Violence and the Scientific Vocation

Theory, Culture and Society 21 (3):59-84 (2004)
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Abstract

This article examines the implications for the notion of scientific vocation of the modern intersection between science and violence, realized most powerfully in the atomic bomb. Tracing the career and political trajectory of atomic physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and drawing on the theories of Max Weber, Julien Benda and Michel Foucault, the article addresses ethical ambiguities and tensions in the modern scientific vocation. I argue that Oppenheimer’s moral and political struggles in relation to nuclear weapons were attempts to come to terms with the collapse of legitimacy of the role of ‘universal intellectual’ and with the limitations of the more contemporary role of ‘specific intellectual’. Oppenheimer was faced with the problem of handling the relationship between scientific expertise and moral and political responsibility. His struggles demonstrate the continuing relevance of Weber’s conception of political responsibility for conceptualizing the ethical dilemmas inherent in the modern relationship between science, the state and violence.

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