Moral Responsibility in Medicine and Science and the Challenge of Technocracy: Lessons from AUM

- Stefano Fait,
Department of Social Anthropology University of St Andrews
St Andrews Fife KY16 9AL, UK

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 14 (2004), 134-5.


It is not unprecedented for fringe groups to serve as incubators for concepts that would not be acceptable in mainstream science: think of the Aum Shinrikyo sect and its ventures in biological warfare. [...]. The Ra‘lians have a knack for drawing in pleasant, attractive, professionally successful people in scientific or technical fields. [...]. The Ra‘lians are just a bunch of people who took literally the clichŽ that science is replacing religion[28] [29].

This remark has prompted me to write the present article in which I intend to show that, apart from business- and power-related interests, moral responsibility can also be threatened by misguided idealism, and that "fringe groups" simply amplify and radicalise concerns and aspirations that are already present in mainstream society. In my opinion if we downplay the r™le played by emotions within allegedly hyper-rationalised domains we run the risk of misreading the reach and magnitude of the repercussions upon society of current biotechnological research, as well as underestimating the importance of a scrupulous moral education of its future practitioners. I personally find that the Aum-Shinrikyo phenomenon, for all its borderline nature, can serve as a helpful teaching example for learning ethics in that it aptly describes the worst-case scenario of basic psychological needs overriding central ethical imperatives.

The weakening of Shintoism following defeat in WWII and the slow but progressive decline of Buddhism among the young generations has produced a moral void for thousands of Japanese[30]. Simultaneously, the traditional religions have given ground to occultism, mysticism, and guruism. In 1993 there were 231,019 registered sects in Japan and two hundred million members, even though the Japanese population amounts to less than 130,000,000 people[31]. Many Japanese simply join more than one religious organization, indifferent to conceptual and ethical inconsistencies. In fact, these new religions enjoy the clear advantage of not having to prove any consistency of behaviour or doctrine. They sometimes profess a millenarian faith in an incipient new world order and, as a rule, they merge divergent traditions in a heterogeneous hotchpotch.

We must also add that, historically, in Japan pluralism had little prospect to become conducive to the shaping of one's own identity. Conformity, acquiescence, deference and devotion to parents and superiors, have always embodied the cardinal Confucian virtues. After the war, all of a sudden millions of people found themselves catapulted into democracy, without having the slightest idea of what that entailed. In a word, the institution of democracy was introduced without laying the foundations of a culture of democracy[32]. In my opinion these factors may in part account for the triumph of apocalyptic and technocratic visions translated into manga and cults and my contention is that putting such socio-cultural phenomena into a broader perspective may shed light on issues of professional ethics and social responsibility in the field of medicine and science.  

What does manga mean? This term literally means "mocking, derisive image", that is to say, a comic or a cartoon. Mangaka is the cartoonist. The importance of manga in Japanese culture cannot be overstated. Suffice it to say that Asahara Shoko himself, the leader of a sect of techno-terrorists called Aum-Shinri Kyo[33], whose nature and aims constitute the main topic of this paper, drew a manga entitled Metsub™ no hi [the Doom's Day] giving away what he meant to accomplish. The popular belief had it that the saikimatsu [the end of the century], would coincide with the Jidaimatsu [the end of time, apocalypse] and this was unquestionably due also to the enormous success of Nostradamus' prophecies in Japan[34]. 

The most representative comic of this kind is arguably Akira, which first appeared in Young Magazine in December 1982. The protagonist, struggling in a post-nuclear Neo-Tokyo (completely destroyed by a nuclear experiment and then rebuilt), is Kaneda. Kaneda is some sort of b™s™zoku (from bo violent, so to run, and zoku tribe) that is, the member of a gang of reckless drivers that in Japan form a real subculture. B™s™zoku defy police authority, use Chinese characters for their gangsta name, wear uniforms of kamikaze pilots, all symbols usually associated with extreme right-wing political movements and yakuza members[35]. Kaneda is k™ha - macho and gallant – and displays makoto – purity of motives – which is what legitimises his use of violence in the eyes of the reader. Isolde Standish remarks that[36]

"His qualities of efficiency and loyalty, combined with his failure at school and his ignorance, make him the film's embodiment of innocence and purity. Therefore he is qualified to become the founder of a new utopian society that will be formed after the old society has been purged through cataclysmic destruction"

