Knowledge is known as information and skills acquired through experience or education, or even the theoretical and practical understanding of the subject. Knowledge is all around us. It can be obtained in an instant, yet may have positive and negative consequences on the person who possesses it and on the environment around him/her. Other times, knowledge may even be hazardous. Either way, the possession of knowledge has a role to play in our society, and pushes us to act. We are often troubled and worried about the course of our actions, and the ethics associated with those actions.
Ethics are known to be the fundamental principles or beliefs associated with morally acceptable and morally unacceptable behavior, seen in a person’s eyes. Now according to moral relativism, an area of ethics, our values are determined by the society we grow up in and there are no universal values. Hence, a person’s ethics can have originated from a variety of different sources. An ethical responsibility is known to be our responsibility to act upon our beliefs based on what we consider as ethical.
Thus it can be said that to an extent, knowledge equips our ethical views with a responsibility, allowing us to act upon this knowledge according to what we perceive to be “right” or “wrong”. In this paper, I will explore the extent to which the possession of knowledge truly carries an ethical responsibility. Immediately, there are numerous knowledge issues that can be raised in this claim. Is it the way humans understand knowledge that generates an ethical responsibility, or does knowledge itself already generate an ethical responsibility?
How far into the process of knowing does the knower begin to have an ethical responsibility? Does knowledge in any particular area not carry an ethical responsibility? One area of knowledge we could consider is the natural sciences. One example would be the American theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. Known as one of the greatest scientists of his time and “the father of the atomic bomb”, Oppenheimer had a major role in the Manhattan project, the World War II project that developed the first nuclear weapons.
After the first successful detonation of the bomb on July 16th 1945, Oppenheimer publicly recognized and announced his power, stating “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”, showing acknowledgment of his destructive power and ethical obligations. Through the years of scientific experimentation, Oppenheimer had continuously been gaining scientific knowledge, reaching closer and closer to his goal of creating the weapon of mass destruction. When he finally gained enough knowledge in creating the weapon, it can be argued that at that moment in time, he had an ethical responsibility to act upon his knowledge of the weapon.
According to moral relativism, there are no definitive morals and values, and truly depend on the current situation. America was in a state of war during the development of the atomic bomb. Pearl Harbor had been bombed to shreds by the Japanese, with total casualties numbering up to thousands. As a means of justice, a concept of moral rightness, the idea of fair and equal treatment, the development of the atomic bomb can arguably be considered ethical. Now according to moral absolutism, certain moral principles should always be followed irrespective of context.