Ethics Quiz: The Nazi Scientist

Scientist, genius, Nobel Prize winner, Nazi. Now what?

Scientist, genius, Nobel Prize winner, Nazi. Now what?

Konrad Lorenz, 1903-1989 ,  was an acclaimed Austrian zoologist regarded as the founder of modern ethology, which is the study of animal behavior. His research  explained how behavioral patterns may be traced to through evolution,  and he made major contributions to the study of aggression and its roots. Lorenz shared a Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1973 with the animal behaviorists Karl von Frisch and Nikolaas Tinbergen.

It seems that documentation surfaced proving that Lorenz joined the Nazi Party in 1938, however, and for that, Austria’s Salzburg University last week posthumously stripped him of his honorary doctorate.

Your Day Before The Night Before Christmas Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz is…

Is this the right thing to do?

One fascinating thing about ethics is that the minute you think you have nailed down a certain principle, life, aided by chaos, will come up with a variation you hadn’t thought of.

The problem of separating someone’s private life from his or her public accomplishments in determining their appropriate , honors and legacies has been a frequent topic on Ethics Alarms this year, notably in the matter of Bill Cosby’s vile conduct. Also emerging this year has been the demands for removing honors of those whose values and causes some regard as no longer honorable or even tolerable, regardless of their historical importance.

Let’s do an ethics inventory, shall we?

Over the past year, Ethics Alarms has asserted that…

1. Bill Cosby is a serial sexual predator, who denies the gravity of his conduct and is systematically attempting to discredit his victims. Going to his concerts to chuckle at his family-friendly tales of fatherhood and human foibles interferes with proper societal shunning of the man and his hypocrisy.

2. Cosby’s contributions to comedy, civil rights, TV and entertainment, however, are real, substantial, undeniable and deserving of recognition. His personal conduct, even his personal crimes, should not cause his achievements to be ignored or forgotten. Artists’ personal conduct should not change the understanding of the quality of their art.

3. Disney removed a bust of Cosby in a TV museum placed there specifically and only for his artistic contributions to television. Unethical. This is photoshopping culture and history. Cosby is TV pioneer in multiple ways. If you are going to honor pioneers of the industry, the fact that one of them turns out to be a rapist is irrelevant.

4. Pete Rose’s recognition as an epic baseball great is correctly cancelled out by his gambling on baseball as a manager and player, in part because he knowingly violated a rule that said it would be, and gambled anyway. Moreover, his misconduct related to baseball, and risked great harm to baseball.

5. The wave of icon toppling and statue defiling in the wake of Dylann Roof’s mass murder as a Confederate flag-loving white supremacist is unethical, because it endorses constantly altering history and the memorializing of historical figures according to current passions and changing values. Whether or not a Confederate general was originally honored for his military valor and achievements or his defense of a political and ideological cause now regarded as indefensible, the honor in such forms as school names and statues should be respected as part of the duty to preserve continuity and to have prominent cultural records of the full range of history.

6. The contention that the wave in #5 created a slippery slope with no apparent or obvious stop was illustrated by a growing movement to eliminate the honoring of Democratic Party founders Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson because they were slaveholders. This is presentism at its worst, and also ingratitude. Jefferson, Jackson, Washington and other figures were not originally honored for their slave-holding, but other significant achievements. Those achievements still deserve the honors, and always will. (See #3).

7. Various universities have withdrawn their honorary degrees for Cosby. That is the correct course. As I wrote on this topic:

“As Brown’s president notes in the release, Cosby was specifically honored in Brown’s citation bestowing the degree for his “ability to integrate [his] personal character into fictional personae that simulate real life while embracing such cherished American values as honesty, fair play, love of family, and respect for humanity.”  It’s hard to even read that now without giggling, gagging, or going mad. It was a degree achieved under false pretenses. Universities withdraw real degrees when it turns out that a grad cheated or lied to get one. This is no different. Cosby’s whole public image was a lie.”

8. Princeton, spurred by black students, is now beginning to strip Woodrow Wilson’s name away from buildings and more. Wilson was a racist, but he was also a major political theorist, historical figure and an important President who was instrumental in building Princeton into the institution it is today. Historical figures are honored for their best characteristics and achievements, not their worst. There is plenty to honor about Wilson’s career, and Princeton should no more disown him because he was a racist than the U.S. should disown Jefferson and Washington.

Confused yet? I believe 1-8 can all be reconciled with each other, but I’m not going to pretend it’s easy. Yet another wrinkle just surfaced last week. From the Washington Post:

[Fairfax County (VA)] has amended its school-naming policy, opening the door for changes to schools that honor Confederate generals and evoke the school system’s legacy of resisting integration. Students, community members and alumni in Fairfax County have been agitating to change the names of two high schools named for Confederate generals — J.E.B. Stuart and Robert E. Lee — and a third honoring a past superintendent, W.T. Woodson, who was an opponent of desegregation.