With the benefit of hindsight, we could postulate that the founder of Aum Shinrikyo, Asahara Shoko, may have somehow identified with Akira. Born as Chizuo Matsumoto in Kyushu in 1955, due to a congenital glaucoma, he suffered from impaired vision and was sent to a school for the blind. There, he bullied his blind schoolmates and sought to create a milieu that he could wholly control[37]. He claimed one day he would set up his own "robot kingdom" and meanwhile read biographies of prominent politicians aiming to become the future Japanese Prime Minister[38]. After graduating he went to Tokyo were he sought to pass the entrance exams at Tokyo university despite the fact he was most unlikely to pass them due to his physical impairment. He failed and had to resign himself to earn his living as an acupuncturist and healer, the reason why he joined Agonshū, a New Religion, and took yoga classes. When his business failed, he went to India (in 1986), resolute to attain enlightenment. Back in Japan he pretended he had gained a considerable level of sanctity and command of his magical powers and changed his name to Asahara Shoko. Afterwards he planted a new religion and named his sect "Aum Shinri-kyō"[39], and proclaimed he was "Today's Christ" and "the Savior of This Century" as about 40,000 thousands of Japanese and Russians flocked round him. After an initial peaceful slant towards cosmic harmony, in the course of time his teachings changed their tune shifting towards ideological totalism[40]. Asahara integrated his doctrine with the vision of an imminent Armageddon and this induced his disciples to follow him and found a segregated community on the slopes of Mt. Fuji. In such a setting Asahara's power over his followers and their devotion to him grew inexorably. At that point the Japanese public realized that their methods were not only unorthodox but patently illegal. In their "splendid seclusion" Asahara's acolytes developed sophisticated techniques of mass-killing and stored weapons and high technology meant to support their plan to annihilate Japan. On June 27, 1994 they carried out the first bio-terrorist attack in history, in Matsumoto, causing a death-toll of seven and injuring hundreds of people. On March 20, 1995 their most notorious action, the assault of Tokyo's subway network, killed 11 people and injured several hundreds. On both occasions more careful planning and execution would have caused a catastrophe, but the mere fact that the attempt was made and the consequences were of such a tragic scale proves that basic scientific expertise may turn religious fanaticism into a deadly weapon. Let me now spell out how this event bears on the thrust of my analysis.


During the second half of the 19th century marine biologist and eugenicist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) held a huge sway on many young students of the life-sciences in the German speaking area. Their unstinting admiration is almost puzzling when one considers the complexity of the themes he treated and the blunt and brutal tones of some of his argumentations. Like sectarian devotees, Haeckelian monists addressed their guru emphatically[41]:

"I thank Darwin and Haeckel for emancipating my intellect, for my deliverance from the bonds of traditional slavery, to which a great part of mankind is bound for all their lives. They gave me a key towards an understanding of the great exalted secret of nature and cleared the fog from my eyes which had hindered a clear view of the world"

Another one commented: "At that moment I rediscovered my fatherland and my people, and with that I was relieved of all unclarity and anger, of the irony of Heinrich Heine, which is a sign of inner weakness. Rather, there arose the strong feeling of cheerfulness and happiness which is born out of faith that is sure of itself. In this way Ernst Haeckel returned to me my faith in my people."

By way of comparison, Haruki Murakami's analysis of the mindscape developed by the followers of the Japanese pseudo-religious, terrorist congregation called Aum-Shinrikyo – many of whom were scientists and doctors – merits a full quotation[42]:

"As I went through the process of interviewing these Aum members and former members, one thing I felt quite strongly was that it wasn't in spite of being part of the elite that they went in that direction, but precisely because they were part of the elite. [...]. In that sense alone they had pure motives, and were idealistic, filled with a sense of purpose. [...]. What they all had in common...was a desire to put the technical skill and knowledge they'd acquired in the service of a more meaningful goal. They couldn't help having grave doubts about the inhumane, utilitarian grist mill of capitalism and the social system in which their own essence and efforts – even their own reasons for being – would be fruitlessly ground down."

A similar analysis of the root-causes of the Aum-phenomenon has been made by American journalist D. W. Brackett[43] who observes that:

"As some of the newer generations graduated from college and entered the work force they began to have ideas and questions that their education had not prepared them for. In examining their own lives and the society in which they lived, many felt lost and wondered whether job security and social conformity were all there is to life. Seeking answers, they often naively reached out to anyone or any group that professed to have a solution or held out the promise of involving them in something bigger than themselves. Earnest and sincere, once they made the leap to a new faith, they wrapped themselves in it with the single-mindedness of people who never intended to be lost again."

