Food For Thought

A Collection of Heretical Notions and Wretched Adages
compiled by Jack Tourette

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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.

© 1999 by MonkeyPants Press, an imprint of Bonobo Books, a division of Consolidated Trout, Ltd.
Last update: 03-July-2015
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