The school board voted unanimously Thursday to alter the policy that barred officials from changing the names of school buildings unless the building was repurposed. Under the new policy, the board also can change a name “where some other compelling need exists.”Those who lined up to speak in favor of changing the names linked to the Confederacy and segregation said they definitely have a “compelling need.”

Lee and Stuart high schools opened in the late 1950s, as Fairfax County battled desegregation orders. Many believe that the naming of the schools for Confederate generals was a way to send a message to black students that they were not welcome. Stuart did not admit black students until 1961.“Make no mistake; J.E.B. Stuart High School was not named to honor a Confederate general’s role in the Civil War,” said Stephen Spitz, a neighborhood resident who has litigated school desegregation cases. “The school was named as part of Virginia’s massive resistance to school integration.”

Hmmm. So the argument is that because of the motive for naming the schools, the honorees no longer deserve the honors. If, I gather, Lee and Stuart were honored because Lee was a brilliant general who fought on the side of the state he considered his “country” despite opposing the war itself and the Confederacy’s cause, and because Stuart was a brave and brilliant cavalry officer who died in combat fighting for Virginia, then there would be no reason to change the schools’ names. However, because the same men with the same careers and accomplishments now as then were honored to protest integration—neither Lee nor Stuart had any published positions on integration, I should note—six decades ago, “many believe,” that argues for wiping their memories from public view. Really?

Fun Fact: Did you know that the Washington Monument was really intended as a representation of George’s renowned and massive external organ, many believe? The thing is obscene: it doesn’t honor him for leading the nation when it was uncertain and vulnerable.

All right, I made that up.

Now back to Lorenz. Set aside the debate about how much real choice prominent Germans had about joining the Nazi party, or what Lorenz believed in his heart. He was a scientist, his scientific contributions have nothing to do with his personal life or history, and the honorary degree was meant to recognize the scientist, not the man.

Salzburg University was wrong to revoke the degree.

22 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Nazi Scientist

  1. Jack said, “Salzburg University was wrong to revoke the degree.”

    Since there doesn’t appear to be any evidence to suggest that Lorenz was a war criminal and/or used his scientific skills and knowledge in unethical or immoral ways, I agree.

  2. You make a good point there.

    Membership in the Nazi Party was encouraged, but was not mandatory. However, the Party insinuated itself into most aspects of daily life, including labor guilds, education and recreational activities. If you were a 12-year old who wanted to join a biking club, for example, there was no choice but to join the Hitler Youth.

    It was almost essential for career advancement and most professionals had to belong to some type of Nazi-sponsored organization to practice their trade.

    So, Lorenz could have been pressured to join or required to join to practice his profession or could have joined because he was ambitious and not because he necessarily subscribed to Nazi ideology. He was living in a dictatorship, after all.

    It’s easy for us to assume that everyone who joined the Nazi Party did so out of allegiance to Hitler. The truth of the matter was that most Germans didn’t belong and quite a few people who did could have cared less about racial purity.

    Have you ever heard the story of Johannes Fest? His son, late author Joachim Fest, became a prominent writer of the Nazi period. Johannes Fest was a devout Roman Catholic who hated the Nazis. It cost him his job as a school teacher. The government even offered it back if he would just toe the line. His wife urged him to do so just to keep up appearances, but Fest refused. It caused his family to struggle for a long time.

    Fest would leave his house with nothing in his arms. It was not unusual for Germans who weren’t Nazis to carry something in both hands when leaving their homes so that they would have an excuse not to give the Nazi salute when greeting others. Fest didn’t bother to pretend. He just didn’t salute.

    Not everyone can be Johannes Fest. It would have been nice if Germany had more of people like him then. But perhaps Konrad Lorenz only did what he felt he had to do.

    But I agree that revoking an earned degree is wrong. Being a Nazi had nothing to do with that, even if Lorenz agreed wholeheartedly with everything Hitler did.

  3. You forgot Tim Hunt, the Nobel Prize winning laureate who was rushed to the door amid claims of sexism. I remember asking then: This guy is probably the best hope of curing cancer in our lifetime. Even if he was a raging sexist, (which to this day I’m not convinced of… To be fair to the situation the quote was sexist as it was reported… but I think that context made a difference.) is there no universe in which we do some utilitarian math and ethically allow him to continue? A Japanese lab took him and his wife up on that, by the way.

