintessentially moral. I mean, the
desire to find the truth.
The Search for Truth
By truth~ I don't intend anything complicated, once again. I am using
the word as a scientist uses it. We all know that the philosophical
examination of the concept of empirical truth gets us into some
curious complexities, but most scientists really don't care. They know
that the truth, as they use the word and as the rest of us use it in
the language of common speech, is what makes science work. That is
good enough for them. On it rests the whole great edifice of modern
science. They have a sneaking sympathy for Rutherford, who, when asked
to examine the philosophical bases of science, was inclined to reply,
as he did to the metaphysician Samuel Alexander: "Well, what have
you been talking all your life, Alexander? Just hot air! Nothing but
Anyway, truth in their own straightforward sense is what the
scientists are trying to find. They want to find what is there.
Without that desire, there is no science. It is the driving force of
the whole activity. It compels the scientist to have an overriding
respect for truth, every stretch of the way. That is, if you're going
to find what is there, you mustn't deceive yourself or anyone else.
You mustn't lie to yourself. At the crudest level, you mustn't fake
Curiously enough, scientists do try to behave like that. A short time
ago, I wrote a novel in which the story hinged on a case of scientific
fraud. But I made one of my characters, who was himself a very good
scientist, say that, considering the opportunities and temptations, it
is astonishing how few such cases there are. We have all heard of
perhaps half a dozen open and notorious ones, which are on the record
for anyone to read-ranging from the "discovery" of the L
radiation to the singular episode of the Piltdown man.
We have all, if we have lived any time in the scientific world, heard
private talk of something like another dozen cases which for various
reasons are not yet public property. In some cases, we know the
motives for the cheating-sometimes, but not always, sheer personal
advantage, such as getting money or a job. But not always. A special
kind of vanity has led more than one man into scientific faking. At a
lower level of research, there are presumably some more cases. There
must have been occasional Ph.D. students who scraped by with the help
of a bit of fraud.
But the total number of all these men is vanishingly small by the
side of the total number of scientists. Incidentally, the effect on
science of such frauds is also vanishingly small. Science is a
self-correcting system. That is, no fraud (or honest mistake) is going
to stay undetected for long. There is no need for an extrinsic
scientific criticism, because criticism is inherent in the process
itself. So that all that a fraud can do is waste the time of the
scientists who have to clear it up.
The remarkable thing is not the handful of scientists who deviate
from the search for truth but the overwhelming numbers who keep to it.
That is a demonstration, absolutely clear for anyone to see, of moral
behavior on a very large scale.
We take it for granted. Yet it is very important. It differentiates
science in its widest sense (which includes scholarship) from all
other intellectual activities. There is a built-in moral component
right in the core of the scientific activity itself. The desire to
find the truth is itself a moral impulse, or at least contains a moral
impulse. The way in which a scientist tries to find the truth imposes
on him a constant moral discipline. We say a scientific conclusion --
such as the contradiction of parity by Lee and Yang-is "true"
in the limited sense of scientific truth, just as we say that it is "beautiful"
according to the criteria of scientific esthetics. We also know that
to reach this conclusion took a set of actions which would have been
useless without the moral nature. That is, all through the marvelous
experiments of Wu and her colleagues, there was the constant moral
exercise of seeking and telling the truth. To scientists, who are
brought up in this climate, this seems as natural as breathing. Yet it
is a wonderful thing. Even if the scientific activity contained only
this one moral component, that alone would be enough to let us say
that it was morally unneutral.
But is this the only moral component? All scientists would agree
about the beauty and the truth. In the western world, they wouldn't
agree on much more. Some will feel with me in what I am going to say.
Some will not. That doesn't affect me much, except that I am worried
by the growth of an attitude I think very dangerous, a kind of
technological conformity disguised as cynicism. I shall say a little
more about that later. As for disagreement, G. H. Hardy used to
comment that a serious man ought not to waste his time stating a
majority opinion -- there are plenty of others to do that. That was
the voice of classical scientific nonconformity. I wish that we heard
it more often.
Science in the Twenties
Let me cite some grounds for hope. Any of us who were working in
science before 1933 can remember what the atmosphere was like. It is a
terrible bore when aging men in their fifties speak about the charms
of their youth. Yet I am going to irritate you -- just as Talleyrand
irritated his juniors -- by saying that unless one was on the scene
before 1933, one hasn't known the sweetness of the scientific life.
The scientific world of the twenties was as near to being a
full-fledged international community as we are likely to get. Don't
think I'm saying that the men involved were superhuman or free from
the ordinary frailties. That wouldn't come well from me, who have
spent a fraction of my writing life pointing out that scientists are,
first and foremost, men. But the atmosphere of the twenties in science
was filled with an air of benevolence and magnanimity which
transcended the people who lived in it.
