November 26, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

On Ethical Gray Zones

Examples from World War II and the present illustrate that just because some people compromise ethics doesn’t mean ethics itself is a matter of opinion.

Nazi ethics:  Philip Ball’s new book Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics Under Hitler doesn’t paint a rosy picture.  Even though the book highlights three physicists who struggled to maintain their integrity in the Third Reich, Robert P. Crease starts his review in Nature with a stern warning:

Beware! This book is not what it seems. The subtitle suggests a black-and-white tale of good and evil, to be read in detached comfort from high moral ground. Instead, science writer Philip Ball delivers an ambiguous yet moving saga of well-intentioned people compelled to act in “the grey zone between complicity and resistance”. Its disturbing implications will leave attentive readers uneasy.

The stories of Max Planck, Peter Debye and Werner Heisenberg, all Nobel laureates, reveal human consciences failing under the unique pressures of the regime:

Ball traces how the Nazis ruthlessly exploited these and other scientists by preying on personal weaknesses and political naivety — citing “Debye’s occasional self-interest and limited moral engagement, Heisenberg’s insecurity and egotism, Planck’s prevarication and misconceived notion of duty” — to wheedle and compel them into actions that now look “disturbingly compliant” at best, and utterly immoral at worst.

Crease says that Ball keeps “the moral and existential ambiguities at the forefront” of his writing, as if to drown some of the ethical lapses in a sea of grayness.  “By the end of this book, careful readers will be left with the queasy feeling that our own moral high ground has disappeared, and that Ball has revealed the ‘soul’ of physics to be no more intrinsically noble than any other.

War stories:  Philosopher Steve Fuller (U of Warwick), who appeared in the documentary Expelled as supportive of intelligent design’s scientific validity, reviewed four World War II books for New Scientist.  “From Churchill’s nuclear predictions to Darwin’s influence on the Nazis, four books explore the deeper levels of a history that continues to fascinate us,” reads the caption of the review, “The secret life of science in the second world war.”  Fuller explains the moral grounds for continued interest in that period:

But why are we still fascinated by an event that ended nearly 70 years ago? Part of the answer is because so many people who are still living were involved in or affected by the war. Another part lies in a need to settle old scores, especially with the Nazis. As long as they are seen as the epitome of evil, there will be a demand for explanations that enable us to cordon off that “evil”. And then there is the worry that we too may be living in times when the heady mix of science, power and exigency could result in actions as extreme as the ones taken by the Nazis and their opponents.

The four books (including Philip Ball’s Serving the Reich mentioned above) each give a different “moral appraisal” of the Nazi regime.   At one point, Fuller states, “It is relatively easy to show the Darwinian roots of Nazism,” after disputing the book by Robert Richards (Was Hitler a Darwinian?) on the grounds that the Reich’s policies on racial hygiene were clearly derived from Darwin’s theory of natural selection.  In Fuller’s opinion, Richards was determined to find non-Darwinian inputs to Hitler; he cherry-picked his evidence and outright ignored other evidence that didn’t fit his narrative.  (For another recent work on this topic, see Jerry Bergman’s 2012 book, Hitler and the Nazi Darwinian Worldview.)

Regarding another book, Fuller says, “In The Nazi and the Psychiatrist, journalist Jack El-Hai gives a fresh twist to the failure of US military psychiatrists to arrive at a morally satisfying diagnosis of the Nazi leaders for ‘crimes against humanity‘.”  In addition, he felt Ball’s book gave a “subtler moral appraisal” in its repetition of the theme that the three physicists “found Nazism a permissive, even proactive regime for scientific research” despite its intolerable policies.  “We have yet to disprove the hypothesis that an open-door policy to an authoritarian regime would lead to superior science,” Fuller ends his review.  “In our time, China may be the test case: its capacity for cutting-edge science has been increased by the West’s self-interested open-door policy on scientific knowledge.”