Asahara's foolish plan was also inspired by Isaac Asimov's "Foundation series", whose key character, Hari Seldon, is a mathematical prodigy as well as the discoverer of a new discipline, psychohistory, enabling its practitioners to attain true predictions. The plot revolves around the failed attempt made by Hari Seldon to warn the Empire of the looming disaster and the ensuing assembling of the best thinkers of the Empire in order to found a sect that will preserve the wisdom and knowledge accumulated up until then. The prediction turns out to be true and the sect's acolytes find themselves ruling the universe as no one else has any command of science anymore and they are regarded as wizards.


What occurred in Japan in 1995 was that the reportedly safest country in the world was shocked by the revelation that the perpetrators of a terrorist attack against Tokyo's subway which was meant to murder thousands of Japanese and create mayhem across the entire country were talented Japanese students. The highest ranks of AUM comprised several relatively young scientists and doctors who pressed for the adoption of extreme measures towards the "final solution" of all Japanese plights, i.e. its obliteration[44]. The weapon selected was the deadly sarin gas, invented by the Nazis and already successfully tested by Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran, the time and the place the most appropriate for a huge massacre. In the Tokyo subway these criminals were to riddle with the tip of their umbrellas several bags filled with this gas. The number of victims was comparatively limited thanks to the presence of mind of some travellers who upon smelling the gas' odour quickly opened the windows and dispersed part of the lethal content. As mentioned before, the analyses of the survivors are quite disparate, but I have every reason to believe a common denominator can be singled out, that is, the sentiment that[45] "these people have a completely different ethic, they think differently to us, they totally believed in what they did...they don't live in this world, they're from another dimension".

The mass media undoubtedly contributed to this inaccurate portrayal by presenting a specific, univocal aspect of the terrorists' biographical profile, one accurately worked out in order to conceal the banality or "familiarity", of their aims and beliefs. Murakami himself remarks that "the moral principle at stake in the gas attack was all too clear: "good" versus "evil", "sanity" versus "madness", "health" versus "disease"[46].

In order to understand this tragedy we must bear in mind that as an adolescent Asahara wished he could become a doctor, but his application was rejected due to his bad eye-sight. Afterwards he resolved he could still help people by working as an acupuncturist, but he soon became aware that he was not able to really cure his patients through either the Western or the Chinese medical tradition[47]. It was then that he became an obsessively religious person[48]. The activities of the sect he founded, Aum-Shinrikyo, were correspondingly centred on the therapeutic treatment and salvation of psychologically and physically sick individuals. In the course of time the sect espoused Mahayana Buddhism, which aimed at the salvation of all mankind and eventually there emerged a messianic and millenialist approach to the solving of the social question which involved the belief that bio-medical sciences could redeem the world and bring about a harmonious and peaceful society[49]: "Aum's leaders considered themselves elite intellectuals, revolutionaries dissatisfied with the stuffy stable world they saw around them. They were political technocrats, tired of a fat, lukewarm society. Possessed of hypertrophied imaginations, they were convinced they could change people and build a perfect state".

Eventually the belief prevailed that killing animals is wrong whereas human beings, who purposefully commit misdeeds, cannot be spared[50].

Celebrated Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami became deeply interested in the motivations that led AUM-acolytes to adopt such a extremes views. The result of his inquiry makes for a compelling reading that sheds light on fragments of life and thoughts that, once more, sound by no means unfamiliar to a Western reader. Murakami depicts the cultural and psychological universe of some of the members revealing traits of their personalities that are worthy of a closer examination. For example, we are told by Hiroyuki Kano[51] that since he was an adolescent he conceived a drive to attain a superior knowledge that neither adults nor peers could fulfil. He maintains having spent hours pondering over the most vexed existential questions without reading through any book, for I don't like reading. When I read something I just see what's wrong with the book[52]. Although his interests revolve around Buddhism and his own search of a mathematical demonstration of it, he candidly concedes that he never got into depth with any study of Buddhism, as the ones I read didn't seem very direct in their approach. I couldn't discover the remedy I was searching for[53]. Following this statement Murakami challenges the interlocutor noticing that to discard all opinions running against one's own makes impossible to obtain true answers. Accordingly, Hiroyuki Kano proclaims[54] that no doubts remained, because all our questions were answered. We were told: "do this, and this will happen." No matter what question we had, we got an answer straight away. I was completely immersed in it. Another member, Akio Namimura (p. 233) reiterates that he [Fumihiro J™yž, the sect's spokesman] could answer any question clearly and a third one, Mitsuharu Inaba lends further support to this impression by affirming (p. 241) that I was really impressed by what he (Joyu) said. It was so clearly stated – the way he used metaphors, for instance...after the sermon he took questions, and his answers were extremely precise, each one perfectly tailored to the person who asked it. Another trait emerging from their accounts to which they attach a particular importance is the favourable turn taken by their lives when freed from the burden of their responsibilities. Harumi Iwakura doesn't deny that the appeal of the sect stemmed from the fact that the way they did things made life easier – they'd give the order and you just did what they said. No need to think for yourself, or worry about every little detail, just do what you're told.

