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Einstein’s Morality

Ching-Hung Woo looks at the many facets of Albert Einstein’s approach to ethics.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) regarded morality as indispensable to the survival of humanity, and he devoted considerable effort to the formulation of a coherent position on the relationship between morality, science, and religion. In his view morality should be decoupled from religion and treated as a secular matter of bringing dignity and happiness, as much as possible, to all people.

The main source of disharmony among both individuals and groups seemed to Einstein to be an exaggerated sense of self-importance. Hence he applied his proven ability for correcting misconceptions to the problem of human conceit; and this led him to point to our feeling that we have autonomous free will as a key mistake. The non-existence of free will seemed to Einstein so obvious that he did not bother explaining his reasoning in any detail, but the subject does present a serious obstacle when people try to follow his thinking on morality. Furthermore, Einstein’s lifelong support for individual freedom against authoritarianism appeared to casual observers as inconsistent with his denial of free will. In this following I try to fill in some of the steps missing from Einstein’s expositions, show the consistency between his words and deeds, and assess the present and future relevance of Einstein’s approach to morality.

Albert Einstein by Gail Campbell, 2015


No Choice

Scientists attempt to explain the causal relations between observed events through universal laws of nature operating on matter. Human bodies, and so people, are also made of atoms, and although there are too many relevant parameters to give a practical microscopic description of a person, nothing in principle prevents the intricate behaviour of human bodies from being scientifically described – that’s what the universal applicability of scientific laws means.

Now in the scientific framework favored by Einstein, where events unfold by deterministic laws, once an initial state of the world is completely specified, all subsequent phenomena are determined. Hence when a person faces multiple alternatives and makes a choice, the will of the decision-maker at the moment of decision was actually already fixed from the beginning of the universe. Hence the feeling of having a choice is only an illusion. In a November 1930 article in the New York Times Magazine, Einstein said flatly: “For any one who is pervaded with the sense of causal law in all that happens… man acts in accordance with an inner and outer necessity, and would, in the eyes of God, be as little responsible as an inanimate object is for the movements which it makes.” Some will object that quantum mechanics introduces a random element. But of course Einstein did not believe that quantum causality was truly random, telling Niels Bohr that “God does not play dice.” (Bohr apparently replied that Einstein shouldn’t tell God what to do.) But even if quantum fluctuations are truly random, that would hardly be a justification for believing in personal responsibility, in view of the uncontrollable nature of those fluctuations.

If free will is impossible, how then does one acquire the illusion of having it? Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) already pointed out that a person sees the reliable causal connection between his having the wish to achieve a certain result and the materialization of that result through moving his body. However, because the person cannot enumerate the myriad earlier causes that led to his having the wish, he takes the earliest traceable cause, namely his wish, as the source of the subsequent chain of events. To Spinoza this truncation is illogical, but it becomes common practice, and we routinely say things like “I take responsibility for this error” – even if such claims make sense only as a form of bookkeeping. When President Bush said he took responsibility for the mishandling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he knew, and the public knew, that the true causes of the mishandling were more complex.

This may still fail to convince some people. They might ask: I feel that I could have made a different choice from the one I made, so why am I not the source of the decision? Ah, but there was only one actual choice made at that point, and it was dictated by prior causes. If you had to face the same set of alternatives twice, you could make two different choices all right; but that would only mean that in the interval between the two choices being made some new events occurred – perhaps only in your brain – that made you change your choice. No matter how you make your choices, your acts are still all determined by prior causes.

A correspondence between Einstein and his friend Otto Juliusburger on Hitler’s responsibility for the crimes of WWII illustrates how Einstein proposed to deal with the moral consequences of the absence of free will. He acknowledged that since everyone’s action are determined by prior factors, Hitler could not help but to do what he did, and so the moral arguments used for instance to exempt a madman from retributive punishment – that they couldn’t help or didn’t know what they were doing – could also be applied to Hitler. In other words, the distinction that lawyers make between a psychopath not knowing right from wrong and someone acting immorally but knowing that it’s wrong, appeared to Einstein unimportant, since both are doing what they must do from the confluence of events ultimately in their brains, which inexorably follow from previous causes. So instead of focusing on retributive punishment, legal action should be guided by the welfare of mankind; and the welfare of mankind justifies actions to prevent future would-be Hitlers from destroying other people’s lives, just as society might justifiably act to prevent a dangerous delusional schizophrenic from harming others. Einstein also took the non-existence of free will as a wake up call for us not to take our supposed autonomy too seriously: what we jealously protect and shrewdly promote as our autonomy is actually the result of myriads of factors of which we are only vaguely aware.

