“‘Once the rockets ​are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department’​, says Wernher von Braun,” sang the satirist and mathematician Tom Lehrer in 1965 about the pioneer rocket scientist who worked first for Hitler making V2 weapons and, after 1945, with equal enthusiasm, for Nasa. Now a rather different mathematician, Hannah Fry, who is to deliver the Royal Institution Christmas lectures, has called for a Hippocratic oath for scientists and technologists to help them carry constantly in their minds the ethical consequences of their work. This is a proposal that deserves serious consideration: if it achieves nothing else, it will help to dispel the idea that technologies like software development are in themselves morally neutral, so that ethics, or morality, can be dealt with by someone else. Those who send the rockets up need to think carefully about where they might come down.

There are three obvious issues with her plan. The first, to misquote the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, is “Whose ethics? Which rationality?” There is no single, universal code of ethics to which all scientists around the world subscribe and the wars of the 20th century show how quickly many – not just Wernher von Braun – could be recruited to weapons research in the name of defending civilisation. And absolute pacifism has not been a feature of earlier efforts at scientific ethics. The philosopher Karl Popper proposed in 1969 an oath for all students of science; even then, he could, and did, justify some work on nuclear weapons.

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The second problem is the extreme difficulty of foreseeing the uses to which pure research can be put. There have been a few occasions in recent times when scientists have drawn back from research until some at least of the ethical consequences of its application have become clearer: the Asilomar moratorium on genetic engineering is the most celebrated. But fundamental research has uses far beyond the imagination of the people who carry it out. No one could blame Alan Turing for YouTube’s role in stirring up extremism.

Beyond this horizon of ignorance appears what might be called a horizon of influence: any one individual can only accomplish a limited amount compared to the forces of states and huge businesses. Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the web, is horrified by some of the ways in which it has developed but he has been powerless to stop them. It’s true that collective action can have effects, but these are limited. A revulsion among the workers at Google has so far stopped the company from cooperating with the US immigration service. It has not stopped its YouTube algorithms from corrupting politics in Brazil. Any effective moral action must come from corporations as a whole, not just some of their workers.

But for all these drawbacks, this is still a worthwhile idea. The choice between individual and collective ethics is not either/or. Both are needed. The dominant ideal of the last decades has been boundless selfishness, both individual and corporate. Whatever helps to put limits on that is not just desirable but essential.

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