  4. Jack,
    I agree with your article overall, but the phrase “… the duty to preserve continuity …” caught my attention. I would argue there is no such duty. Just because something worked in the past and has been carried forward through the ages, doesn’t mean each generation need adopt it blindly.

    Tradition means nothing other than people have been doing it for a long time; not that its necessarily the best. Standing the test of time doesn’t validate a personal legacy or idea, it only means that it hasn’t come up against a worthy challenger. And honestly. I find it disgusting that it’s used to justify anything.

    History is the past; the present is what we live in. Remembering history is one thing, but honoring it is something else entirely.

    Merry Christmas, inshallah!


    • “I would argue there is no such duty. Just because something worked in the past and has been carried forward through the ages, doesn’t mean each generation need adopt it blindly.”

      I think you missed the point, Neil… Jack isn’t suggesting we never change what we do, he’s suggesting that we don’t destroy history that we find inconvenient or uncomfortable. Things happened. We don’t need to agree with those things, but we do need to know that they happened, the way the happened. The alternative is this… sick dishonesty I don’t have a word for. Could you imagine, had the Nazis won the war, and they got to rewrite history? It seems like such a fundamental violation of the truth it should have its own word… But I can’t think of it.

  5. It seems to me that if Salzburg gave out an honor that was harmful in some way to humanity, then Salzburg should be punished in some way. I’m not sure if revoking the diploma of someone 25 years dead is an effective punishment.

  6. Jack,
    Also, I know this is a small point, but considering that revoking the degree of someone long dead is meaningless anyway, who cares? It was purely symbolic.

    I realize, of course, that it’s the symbolic message you object to, but that’s just the point. It has no affect on any living person. Why buy into their narrative that this matters? It doesn’t. His works are still in scientific publication and his ideas are still studied today. Why fret because his alma mater no longer wants to claim him?


        • I’m not rationalizing. I simply don’t care. A dead scientist may have been a member of a now-deduct political movement which was actually somewhat trendy amongst intelligentsia in his day (at least prior to the war).

          Far too many people today are starving and dying for me to even remotely give a shit that an academic institution is cherry-picking its history.

          You’re always trying to read points into my questions that aren’t there. You know no nothing of my beliefs and continually make the wrong inferences because I pose dissenting questions. We agree far more often than you would imagine. You just let such issues bother you more.

    • Neil,
      You trivializing this is on the verge of outright disrespect and your nonsense rationalizations certainly do not define when something matters or not; this does matter and it matters a great deal!

      This posthumously stripping him of his honorary doctorate reflects another shift in academia away from its purpose and towards the ridiculousness associated with the illogical and unethical court of public opinion. These institutions of higher learning are being intentionally manipulated by PC wack-jobs, the University was wrong and in a very cowardly way. There doesn’t appear to be any evidence that Lorenz was involved in any unethical or immoral activity; these institutions should be standing up for what’s right and not cowardly bowing to PC wackos in the court of public opinion.


  7. The folks at the University of Salzburg may have some other housecleaning to do: From a review of a book by Evan Burr Bukey describing Austria’s involvement in the Holocaust, “Hitler’s Austria: Popular Sentiment in the Nazi Era 1938-1945.”

    “During centuries of Hapsburg supremacy, the royal family’s German subjects came to believe themselves superior to every other ethnic group in Europe, including the aggressive, arrogant, pompous, warlike, super-efficient Germans in Germany. But, as Evan Burr Bukey tells us, bereft of an empire after World War I, Austria’s Germans became less contemptuous of Germany’s Germans, and, following the 1938 Anschluss, they would surprise Berlin with their astonishing dedication to National Socialism. During World War II, though they only constituted eight percent of the Third Reich’s population, Austrians comprised fourteen percent of the SS and forty percent of Nazi personnel involved in genocide.

    Austrians explained these developments to victorious Anglo-Americans and Russians with claims that they were “victims.” Their country had been occupied by aggressive, arrogant, pompous, warlike, super-efficient Germans from Germany. How else to deal with occupiers? But this would make it difficult to understand why, some sixty years after the war, at least one out of every four Austrians (that is, those who voted for Joerg Haider’s Freedom Party) believes that Hitler wasn’t all that bad, the SS was just your usual elite military formation, and National Socialism could have developed highly-successful economic and employment policies if it had not been mismanaged.”

  8. Revoking it might have some relevance if he continued pushing the Nazi party line, in the 25 years after the war ended. But it would have been known when it was granted then. If he learned better or repented, taking the honor away is just PC overeach cruelty. If they knew when it was granted, they have absolutely no right to take it away forty years later. There aren’t too many combinations of conditions that would nake taking it away just, and those odds are very slim. He would have to be unrepentant nazi, still believing and acting on that worldview in a way that reflects badly on the institution. I was on a tour where the guide had been in the Hitler Youth, and he had some comments on the twisted world view that produced. Unfortunately both side of the aisle have certain offenses that can never be forgiven, even after decades.