People who meet this logic for the first time tend to become alarmed – what happens to our vaunted freedom if we have no free will? There is actually no need to be alarmed if we distinguish between two kinds of freedoms: a freedom from prior causes, and a freedom from coercion. The idea of ‘absolute free will’ supposes that our choices are not determined by prior causes; but few of us actually think of freedom in that way. Rather, we feel a loss of freedom when we are coerced, that is, when we are forced to do something or be in a certain state against our values. There are certain likes and dislikes that a person regards as characterizing him. This set of values may change with time, but they are stable in the immediate term. Hence it makes sense to redefine ‘free choice’ as a choice compatible with a person’s self-affirmed set of values.

Einstein showed by his words and actions that he accepted this qualified usage of the language of free will: the individual freedom that he championed throughout his life against authoritarianism fits the description of ‘freedom from coercion’. It is interesting that Einstein’s colleague and biographer Abraham Pais wrote in Subtle Is the Lord: the Science and the Life of Albert Einstein (1982) that if he were to give a one-line description of the man, he would say that Einstein was the freest person he had ever met. Pais went on to explain that he meant Einstein appeared closest to being the master of his own destiny. Clearly this notion of freedom refers to being free from coercion rather than being free from prior causes. In short, Einstein valued individual freedom, but did not lose sight of the transient and limited nature of the self.

Of Human Bondage

In line with this view of freedom as the ability to fulfil individual values, Einstein urged society to give ample room for each individual to explore a particular idea to its rational fulfilment: “Whether it be a work of art or a significant scientific achievement, that which is great and noble comes from the solitary personality,” he said (Albert Einstein, The Human Side, Eds, Helen Dukas, Banesh Hoffmann, 1979). However, the justification he gave for promoting the wishes of the loners of the world – amongst whom he included himself – was the subsequent benefit to society as a whole. Perhaps influenced by Spinoza, and also by Buddhist thinking, Einstein spoke of “the bondage of egocentric cravings, desires, and fears” the individual suffers (Science, Philosophy and Religion: A Symposium, 1941). Such bondage is coercion exerted not by others but by oneself.

How does that bondage come about? If a person’s values are too narrowly self-centered, they do not reflect that person’s true nature, which involves an awareness of being connected to other lives. So although the selfish choices he makes are superficially free in the sense of agreeing with his current set of values, they do not harmonize with his true nature, and the internal conflict is a sort of coercion. However, liberation from the bondage of egotism leads to recovery of the sense of connection with the rest of the world, and one may be able to revise one’s set of core values by digging deeper into oneself. Einstein proposed therefore that personal striving be guided by the ideal of promoting the welfare of the world as a whole. The welfare of the whole includes legitimate self-interest, of course, and the juggling for balance is never easy. Our efforts will inevitably fall short. Hence it is better not to take oneself too seriously.

Einstein seemed more or less to have followed his own moral prescriptions: his moral activities were largely directed towards public issues such as disarmament and world government. But in personal matters he also tried to take his own advice: he mocked his sometimes saintly image. Although he tried to keep family affairs private, he ruefully admitted to having failed, in two marriages, to achieve domestic harmony. However, according to Pais, “An occasional touch of sadness in him never engulfed his sense of humor.”

Einstein’s distaste for conceit also included tribal conceit in the form of chauvinism. “I am against any chauvinism, even in the guise of mere patriotism,” he said in ‘My Credo’, a 1932 speech to the German League of Human Rights. How does this square with his later work for the US Navy, and with his letter to Roosevelt on the bomb? In Einstein’s view, his participation in the Allied war effort was to help stop the menace to global society posed by a madman. However, as soon as it became clear that Hitler was not close to acquiring atomic weapons, Einstein regretted his participation in developing those weapons of mass destruction: “ Nostra Culpa!” [“We are guilty!”] he lamented in the letter to Juliusburger mentioned earlier.