Anyone who ever spent a week in Cambridge or Gottingen or Copenhagen
felt it all round him. Rutherford had very human faults, but he was a
great man with abounding human generosity. For him the world of
science was a world that lived on a plane above the nation-state, and
lived there with joy. That was at least as true of those two other
great men, Niels Bohr and Franck, and some of that spirit rubbed off
on the pupils around them. The same was true of the Roman school of
The personal links within this international world were very close.
It is worth remembering that Peter Kapitza, who was a loyal Soviet
citizen, honored my country by working in Rutherford's laboratory for
many years. He became a fellow of the Royal Society, a fellow of
Trinity College, Cambridge, and the founder and kingpin of the best
physics club Cambridge has known. He never gave up his Soviet
citizenship and is now director of the Institute of Physical Problems
in Moscow. Through him a generation of English scientists came to have
personal knowledge of their Russian colleagues. These exchanges were
then, and have remained, more valuable than all the diplomatic
exchanges ever invented.
The Kapitza phenomenon couldn't take place now. I hope to live to see
the day when a young Kapitza can once more work for 16 years in
Berkeley or Cambridge and then go back to an eminent place in his own
country. When that can happen, we are all right. But after the idyllic
years of world science, we passed into a tempest of history, and, by
an unfortunate coincidence, we passed into a technological tempest
The discovery of atomic fission broke up the world of international
physics. "This has killed a beautiful subject," said Mark
Oliphant, the father figure of Australian physics, in 1945, after the
bombs had dropped. In intellectual terms, he has not turned out to be
right. In spiritual and moral terms, I sometimes think he has.
A good deal of the international community of science remains in
other fields -- in great areas of biology, for example. Many
biologists are feeling the identical liberation, the identical joy at
taking part in a magnanimous enterprise, that physicists felt in the
twenties. It is more than likely that the moral and intellectual
leadership of science will pass to biologists, and it is among them
that we shall find the Rutherfords, Bohrs, and Francks of the next
The Physicist, a Military Resource
Physicists have had a bitterer task. With the discovery of fission,
and with some technical breakthroughs in electronics, physicists
became, almost overnight, the most important military resource a
nation-state could call on. A large number of physicists became
soldiers not in uniform. So they have remained, in the advanced
societies, ever since.
It is very difficult to see what else they could have done. All this
began in the Hitler war. Most scientists thought then that Nazism was
as near absolute evil as a human society can manage. I myself thought
so. I still think so, without qualification. That being so, Nazism had
to be fought, and since the Nazis might make fission bombs -- which we
thought possible until 1944, and which was a continual nightmare if
one was remotely in the know-well, then, we had to make them too.
Unless one was an unlimited pacifist, there was nothing else to do.
And unlimited pacificism is a position which most of us cannot
Therefore I respect, and to a large extent share, the moral attitudes
of those scientists who devoted themselves to making the bomb. But the
trouble is, when you get onto any kind of moral escalator, to know
whether you're ever going to be able to get off. When scientists
became soldiers they gave up something, so imperceptibly that they
didn't realize it, of the full scientific life. Not intellectually. I
see no evidence that scientific work on weapons of maximum destruction
has been different from other scientific work. But there is a moral
It may be -- scientists who are better men than I am often take this
attitude, and I have tried to represent it faithfully in one of my
books -- that this is a moral price which, in certain circumstances,
has to be paid. Nevertheless, it is no good pretending that there is
not a moral price. Soldiers have to obey. That is the foundation of
their morality. It is not the foundation of the scientific morality.
Scientists have to question and if necessary rebel. I don't want to be
misunderstood. I am no anarchist. I am not suggesting that loyalty is
not a prime virtue. I am not saying that all rebellion is good. But I
am saying that loyalty can easily turn into conformity, and that
conformity can often be a cloak for the timid and self-seeking. So can
obedience, carried to the limit. When you think of the long and gloomy
history of man, you will find that far more, and far more hideous,
crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever
been committed in the name of rebellion. If you doubt that, read
Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. The German officer corps
were brought up in the most rigorous code of obedience. To them, no
more honorable and God-fearing body of men could conceivably exist.
Yet in the name of obedience, they were party to, and assisted in, the
most wicked large-scale actions in the history of the world.
Scientists must not go that way. Yet the duty to question is not much
of a support when you are living in the middle of an organized
society. I speak with feeling here. I was an official for 20 years. I
went into official life at the beginning of the war, for the reasons
that prompted my scientific friends to begin to make weapons. I stayed
in that life until a year ago, for the same reason that made my
scientific friends turn into civilian soldiers. The official's life in
England is not quite so disciplined as a soldier's, but it is very
nearly so. I think I know the virtues, which are very great, of the
men who live that disciplined life. I also know what for me was the
moral trap. I, too, had got onto an escalator. I can put the result in
a sentence: I was coming to hide behind the institution; I was losing
the power to say no.