Here you can find the most glaring example of the sort of people Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor believed he was morally obliged to guide, people who are willing to yield to the persuasive arguments of someone who claims he/she shall relieve them of every responsibility and heal whatsoever an anguish. These young men and women joined the sect so as to withdraw from reality, shut out all their fears and misgivings, for they were likely to be already estranged from real life, incapable of facing their psychological unease, their mental and nervous strain, their anguish, their overburdening responsibilities and prone to irrationality, regarded as a safe shelter: "they weren't inherently bad, or evil people they were people in search of an absolute, a fine line between what they take to be absolute purity and going over an edge where everything in the world is so defiled that it must be destroyed"[55].


It has been argued that scientists' obsession with absolute objectivity, which caused them to embrace an ascetic, stoic self-discipline aimed at self-purification and at times, as I could witness myself, bordering on self-abnegation[56], has something to do with the Protestant background of many pioneers of modern science[57]. In keeping with these sentiments, Thomas Hobbes in the Leviathan defined curiosity, the cardinal virtue of a scientist, as a lust of the mind, that by a perseverance of delight in the continued and indefatigable generation of knowledge, exceedeth the short vehemence of any carnal pleasure[58]. By the same token, with Locke is no longer pleasure to guide the researcher but love of the truth, the kind of love that calls for sacrifices and abnegation. Perhaps Charles A. Winter is correct in arguing that[59] the scientific the most liberated state of mind known short of drug-induced anarchy. Similarly, Jean Rostand[60] believed that the love of truth of scientists is a force whose intensity and sway are nearly indescribable and that scientists confront these feelings with the attitude of a worshipper or a fanatic.

The fact of the matter is that the highest ranks of AUM comprised mainly young scientists and from them came the decisive thrust to adopt extreme measures for the "final solution" of the Japanese plights, i.e. the demise of the whole country[61]. That science is still by many identified with hygienised laboratories and purity of motives explains why this sect made science a sacred enterprise. Sacred and profane mingled and their boundaries became more and more blurred while fascination for state-of-the-art technology and science was used to awe its followers. In Japan a form of materialism in its broadest definition, encompassing hyper-rational secularisation, ambition, careerism, hedonism, scientism and Stakhanovism, but devoid of spiritual fulfilment, made possible for a number of promising young scientists to become alienated to such an extent that the only option they could envision was joining a techno-cyber-esoteric sect. The most intriguing finding is that[62]

"Alongside this apparent rejection of science and technology as the overarching gods of a modern, rational, secular and regimented society, there was a ready acceptance of modern technologies and scientific techniques in the serviced of religious ends. [...]. While science as the guiding principle of a materialist society was thus criticised for being unable to answer basic spiritual questions, it was not rejected wholesale but adapted into a wider rubric in which, it was believed, it could serve the interests of the religion of the future rather than oppose it."   

 These upper class, well-off young men spontaneously followed the guru on account of their existential estrangement[63].

Biological determinism, the belief that individual temperaments and social ills must be imputed to organic malfunctioning; the alleged inheritability of socially dysfunctional traits and the consequent rejection of the principle of human equality on scientific grounds, all played a key role in fomenting an intrinsically anti-democratic eugenic fervour among many bio-scientists[64]. What fascinates me is that the same psychological and ideological process was at work within AUM. Instead of "germ plasm", the catch-word employed by Asahara and his followers was "karma". Instead of biological decline the threat was spiritual decadence. By living in a sick and corrupted society, the adepts were accumulating bad karma that, like a genetic burden, would affect them for the rest of their life as well as in the other world. This negative influence could only be counteracted by escaping from the bonds of karma through meditation (karuma kara no dasshutsu) or, once again in tune with the eugenic doctrine, by changing those social institutions and conventions that they recognised as the root of all evil[65]. The analogies with eugenics are patent:

á                to positive eugenics corresponded a positive spiritual cleansing through ascetic practices 

á                to negative eugenics corresponded the annihilations and renewal of Japanese society when Asahara's candidacy to the administrative elections turned into a trouncing defeat        

My impression is that what happened in Japan could occur elsewhere. Aum-Shinrikyo is not merely the manifestation of a peculiarly Japanese techno-scientific alienation but rather the perverse radicalisation of what has been the main purpose of techno-science ever since the Enlightenment, namely the betterment of mankind. The common trait of Aum bio-medical experts and of many eugenicists was the desire to put their technical skills and the knowledge they'd acquired in the service of a more meaningful goal so as to offset the deleterious and alienating effects of unbridled capitalism[66] and of hyper-rationalistic, emotionless science[67].


