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Pledge would legitimize social awareness

I am disappointed by Mark Kantrowitz's latest column ["Commencement pledge is meaningless gesture," March 14]. Here I read simple-minded rationalizations for avoiding the issue of social responsibility in relationship to one's work. In this column Kantrowitz completely misses the point: the objective of the pledge to social responsibility is not to carve in stone a set of religious rules to be adhered to; it is to legitimize the idea that scientists should place some value on whether they act responsibly as citizens or human beings, not just as scientists or engineers.

Kantrowitz says that the pledge "can mean whatever the student wants it to mean." Yes. That's the whole idea: to get the student to value the idea of social responsibility in the abstract, because at the present time the MIT culture, for whatever reason, does not instill its students with a sense that it is important to be a responsible citizen or human being. The culture pressures students to merely brush the surface of issues so that they have just enough knowledge of a subject to convince themselves and others that they are acting responsibly, either now or later in life. Social responsibility, a priori, is not valued, nor taken seriously. If this were just a matter of disagreement on a few particular issues then the problem would be much simpler one to deal with. But this is not a question of particulars, but of very fundamental values.

Kantrowitz also says, "technology is neither good nor bad." I don't understand why he would believe that we, as students, are somehow insulated from the responsibility that comes with the importance of the work which is done here. MIT students must believe that they have at least some responsibility for the influence of their work on society, if for no other reason than sheer practicality. The awareness of technological issues which being exposed to a culture like MIT can bring to a person also brings with it the responsibility of members of the MIT culture to, if not inform the public at large of issues that can effect them, then at least not to abuse the power which they may hold for personal gain.

People associated with science and technology must make some effort to familiarize themselves with the social issues relevant to their fields. Obviously, if one does not make any effort to explore the facts seriously, then he or she will be unlikely to find anything disagreeable in almost any work. It would be foolish, also, to assume that this institution, or any other like it, would participate in efforts to enlighten their students to the possible negative outcomes of their work, when the leaders of this institution may consider such an action to be in conflict with their own interests or the interests of the institution.

Kantrowitz also says, "If scientists were to withhold inventions because of potential bad uses and side-effects, all technological progress would halt." This is a grotesque oversimplification of the issue and I doubt that such a statement could make any constructive contribution to a meaningful debate. The question is not whether or not all science and technology has unacceptable side effects, but which particular areas of science are most likely to have unacceptable side effects, and under what circumstances. In which areas are the probability and consequences of the misuse of technology so severe and far reaching that one should avoid or refuse to participate in them? That is the real question: Kantrowitz misinterpreted the situation.

The MIT culture fails to foster an atmosphere of social responsibility. A commitment to science and engineering is certainly valuable, but such a narrow-minded commitment, regardless of how intense it is, cannot impact positively on the society in which it prospers unless it comes along with a commitment to social awareness and responsibility.

There is a real issue in this pledge. If there were not, then Kantrowitz would not have written his column. It is one of personal integrity. It is forgivable to make an error in judgment and create something which does harm. It is not forgivable to lie to one's self and others in order to advance one's own interests at the expense of one's society or the world itself. I think this alone would be a reasonable criterion for socially responsible behavior, with no other specifics.

Theodore A. Corbin '90->