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TBS in the Southwest: Los Alamos and Individual Responsibility

By bkelsey on March 19, 2016

I have spoken before of secrecy, but today (Friday) really took the fenced-in cake, for today was the day of our visit to the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory. I don’t dare share of its secrets, but it brought to mind a question that still perplexes me, because it has broad implications as well as narrow  applications.

That question, to put it briefly, is: To what extent do individuals have a responsibility for the ultimate effects of their actions, and can this responsibility be renounced, deferred, or delegated to someone else? What brought this question to my mind was our tour guide’s statement that – and I’m paraphrasing here – the staff at Los Alamos is responsible only for finding the truth and communicating it accurately and effectively to those policy makers who use it; Los Alamos is not responsible for policy, and its collective job consists in carrying out the policy without regard to opinion or belief of any personal kind.

That is not, of course, to say that no one at Los Alamos feels any sense of responsibility. I am sure that many of the scientists and other staff members who work there feel a deep and compelling sense that they are responsible for carrying out their jobs effectively, and potentially even a sense of duty to contribute towards the safety/well-being/knowledge/etc. of their country (assuming, of course, that they feel as though their work does contribute in these ways). What I wish to bring to the surface is merely the official stated position of the Lab as I understand it.

So, then, what might be the answer to my question? Speaking only for myself, and not in any way for the Benton group as a whole, I have to believe that each individual must have some responsibility for his or her actions. One cannot simply act without thought or care for the effects of that act on others and claim total ignorance, lack of intent, or lack of authority as a defense (lack of authority referring to the “delegation,” if you will, of responsibility to policy makers). The argument that seemed to be central to the Lab’s explanation of this sense of lack of responsibility is that said responsibility lies with elected or appointed policy makers: therefore, the moral/ethical/practical implications of what goes on in and as a result of the lab are placed on the shoulders of others. They do not cease to exist, but are transferred. This concept sounds reasonable, and indeed it seems to be a core part of the U.S. government’s legitimacy. Leaders are elected or appointed to represent the populace, and thus they take some of the responsibility onto themselves when they act on behalf of the populace. The moral act, then, is not in the decision of whether or not to follow orders, but rather in the act of choosing who will give the orders. And yet, I find it hard to justify such complete detachment from morality and ethics. A system of morality that promotes a common good must surely place responsibility for realizing that common good in each individual; one cannot refuse it. Equally, a system that promotes acting purely on what is in the interest of each individual must surely compel that individual to act on his or her own behalf without conscious or voluntary decision-making, seemingly making it impossible to deny moral responsibility and act in the absence of it. Thus I fail to see how it might be possible to exist as an individual entirely separately from any external concerns, and I fail to see how Los Alamos can fully detach itself from such concerns.

Of course, this lack of responsibility goes the other way, as well: if they have no responsibility for policy, then the staff at Los Alamos also ostensibly have no power over policy. Indeed, it is perhaps because they have no power that they can claim no responsibility. If their job is only to provide information, and if they never influence policy, then surely they cannot possibly be responsible for policy. Firstly, I would point out that the creation and the carrying out of policy are entirely separate: while it may be true that they cannot control the order given to them, they can control whether or not they carry out those orders. Furthermore, I would suggest that they do in fact have power because it is impossible to separate supposed truth from ideology and bias. Los Alamos may seek to present only the pure data without the varnish of political or ideological concerns, but even the way in which the data is presented can reflect these. For example, the decision on what data to present is inherently subjective; assuming that a policy maker is not shown every number ever recorded, the selection or synthesis process must, even unconsciously, bear the taint of human judgment. Thus there is in fact not a lack of power as I see it.

This is only a broad and shallow treatment of my above question, and one that I will admit is imperfect and altogether biased. I do not pretend to have answered the question definitively, but I have given my thoughts on it to the best of my ability. And yet, it is still not answered. The further question is: If it is not possible to entirely rid oneself of responsibility, is it possible to rid oneself of merely some responsibility? That is a question to which I have no answer at the moment, and I have already spoken for long enough. I leave it to you, humble reader, to ponder on this question and decide for yourself.

Again, I would like to stress that these opinions and thoughts are purely my own, and that I do not wish to denounce or condemn the individuals at the Los Alamos lab. I am merely using their example as an impetus for a broader and more general discussion.

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