A Spur to Moral Action
Only a very bold man, when he is a member of an organized society,
can keep the power to say no.1 tell you that, not being a very bold
man, or one who finds it congenial to stand alone, away from his
colleagues. We can't expect many scientists to do it. Is there any
tougher ground for them to stand on? I suggest to you that there is. I
believe that there is a spring of moral action in the scientific
activity which is at least as strong as the search for truth. The name
of the spring is knowledge. Scientists know certain things in a
fashion more immediate and more certain than those who don't
comprehend what science is. Unless we are abnormally weak or
abnormally wicked men, this knowledge is bound to shape our actions.
Most of us are timid, but to an extent, knowledge gives us guts.
Perhaps it can give us guts strong enough for the jobs in hand.
I had better take the most obvious example. All physical scientists
know that it is relatively easy to make plutonium. We know this, not
as a journalistic fact at second hand, but as a fact in our own
experience. We can work out the number of scientific and engineering
personnel needed for a nation-state to equip itself with fission and
fusion bombs. We know that, for a dozen or more states, it will only
take perhaps six years, perhaps less. Even the best informed of us
always exaggerate these periods.
This we know, with the certainty of -- what shall I call it? --
engineering truth. We also-most of us-are familiar with statistics and
the nature of odds. We know, with the certainty of statistical truth,
that if enough of these weapons are made, by enough different states,
some of them are going to blow up, through accident, or folly, or
madness-the motives don't matter. What does matter is the nature of
the statistical fact.
All this we know. We know it in a more direct sense than any
politician because it comes from our direct experience. It is part of
our minds. Are we going to let it happen?
All this we know. It throws upon scientists a direct and personal
responsibility. It is not enough to say that scientists have a
responsibility as citizens. They have a much greater one than that,
and one different in kind. For scientists have a moral imperative to
say what they know. It is going to make them unpopular in their own
nation-states. It may do worse than make them unpopular. That doesn't
matter. Or at least, it does matter to you and me, but it must not
count in the face of the risks.
For we genuinely know the risks. We are faced with an either-or, and
we haven't much time. The either is acceptance of a restriction of
nuclear armaments. This is going to begin, just as a token, with an
agreement on the stopping of nuclear tests. The United States is not
going to get the 99.9 percent "security" that it has been
asking for. This is unobtainable, though there are other bargains that
the United States could probably secure. I am not going to conceal
from you that this course involves certain risks. They are quite
obvious, and no honest man is going to blink them. That is the either.
The or is not a risk but a certainty. It is this. There is no
agreement on tests. The nuclear arms race between the United States
and U.S.S.R. not only continues but accelerates. Other countries join
in. Within, at the most, six years, China and several other states
have a stock of nuclear bombs. Within, at the most, ten years, some of
those bombs are going off. I am saying this as responsibly as I can.
That is the certainty. On the one side, therefore, we have a finite
risk. On the other side we have a certainty of disaster. Between a
risk and a certainty, a sane man does not hesitate.
It is the plain duty of scientists to explain this either-or. It is a
duty which seems to me to come from the moral nature of the scientific
The same duty, though in a much more pleasant form, arises with
respect to the benevolent powers of science. For scientists know, and
again with the certainty of scientific knowledge, that we possess
every scientific fact we need to transform the physical life of half
the world. And transform it within the span of people now living. I
mean, we have all the resources to help half the world live as long as
we do and eat enough. All that is missing is the will. We know that.
Just as we know that you in the United States, and to a slightly
lesser extent we in the United Kingdom, have been almost unimaginably
lucky. We are sitting like people in a smart and cozy restaurant and
we are eating comfortably, looking out of the window into the streets.
Down on the pavement are people who are looking up at us, people who
by chance have different colored skins from ours, and are rather
hungry. Do you wonder that they don't like us all that much? Do you
wonder that we sometimes feel ashamed of ourselves, as we look out
through that plate glass?
Well, it is within our power to get started on that problem. We are
morally impelled to. We all know that, if the human species does solve
that one, there will be consequences which are themselves problems.
For instance, the population of the world will become embarrassingly
large. But that is another challenge. There are going to be challenges
to our intelligence and to our moral nature as long as man remains
man. After all, a challenge is not, as the word is coming to be used,
an excuse for slinking off and doing nothing. A challenge is something
to be picked up.
For all these reasons, I believe the world community of scientists
has a final responsibility upon it -- a greater responsibility than is
pressing on any other body of men. I do not pretend to know how they
will bear this responsibility. These may be famous last words, but I
have an inextinguishable hope. For, as I have said, there is no doubt
that the scientific activity is both beautiful and truthful. I cannot
prove it, but I believe that, simply because scientists cannot escape
their own knowledge, they also won't be able to avoid showing
themselves disposed to good.