‘My pacifism is an instinctive feeling, a feeling that possesses me because the murder of men is abhorrent. My attitude is not derived from intellectual theory but is based on my deepest antipathy to every kind of cruelty and hatred.’ So wrote Albert Einstein with his usual clarity.
But one may ask the question – does this instinctual pacifism as espoused by Einstein have a limit? And are there any circumstances in which it can be breached? Interestingly, Einstein wrestled with those questions. When it became evident that the logical out-workings of his groundbreaking formula – E=mc2 – was the development of an atomic weapon, Einstein was appalled by such a prospect. Initially, his fear was that Nazi Germany would acquire the technology first, but events proved otherwise and he was equally horrified when the US used a nuclear device in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Thereafter he was deeply troubled by the cold war and concomitant nuclear arms race.
Einstein intrigues me. His ethical dilemma’s stemmed from his love of, and understanding of, a humanity which he understood to be incredibly complex, flawed and nuanced. He also understood the power of science. As insightful as ever, he once wrote: ‘Science is a powerful instrument. How it is used, whether it is a blessing or a curse to mankind, depends on mankind and not on the instrument. A knife is useful, but it can also kill.’
And so it is. The use of science still exercises our ethical minds today, perhaps even more so than ever. The nuclear issue is still as pertinent as ever, but we also face other dilemmas centering on genetic engineering and the like.
In the end, Einstein’s intuitively pacifist stance became more utilitarian in practice; he had made the very pragmatic decision that a nuclear armed Third Reich could only be countered by a nuclear armed US.
If you’re interested in Einstein’s ethical dilemma, and the history behind it, I recommend you watch the documentary ‘Einstein’s Equation Of Life and Death‘ on Top Documentary Films. You can watch it here.