Max Planck: The Tragic Choices

How do you decide to act when confronted by a morally objectionable situation? Do you remain silent, escape or resist? This general question is sympathetically depicted by Freeman Dyson in describing (New York Review of Books, 10/22/15) a recent biography of the German physicist Max Planck (Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War).

To provide a framework for his discussion, Dyson invokes the work of the economist Albert Hirschman in his book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. According to Hirschman, when faced with a gross failure, say the war in Vietnam, individuals, especially those in positions of responsibility, have to chose between three alternative responses.

“Exit meant to quite the enterprise. Voice meant to stay on the job but speak out for a change of direction. Loyalty meant to stay on the job and give support to the continuation of failing policies.”

Consider the situation of the two German physicists, Max Planck and Albert Einstein after Hitler had come to power. Both had made significant contributions to physics and were close friends, yet they responded differently when Einstein had seen the disaster coming, he moved to America and never returned to Germany again.

Einstein chose Exit, while Planck chose Loyalty, choosing to remain in Germany throughout the war and lend support to Hitler’s policies, including the racial laws. Like most Germans, Planck never chose Voice, to speak out against Hitler. To do so meant suicide.

It was his allegiance to Germany, to German society and its history, even when it fell under the spell of a mad despot, that made Planck’s life such a tragedy. I am reminded of something Virginia Woolf once wrote about foolish loyalties.

You must rid yourself of pride of nationality in the first place; also of religious pride, college pride, family pride, sex pride and those unreal loyalties that spring from them.

I also find Hirschman’s tripartite classification of wide generality. Those who choose exit in response to a gross failure, say a bankrupt business or unjust situation, can have only a small effect. Those who choose loyalty act to maintain the situation. Only those who choose voice can have any impact on correcting mistakes and injustices. But they must be fearless and persistent in speaking out against them, even if there is considerable risk in doing so.

When each of us look at our life and the responses we have made to failed and unjust policies, we can have a better idea of whether we have or have not behaved in accordance with our beliefs and fundamental values. Have we acted in accordance or inconsistently with them? And what does this reveal about our character?

The words of Stephane Hessel in his powerful manifesto Indignez-Vous are a reminder of what is possible.

The motivation that underlay the Resistance was outrage. We, the veterans of the Resistance movements and fighting forces of Free France, call on the younger generations to revive and carry forward the tradition of the Resistance and its ideas. We say to you: take over, keep going, get angry! Those in positions of political responsibility, economic power and intellectual authority, in fact our whole society, must not give up or let ourselves be overwhelmed by the current international dictatorship of the financial markets, which is such a threat to peace and democracy....

It is up to us, all of us together, to ensure that our society remains one to be proud of: not this society of undocumented workers and deportations…not the society where our retirement and other gains of social security are being called into question; not this society where the media are in the hands of the rich.

The worst possible outlook is indifference that says, “I can’t do anything about it: I’ll just get by.”