Ethical gray offered an unusual post called “The ethical grey zone” to advise science job seekers how to react when they witness ethical lapses by their colleagues and superiors in the lab.  Caitlin Casey and Kartik Sheth did not presume to offer guidelines.  They just wanted to ask questions:

Academia is rife with uncomfortable situations. To explore how researchers would respond to real-life murky dilemmas, we embarked on an in-person workshop and an online survey for astronomers. Participants ranked a range of scenarios on a continuum from desirable to unacceptable behaviour, without making stark judgements about right or wrong. The exercise made many participants uncomfortable, but it was eye-opening, raising awareness about issues such as bullying, harassment and unconscious biases that currently plague our research community. Opening up a dialogue on these topics is the first step towards building a healthier research environment.

The authors claim that science and ethical training usually handles the extremes instead of those in the “grey zone” like the boundaries between flirting and sexual harassment or how far to reward ethnic minorities just because of their heritage.  What passes ethical muster in one culture may be unacceptable in another.  Everyone seemed to denounce plagiarism, but there were differences of opinion on the limits of propriety between the sexes. Here’s how Casey and Sheth ended:

Scenarios that cannot be definitively classified as right or wrong can be intimidating, especially to those whose life’s work is based on objective reason. But scientists in all fields can build a healthier work environment by considering their colleagues’ disparate points of view — even if doing so means navigating ethical quandaries in decidedly grey areas.

Their efforts at “redefining right and wrong” through a kind of “crowdsourcing” effort at surveying opinions, though, leaves many questions unanswered.  Some of the “scenarios” they discuss might be taken out of the category of ethics, and classified as cultural norms – matters not of morality, but of behaviors that make one uncomfortable or not.  Nevertheless, they assume “right and wrong” exist.  But who decides?  If ethics degenerates into matters of what seems “desirable” versus “unacceptable,” then the same standard must be applied to the Nazi era.  The Nuremburg trials were not just a matter of opening up a dialog, or deciding whether Hitler made the Jews feel “uncomfortable.”  If comfort is the standard, then the authors violated their own standard by making the participants feel uncomfortable with the exercise.

This is why an objective standard is required for morality and ethics.  The Ten Commandments has provided a long-standing “pole star” for righteousness.  It’s black and white.  It’s not Ten Suggestions.  Modern science, though, shows a marked ambivalence about ethics.  On the one hand, they want every opinion to get respect.  On the other, they feel very uncomfortable with Naziism, plagiarism, and other evils, finding them “disturbing,” but on what basis?  Because most people feel the same way?  If ethics is a matter of majority opinion, then Hitler was justified during his day, because he had a majority cooperating with him.  If each society can set its own standards, then Shariah Law is ethical by definition in many Muslim countries.  Sorry, you women who get accused of adultery and face public stoning.  The North Korean gulag is similarly just an expression of that culture’s standards.

We recoil at such thoughts because we have a conscience.  Nothing in these articles mentioned that.  We know instinctively about right and wrong, because we bear the stamp of God’s image, flawed though it be.  No one lives up to his or her own standards, let alone God’s.  There’s enough evidence of guilt in our own consciences, the Apostle Paul wrote (Romans 1:18-3:31), to condemn each one of us.  The conscience is imperfect, but there is an eternal, unchanging standard of right and wrong – and only the Creator, God, has the authority to state what it is.  He has revealed it to humankind.  It’s no longer a matter of holding dialogs and crowdsourcing opinions, but of receiving His standards and obeying them.

Only with that foundation can we build a society based on righteousness.  There will still be the need to have human judges and counselors, because we are all finite and fallen.  But at least with the Judeo-Christian moral standard, we have a pole star to guide every thought and action.  Without it, mankind is cast adrift on a frictionless surface with no gridlines or boundaries.  And if Darwinism contributed to Naziism, as Fuller and Jerry Bergman contend, then don’t believe for a moment that the horrors of an ideology whose standard is survival of the fittest were exhausted in the 20th century.

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  • John S says:

    Exactly, the conscience makes no sense and can’t be explained by Darwinistic mechanisms. People reject their conscience and it becomes more and more hardened. When they are told the only explanation for their conscience (God) is a laughable lie the process of hardening is expedited.
    Ignore that inner voice from behind the curtain. That’s not the guilt you are looking for. Do what is right in your own eyes. Move along.

    On the other hand, it is not my view that they (the elites, experts in Science) ‘want every opinion to get respect’. In that regard it seems to me that Scientific ‘truth’ mirrors morality – only the consensus is respectable and divergent views are rejected outright by attacking the messenger.

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