HAVE AN UNFOLDING SCANDAL TO OCCUPY US in Washington this week as well as some pretty heavy-duty foreign-policy stuff. But my mind just keeps being hauled back to the radiation story. That is the developing account of how the federal government financed various radiation-tolerance experiments on people over the years after World War II, some of the subjects of these experiments having given their consent, others having been totally unaware of what was being done to them. Related disclosures concern the federal government's failure to be truthful about the terribly harmful effects of some of its nuclear enterprises around the country, such as that in Hanford, Wash.
The subject is now to be looked into by a White House task force. But well in advance of its findings a couple of truly dubious propositions seem to be settling in as conventional wisdom. One is that the events in question began to occur as much as 40 or more years ago when, it is soberly asserted, people just didn't have the capacity to understand such things, either morally or scientifically. The other is: "Hey, there was a cold war on!" This is meant to suggest that there was an eggs-and-omelets, ends-and-means problem involved here, one of those for-the-greater-good situations in which someone (else) had to be sacrificed for the sake of saving or at least helping a large number of others.
The premises underlying both propositions are rot. I can accept that much less was known and understood about radioactivity in the early days of the atomic age than now. That is obvious, and it is important to distinguish between what was accidental or innocent and what was not. And I can accept too that we have as a society become more conscious of the potentially harmful consequences of any number of phenomena that used to be regarded with indifference, from smoking to polluting our rivers and streams; and so we are more keenly aware of our choices. But none of that implies total ignorance or ethical idiocy in our recent past. I hate to break this to the younger folks among us, but 40 years ago was not the moral dark ages. We could read and write and were even capable of reasoning back then. A society that was morally alert enough to grasp the profound wrongs that were being inflicted on the helpless populations under totalitarian rule would have had to boast plenty of citizens who would not have had any trouble at an in concluding--at once--that slipping poisonous matter into the breakfast food of unknowing, institutionalized retarded kids was a disgrace. You wouldn't have needed to call on the services of one of those people we nowadays call an "ethicist" to figure that out.
The reason I find the retroactive justifications for what went on with many of the radiation experiments so troubling is that they go directly to the heart of our present political confusions. For as long as there has been politics there has been the question of when to go along and when to say no. Those who do not simply withdraw themselves from the compromised, daily human business of civic life in the manner of hermits or ascetics or nonplayers of some other sort have to face this. They have to decide how much to engage in and accept the morally imperfect system of trade-offs that enables a society to get its business done, and when to draw the line. They have to keep alive within themselves the belief that some things are just plain wrong and that we are individually responsible for recognizing them when they come along and acting on our conviction about them, even at a cost.
It is interesting to me that much of the apologetics for what the government and nuclear experimenters did is coming from parts of the establishment that are generally notorious for their impatience with what we call "situational ethics"--at least when such ethics are promoted in grade-school textbooks or "bleeding-heart" social workers' testimony in juvenile court. In fact, the conclusion that nothing is anybody's fault and nobody could help it and it all depends, anyway, on how you were conditioned by your environment to think about it, etc., has been wantonly extended from a few relevant cases into every reach of our communal life. The relativists and sophists among us can construe almost any moral monstrosity as a justifiable act of political revenge or psychological compulsion or intellectual dissent or national-security necessity or something else along those lines.
The insidious reasoning about the radiation experiments should catch us up on this. It is as good an illustration as we are likely to get of how far the process of rationalizing away our moral standards has gone. I do not say that everyone at every level involved in these nuclear affairs did wrong. I do not even say that everything that occurred was wrong. But I do say that in many parts of this activity terrible wrong was done and that some individuals had the clarity to say so at that time and that many more should have.
It is the case that from one age to another assumptions change, as do perceptions of moral right and wrong. We argue about this endlessly in relation, say, to slavery in America or the grotesque mistreatment of very young working children in the century that preceded ours. But from this I do not conclude that we are all helpless captives of our particular era. There were always at least some people in those earlier times who knew that wrongs were being committed, and the lesson we ought to draw from contemplating such history, in any case, is not that we might as well succumb to the prevailing assumptions of our own age, too, It is that we ought to be wondering what the moral blind spots of our own age are.
It used to be said, in the years when the incredible depredations of J. Edgar Hoover's later life as head of the FBI were coming out, that the people making a big fuss about them and wishing some restitution and amends to be made were in some way or other people who liked tearing down America, who reveled in the idea that we were bad. This, of course, has it exactly backward. To protest such actions and seek remedies for them is to pronounce them aberrant, to insist by implication that this country is not like that. I feel the same way about the more witting and culpable of the radiation experiments. I hope the administration task force is unsparing in its report.