    • According to my mother, at least a third of her college class in her junior year (we’re talking 1930s) were “card-carrying” Commies. At least for the year. Should their degrees be revoked posthumously? If they were alive today, we could gather in the quad to stand at attention while their buttons are ripped ceremoniously from their letter-sweaters to the beat of “The Eyes of Texas.” Nuts.

      Austria: now there’s a different nation in a fishbowl. The FPO, its third and fastest growing party which won over 25% of the vote in a national election as recently as 1999 and thus entered the government (and remain firmly there), was notorious throughout Europe for its leader’s comments openly praising Nazi employment policies and the Waffen-SS. Haider is dead now but the party is rising steadily, mostly with a blue collar base of support. After allowing the far-right into government, Austria drew diplomatic sanctions from the EU – at the time, the only member state to have ever been hit with such measures.

      A writer for The New Statesman asked if calling them Nazis didn’t trivialise the seriousness of the word, and ignore its specific historical context. “[A group of people standing on the perimeters of a rally] explain that [the current party leader] Strache and others are known to be members of a neo-Nazi fraternity called the ‘Burschenschafter’. This group holds gatherings each year in the Opera [a 3,600+-seat building in the center of Vienna], and is infamous for publically mourning the deaths of prominent Nazi figures as well as commiserating over the German loss of World War Two. An older man joins the discussion and says that although he would not necessarily claim that the FPÖ are Nazis in the traditional sense of the word, “they still share a lot of values with the National Socialist movement of the 30s”

      The reporter pushes his way into the FPÖ rally, where the demographic changes dramatically. There are far more people over 50 – many wearing dirndls and lederhosen … proudly sporting FPÖ neckerchiefs which read ‘Aus Liebe zur Heimat’ (Out of love for our home).” He concludes that should the Eurozone run into further trouble over integration or a political gridlock occur in Austria, Strache and the FPO would have the best chance to take over.

      So Austria is in a hypersensitive position right now with regard to the EU governing body. They will toss Lorenz to any wolves they can find.

  9. My thoughts on this have been mostly expressed on this old post of mine:

    That said, I do have one addendum/question to add for anyone reading this; if the people of the former Soviet Union had waited until 50-100 years later to figure out whether statues to Lenin, Stalin, etc. should be pulled down, what would your stance be on that (considering that even Stalin had a few real accomplishments to his name alongside his many, many atrocities)?

    • Really, I’m just glad that America doesn’t have the monarchical/dictatorial history (with the accompanying monuments and statues) of much of the rest of the world; could you imagine what the debate would be like then?

    • Dictators’ statues erected by their own regimes are different in kind. They aren’t monument or memorials—they are statements of power and control. Tearing don those statue is part of ending that control and declaring that the regime is over. In the Us, no statues are erected until after a leader is out of power.

  10. So, it sounds to me that the rule is basically, in your view, that whatsoever you do ethically in a professional manner is yours and no one should take it away from you based on ethics outside the profession. In short, Thomas Jefferson was the writer of the Declaration of Independence regardless of whether or not he was doing unethical things with his slaves. If, however, he had written the Declaration of Independence for unethical reasons or through unethical means, then we could negate his greatness even in the writing. (i.e. If we could definitively prove, for instance, that he only wrote the declaration because he wanted to seek independence to protect the institution of American Slavery).

    This appears to be the theme throughout. To strike another example, Michael Jordan won six championships and five mvps, and his ethics in his personal life (which are questionable) can’t take those honors away from him. If, however, we found out he was using steroids or paying opponents to go easy on him, or some other sin related to the game of basketball, then it would be appropriate to remove his accolades vis-a-vis basketball. This makes sense to me because it seems to comport with the golden rule. I don’t think anybody would like for their ethical mistakes and failings to remove from the public’s consciousness their great achievements in other areas. It’s one thing to say “Look at Mr. Jordan’s acceptance speech to the Hall of Fame, what an unethical buffoon.” It’s quite another to say, “Look at Mr. Jordan’s acceptance speech to the hall of fame, he’s not that great a basketball player.” Greatness in ethics should never be confused with greatness in some other field.

    The great thing about ethics, though, is that we all get to compete to be amongst the best. Certainly, such is not true for other things. I can seek to be as ethical as the saints and other great people of strong ethics who came before I was even born. At that goal, we all have a chance. I don’t think the same could be said about acquiring the talents necessary to compete with Mr. Jordan on the basketball court or Thomas Jefferson in the field of writing and civil service.

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