Copied without the kind permission of G.P. Putnam's Sons from
Fates Worse Than Death, 1991, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (b.1922)
(Chapter XII, from a 1985 speech at MIT).
MIT has played an important part in the history of my branch of the Vonnegut
family. My father and grandfather took degrees in architecture here. My
Uncle Pete flunked out of here. My only brother Bernard, nine years my
senior, took a doctor's degree in chemistry here. Father and Grandfather
became self-employed architects and partners. Uncle Pete became a building
contractor, also self-employed. My brother knew early on that he would be
a research scientist, and so could not be self-employed. If he was to have
room enough and equipment enough to do what he did best, then he was going
to have to work for somebody else. Who would that be?
Most of you...will soon face my brother's dilemma when he graduated from
here. In order to survive and even prosper, most of you will have to make
somebody else's technological dreams come true -- along with your own, of
course. You will have to form that mixture of dreams we call a partnership
-- or more romantically, a marriage.
My brother got his doctorate in 1938, I think. If he had gone to work in
Germany after that, he would have been helping to make Hitler's dreams come
true. If he had gone to work in Italy, he would have been helping to make
Mussolini's dreams come true. If he had gone to work in Japan, he would
have been helping to make Tojo's dreams come true. If he had gone to work
in the Soviet Union, he would have been helping to make Stalin's dreams come
true. He went to work for a bottle manufacturer in Butler, Pennsylvania,
instead. It can make quite a difference not just to you but to humanity:
the sort of boss you choose, whose dreams you help come true.
Hitler dreamed of killing Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals, Communists,
Jehovah's Witnesses, mental defectives, believers in democracy, and so on,
in industrial quantities. It would have remained only a dream if it hadn't
been for chemists as well educated as my brother, who supplied Hitler's
executioners with the cyanide gas known as Cyklon-B. It would have remained
only a dream if architects and engineers as capable as my father and
grandfather hadn't designed extermination camps -- the fences, the towers,
the barracks, the railroad sidings, and the gas chambers and crematoria --
for maximum ease of operation and efficiency. I recently visited two of
those camps in Poland, Auschwitz and Birkenau. They are technologically
perfect. There is only one grade I could give the designers, and that grade
is A-plus. They surely solved all the problems set for them.
Yes, and that is the grade I would have to give to the technicians who have
had a hand in the creation of the car bombs which are now exploding regularly
in front of embassies and department stores and movie theaters and houses of
worship of every kind. They surely solve the problems set for them.
Kablooey! A-plus! A-plus!
Which brings us to differences between men and women. Feminists have won
a few modest successes in the United States during the past two decades,
so it has become almost obligatory to say that the differences between the
two sexes have been exaggerated. But this much is clear to me: Generally
speaking, women don't like immoral technology nearly as much as men do.
This could be the result of some hormone deficiency. Whatever the reason,
women, often taking their children with them, tend to outnumber men in
demonstrations against schemes and devices which can kill people. In fact,
the most effective doubter of the benefits of unbridled technological
advancement so far was a woman, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who died 134
years ago. She, of course, created the idea of the Monster of Frankenstein.
And to show you how fruity, how feminine I have become in late middle age:
If I were the President of MIT, I would hang pictures of Boris Karloff as
the Monster of Frankenstein all over the institution. Why? To remind
students and faculty that humanity now cowers in muted dread, expecting
to be killed sooner or later by Monsters of Frankenstein. Such killing
goes on right now, by the way, in many other parts of the world, often
with our sponsorship -- hour after hour, day after day.
What should be done? You here at MIT should set an example for your
colleagues everywhere by writing and then taking an oath based on the
Hippocratic Oath, by which medical doctors have been bound for twenty-four
centuries. Do I mean to say that no physician in all that time has violated
that oath? Certainly not. But every doctor who has violated it has been
correctly branded a scumbag. And why has the late Josef Mengele become the
most monstrous of all the Nazis, in the opinion of most of us? He was a
doctor, and he gleefully violated the Hippocratic Oath.
If some of you elect to act on my suggestion, to write a new oath, you
will of course have to examine the original, which is conventionally dated
460 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. So it is a musty old Greek
document, much of it irrelevant to a physician's moral dilemmas in the
present day. It is also a perfectly human document. No one has ever
suggested that it came from a god in a vision or on clay tablets found
on a mountaintop. A person or some people wrote it, inspired by nothing
more than their own wishes to help rather than harm mankind. I assume that
most of you, too, would rather help than harm mankind, and might welcome
formal restraints on what a wicked boss might expect of you.
The part of the Hippocratic Oath which needs the least editing, it seems
to me, is this: "The regimen I adopt shall be for the benefit of my patients,
according to my ability and judgment, and not for their hurt or for any
wrong. I will give no deadly drug to any, though it be asked of me, nor
will I counsel such." You could easily paraphrase this so as to include not
just doctors but every sort of scientist, remembering that all sciences have
their roots in the simple wish to make people safe and well.
Your paraphrase might go like this: "The regimen I adopt shall be for the
benefit of all life on this planet, according to my own ability and judgment,
and not for its hurt or for any wrong. I will create no deadly substance or
device, though it be asked of me, nor will I counsel such."
That might make a good beginning for an oath everyone would gladly take upon
graduation from MIT. And there is surely more than that you would gladly
swear to. You could take it from there.