The Future of Education

Edition 8

Accepted Abstracts

Teaching Ethics: The Case of the Atom Bomb

Alan McGowan, The New School (United States)


In teaching ethics, it is often appropriate to consider real life issues, which among other things, ground the discussion in real life issues. This often done in medical schools, for example, where students are confronted with real, or seemingly real, case studies in which agonizing decision must often be made.

In the physical sciences, the decisions are often just as agonizing, though sometimes hidden from view. The case of atomic weapons is an interesting and compelling case in point. From the decision to continue with bomb development even after the Allies learned that Germany was not, in fact developing the bomb, to the decision to use the nuclear weapon against Japan at the end of World War II, despite evidence that the Japanese were almost ready to accept peace terms anyway, to the continuing atomic arms race, despite the repeated notion by many in the armed services that it is not a realistic military weapons, ethical and moral decisions stand starkly outlined.

The paper, partly relying on a course the author taught for many years called “The Science and Politics of the Atom Bomb,” will focus on the decision to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but will extend the discussion to the current situation as well. When one realizes that the alternative to the use of atomic weapons on Japan was carpet-bombing of every city in Japan, some of the ethical dilemmas become clear. As well, for the first time in modern history, a nation surrendered without its land mass being invaded, probably saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

The felt urgency of the atomic weapons conundrum also serves as a “hook” for inducing students to take the course, while many might shy away from a pure ethics course. The ramifications of these issues will be fully explored.

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