node created 2012/06/17
last changed 2013/02/04
These men were able to give the counsel they gave because they were operating at an enormous psychological distance from the people who would be maimed and killed by the weapons systems that would result from the ideas they communicated to their sponsors. The lesson, therefore, is that the scientist and technologist must, by acts of will and of the imagination, actively strive to reduce such psychological distances, to counter the forces that tend to remove him from the consequences of his actions. He must -- it is as simple as this -- think of what he is actually doing. He must learn to listen to his own inner voice. He must learn to say "No!"

Finally, it is the act itself that matters. When instrumental reason is the sole guide to action, the acts it justifies are robbed of their inherent meanings and thus exist in an ethical vacuum. I recently heard an officer of a great university publicly defend an important policy decision he had made, one that many of the university's students and faculty opposed on moral grounds, with the words: "We could have taken a moral stand, but what good would that have done?" But the moral good of a moral act inheres in the act itself. That is why an act can itself ennoble or corrupt the person who performs it. The victory of instrumental reason in our time has brought about the virtual disappearance of this insight and thus perforce the delegitimation of the very idea of nobility.
"Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment To Calculation" (1976)
What has come to light is neither nihilism nor cynicism, as one might have expected, but a quite extraordinary confusion over elementary questions of morality — as if an instinct in such matters were truly the last thing to be taken for granted in our time.
"Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil"
States are not moral agents, people are, and can impose moral standards on powerful institutions.
The 4th and 5th Amendments to the Constitution of my country, Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and numerous statutes and treaties forbid such systems of massive, pervasive surveillance. While the US Constitution marks these programs as illegal, my government argues that secret court rulings, which the world is not permitted to see, somehow legitimize an illegal affair. These rulings simply corrupt the most basic notion of justice – that it must be seen to be done. The immoral cannot be made moral through the use of secret law.
I have spoken here of what ought and ought not to be done, of what is morally repugnant, and of what is dangerous. I am, of course, aware of the fact that these judgements of mine have themselves no moral force except on myself. Nor, as I have already said, do I have any intention of telling other people what tasks they should and should not undertake. I urge them only to consider the consequences of what they do do. And here I mean not only, not even primarily, the direct consequences of their actions on the world about them. I mean rather the consequences on themselves, as they construct their rationalizations, as they repress the truths that urge them to different courses, and as they chip away at their own autonomy. That so many people ask what they must do is a sign that the order of being and doing has become inverted. Those who know who and what they are do not need to ask what they should do. And those who must ask will not be able to stop asking until they begin to look inside themselves. It it is everyone's task to show by example what questions one can ask of oneself, and to show that one can live with the few answers there are.
"Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation"
Whenever a man chooses his purpose and his commitment in all clearness and in all sincerity, whatever that purpose may be, it is impossible for him to prefer another. It is true in the sense that we do not believe in progress. Progress implies amelioration; but man is always the same, facing a situation which is always changing, and choice remains always a choice in the situation. The moral problem has not changed since the time when it was a choice between slavery and anti-slavery.
"Existentialism Is a Humanism" (1946)
Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.
If the ability to tell right from wrong should have anything to do with the ability to think, then we must be able to "demand" its exercise in every sane person no matter how erudite or ignorant.
"The Life of the Mind: The Groundbreaking Investigation on How We Think"
It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous, wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too. See what gross inconsistency is tolerated. I have heard some of my townsmen say, “I should like to have them order me out to help put down an insurrection of the slaves, or to march to Mexico;—see if I would go”; and yet these very men have each, directly by their allegiance, and so indirectly, at least, by their money, furnished a substitute. The soldier is applauded who refuses to serve in an unjust war by those who do not refuse to sustain the unjust government which makes the war; is applauded by those whose own act and authority he disregards and sets at naught; as if the state were penitent to that degree that it differed one to scourge it while it sinned, but not to that degree that it left off sinning for a moment. Thus, under the name of Order and Civil Government, we are all made at last to pay homage to and support our own meanness. After the first blush of sin comes its indifference; and from immoral it becomes, as it were, unmoral, and not quite unnecessary to that life which we have made.
The aim of the laborer should be, not to get his living, to get "a good job," but to perform well a certain work; and, even in a pecuniary sense, it would be economy for a town to pay its laborers so well that they would not feel that they were working for low ends, as for a livelihood merely, but for scientific, or even moral ends. Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it.