Intuition: A Thing to Cherish and to Revise

Some people who otherwise might like Einstein’s modest approach to morality might be turned away by his statement that “Morality is of the highest importance – but for us, not for God” (Albert Einstein, The Human Side).

Einstein did concede that his notions of religion and of God were unusual. For him religious sentiment consisted of awe and reverence for the deep mysteries of the universe, such as why there exist precise and universal natural laws. Many people would feel uncomfortable with the apparent implication that only scientists are fully qualified to enter Einstein’s cosmic religion, but actually, Einstein was by no means an advocate for reliance on reason alone. In his youth Einstein avidly read David Hume’s writings, the influence of which can be seen in his making a distinction between the ‘is’ of observable physical facts and the moral ‘ought’. Since science is only about the ‘is’, he conceded that, besides reason, our acquisition of values involves our intuition, as well as the examples set by moral teachers. Furthermore, the human relationships with which morality is concerned often contain so many variables as to defeat rational analysis. As he wrote, “To be sure, when the number of factors coming into play in a phenomenological complex is too large, scientific method in most cases fails us” (Science, Philosophy and Religion).

Einstein’s flash of insight whilst working on general relativity convinced him that intuition is important, not only in morality but also in science. His description in a German magazine of the differences and similarities between art and science is worth quoting in this regard: “If what is seen and experienced is portrayed in the language of logic, we are engaged in science. If it is communicated through forms whose connections are not accessible to the conscious mind but are recognized intuitively as meaningful, then we are engaged in art. Common to both is the loving devotion to that which transcends personal concerns and volition” (The Human Side). So even while affirming the value of intuition, he did not forget to put in a good word for transcending self-importance. (Although intuition is a valuable shortcut, shortcuts can also be misleading. Even corroboration from many other people is no guarantee against error – in watching a magic show, almost everyone in the audience sees the magician’s assistant being sawn in two. Hence intuitive shortcuts have to be carefully checked out. When one finds oneself to have been misled, the first thing to do, rather than throwing the intuition away, is to modify it. Thus the magician exploits our instinct to fill in missing details and to focus attention on only a part of the scene, but we do not want to generally stop doing those things, since they make us function more effectively under normal circumstances. Like a molting crab, we want to retain the natural structure, but modify it to allow growth.)

Einstein’s pragmatic side also showed in his attitude towards established religions. He regarded most religions as containing a mixture of valuable insight and impurities. The ‘impurities’ presumably refer to those superstitious elements that, if taken at face value, contradict the universal validity of the laws of nature; and the ‘valuable insight’ to the moral lessons taught by religious figures. Here is what he wrote in 1937: “let us not forget that knowledge and skills alone cannot lead humanity to a happy and dignified life. Humanity has every reason to place the proclaimers of high moral standards and values above the discoverers of objective truth. What humanity owes to personalities like Buddha, Moses, and Jesus ranks for me higher than all the achievements of the inquiring and constructive mind” (ibid).


Einstein’s core proposal for moral behavior – that we curb our natural tendency towards self-importance – does not sound all that radical: conceit has been preached against by moral teachers and speared by cynics like La Rochefoucauld through the ages. But self-restraint is easier said than done, and large-scale chauvinism still poses a serious peril: despite the ending of the Cold War, the nuclear club slowly but surely keeps expanding. The precariousness of peace was what Einstein had in mind when he said that the continued existence of humanity requires morality. Does his introduction of a scientific view on causality into moral considerations help? Or is it mere pedantry? Perhaps Einstein’s emphasis on the non-existence of an autonomous self is not practically helpful in the short run; but perhaps it can be in the long run.

In the long run truth prevails. Some studies of the human brain (by J.M. Delgado, for example) are already demonstrating how easily we misattribute our movements to self-will when in fact they demonstrably have other causes. Just as the magical sleight-of-hand effects that once awed and swayed our ancestors are now regarded as illusions even by children, the notion of an autonomous self will also eventually come to be recognized by most as an illusion. That recognition will not end human conflicts, but it may help to cool our egotistical passions and chauvinistic fervor.

? Prof. Ching-Hung Woo 2015

Ching-Hung Woo is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Maryland. He thanks Drs Jim and Jean Swank for many fruitful discussions on aspects of this essay.