Wednesday, June 11, 2008

vonnegut : extend the hippocratic oath

Ages ago that wear sunscreen advice piece circulated and was originally credited as being a speech given by Kurt Vonnegut to students graduating from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

It wasn't (it was actually written as a newspaper column for the Chicago Tribune by Mary Schmich). Vonnegut did, however, make a speech to MIT students in 1985, reproduced in his excellent 1991 ragbag scrapbook of speeches and essays Fates Worse Than Death:

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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 judgement, 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 judgement, 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.

I thank you for your attention.

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In Fates Worse Than Death, Vonnegut talks about how the speech was received;

What a flop! The applause was polite enough... But nobody came up front afterward and said he or she was going to take a shot at writing an oath all technical people would be glad to take. There was nothing in the student paper next week. It was all over.

...I'll tell you what makes the students so unresponsive. They know what i will never get hrough my head: that life is unserious.

Before my great speech to the MIT students I talked to some of them about Star Wars, Ronald Reagan's belief that laser beams and satellites and fly-paper and who-knows-what could be linked together in such a way as to form an invisible dome no enemy missile could penetrate. They didn't think there was any way it could be made to operate, but they all wanted to work on it anyway.

[The Star Wars programme was latterly renamed the Missile Defense Shield; huge contracts are still awarded, and the system still doesn't exist.]


jusk said...

Interesting stuff indeed. Coincidentally, I am currently reading Slaughterhouse 5 by Mr Vonnegut, which is all kinds of awesome.

merrick said...

slaughterhouse 5 is justly praised, but the vast majority of his other books are equally brilliant.

The early stuff's a bit sci-fi, the real Vonnegutness kicks in with God Bless You Mr Rosewater.

That easy, straightforward use of language no matter how abstract the ideas, that warmth towards humanity, loving people with all their flaws, he never loses it after that.

If pushed to crown one above the others, I'd recommend Breakfast of Champions. But jump in anywhere post-mid-60s and it's fine; even the collections of essays are just as good.

jusk said...

Yep, Breakfast of Champions is on the shelf waiting to be read, and I'm sure it won't be the last of his books I read either.

I really like the style, as you say, it's accessible and never over-written, but it's very cleverly put together. I love the way it often veers from profound to darkly hilarious.

merrick said...

That humour and darkness continue throughout, though the dark element comes further forward later in books like Slapstick and Galapagos. Not that you should be put off; the latter is one of my favourites and a fine parable.

Jim Bliss said...

"Timequake" may well be one of the bleakest books ever written (though it is still full of very funny lines). Vonnegut got darker and darker as the years went by, but never less than brilliant.

("Timequake", incidentally may well be my favourite Vonnegut novel even though it's generally considered quite weak by critics)

merrick said...

Jim, Timequake is indeed superb. And what do the critics know?

It's like the way Woody Allen's films all get panned; they clutch at anything they can to attack them, doing so to the point of blatantly misrepresenting the film.

I've seen this over and over and the thing I get between the lines is them saying 'but I want him to make a film that has the impact on me that Annie Hall had when I was 18'.

I watched it happen to Bowie for a good ten years too (before they got round to just ignoring his new albums), slagging off great things like Outside and Tin Machine.

Vonnegut, like Allen and Bowie, takes a common medium and gives you something that you didn't know could be done with it. Something fresh, intelligent and original, something that really rewards you.

It cannot stay so very fresh and original when it's become part of your personal cultural firmament. It then becomes a dear and trusted friend to most of us, but to a few - disproportionately represented among critics because they always want to talk about whizzbang exciting new things - such familiarity is something to resent.