Feynman’s Error: On Ethical Thinking and Drifting  

One of the things people find peculiar about philosophers is our tendency to continue thinking about things that an ordinary person might consider settled. Even after making what appears to be a good decision about some moral matter—say, not murdering your brother even though he took the last cupcake—philosophers will keep asking whether it really was the right decision and whether the reasons offered to justify it can withstand scrutiny. Why can’t we leave well enough alone?

Part of the answer has to do with the conditions we face when making decisions—conditions that have moral significance and that are constantly changing. A good decision under today’s conditions might be a bad decision under tomorrow’s conditions.   

In the early 1940s, the American physicist Richard Feynman was a promising young graduate student at Princeton University. So promising, in fact, that he was asked to join the Manhattan Project—the secret American program to build an atomic bomb. Feynman reports that he was reluctant to do so. He was enjoying his studies and wasn’t especially interested in the work being done at Los Alamos. Still, he felt he had a duty to at least consider the invitation.  

With an official from the Manhattan Project waiting for a decision, Feynman quickly reasoned that if building an atomic bomb was theoretically possible, then it was practically inevitable. And, he thought, if it was practically inevitable, then it was only a matter of time before the Germans would succeed in building one—a result that he felt would be less than ideal. If an atomic bomb was inevitable, better for the world if the Americans got it first. In Feynman’s mind, the decision made itself. He agreed to participate in the Manhattan Project and didn’t think about his decision again for five years.

In 1946, Feynman was sitting in a café in Manhattan. Atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killing nearly a quarter million people. He watched construction workers building new towers and bridges, thinking that what they were doing was pointless—that these structures and their lives would all inevitably be destroyed. Feynman says he felt pessimistic, depressed and sensing that he had committed some kind of moral error. But Feynman did not think that his moral error was in participating in the Manhattan Project. Rather his moral error was in not revisiting and rethinking his decision frequently after he had made it. His moral failing was in mindlessly drifting rather than continuing to reflect on his activities and responsibilities as conditions changed.

“The original reason to start the project, which was that the Germans were a danger, started me off on a process of action….It was a project on which we all worked very, very hard, all co-operating together. And with any project like that you continue to work trying to get success, having decided to do it. But what I did—immorally I would say—was to not remember the reason that I said I was doing it, so that when the reason changed, because Germany was defeated, not the singlest thought came to my mind at all about that, that that meant now that I have to reconsider why I am continuing to do this. I simply didn’t think, okay?” (Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out).

Feynman’s error was in viewing ethics as a one-time, already completed, task. He engaged in ethical reasoning in 1941, reached a conclusion, and checked the ethics box as “complete.” But the political situation that Feynman thought relevant to his initial decision had changed over the years. Whereas he was concerned about the consequences of Germany acquiring the bomb, that justification for continuing to help the Americans build a bomb was no longer available when Germany became less of a threat. Continuing to work on the bomb might still have been the right thing to do, but not for the reasons that motivated and convinced him in the first place. Feynman was drifting, not acting as a thinking moral agent.

The philosopher Hanna Pitkin observed that many of our moral failings are a result not of deliberate malevolence, but of simply not thinking about what we are doing. Pitkin worried about the way our lives and communities are shaped “by drift and inadvertence” and believed that the remedy is “to exercise the human capacity to think what we are doing.” As Feynman’s experience shows, ethical thinking is not something we can do once and leave aside. The social, cultural, political and economic conditions within which we think, decide and act are constantly changing. As such, the responsibility to revisit and rethink the ethical implications of our decisions and actions is ongoing.