Given their influence in modern society, I was inclined to believe that a good measure of humanity, civic engagement, political consciousness, and social responsibility should be an indispensable component of the professional ethos of such specialists. However, the tragic outcome of past social and political commitments on the part of biomedical professionals cautions us against overrating public spirit in the life-sciences. We know for instance that Karl Brandt, a doctor and the head of Nazi euthanasia project, cited both Schweitzer and Hitler as two examples of praiseworthy life-conduct[68]. Indeed, the figure of the civically-minded bio-scientist is highly problematic.

This conclusion is also validated by Alfonso J. Damico[69], who has correlated the model of cognitive development and moral maturity unveiled by Kohlberg[70] with the propensity of individuals to acquiesce to authority and peer-pressure[71]. He has levelled a perceptive critique at Kohlberg's contention that there exist universal laws regulating moral development. Drawing on the analyses of a number of social and cognitive psychologists, Damico rather contends that the situational context, i.e. the social network of interactions, roles, expectations, obligations, etc., exerts a powerful influence upon moral choices and maturation that goes beyond a simple coupling of cognitive and moral development. This can be ascribed to the fact that a society's morality reflects its power structure. He then goes on to assert that just men do not necessarily build just societies. In other words, civically-minded individuals with advanced cognitive skills are not more likely to cultivate self-determination and morality in a paternalistic and highly ideologized milieu (e.g. corporativism, chauvinism, millenarianism, utopianism, and so forth). In those instances, their moral competence is as hindered as that of lay-people but their skills may become mortally dangerous.


[28] A grieving family hopes to replace a lost child. A genetics-obsessed sect dreams of achieving immortality. Is this how human cloning will begin?", by Margaret Talbot, The New York Times Magazine, February 04, 2001: p. 40)


[30] Kaplan, D. E., Marshal A. 1996. The cult at the end of the world. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc.

[31] Murray S., The New Yorker, April 1, 1996

[32] Maruyama M. (1969). Thought and behaviour in modern Japanese politics. London, New York: Oxford University Press

[33] Ç A È stands for creation, Ç U È for continuation, Ç M È for destruction 

[34] Manzenreiter W. (1995) Armageddon Now! Dramaturgie und Inszenierung der Apokalypse. Manga, Mythen, Medien und Aum Shinriky™

[35] Standish in Martinez D. P. (1998). The worlds of Japanese popular culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

[36] Standish (ibidem: 68)

[37] Lifton R. J. (1999). Destroying the world to save it: Aum Shinrikyo, apocalyptic violence, and the new global terrorism. New York: Henry Holt & Co.

[38] Lifton ibidem

[39] Aum = "powers for destruction and creation in the universe"; Shinrikyō = "teaching of the supreme truth" (Reader 2000: 15)

[40] Everything had to be experienced on an all-or-nothing basis (Lifton, 1999: 25)

[41] Gasman D. (1971). The scientific origins of National Socialism: social Darwinism in Ernst Haeckel and the German Monist League. London: Macdonald and Co.

[42] Murakami H. (2001). Underground. The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche. London: Harvill Panther: 306-307

[43] Brackett, D.W.  (1996). Holy Terror. Armageddon in Tokyo. New York, Tokyo: Weather

[44] Reader I. (2000) Religious violence in contemporary Japan: the case of Aum Shinriky™. Richmond: Curzon

[45] Ikuko Nakayama in Murakami 2001: p. 101

[46] Muratami 2001

[47] It is emblematic that one of his future devotees, neurologist Sasaki Masamitsu commented on his life-choices as follows (Metraux 2000: 106): As a doctor I specialize in neurology and deal with patients with diseases such as cerebral apoplexy, Parkinson's disease, muscular dystrophy, and cervical spondylosis, diseases for which there are no definite cures. I feel keenly the limits of Western medicine and the powerlessness of a doctor

[48] Metraux D. (2000). Aum Shinrikyo's impact on Japanese society. Lewiston [etc.]: Edwin Mellen Press

[49] Yamaori Tetsuo in Metraux 2000: 79

[50] Kaplan & Marshal 1996

[51] Murakami, op. cit.: 218

[52] Murakami, ibidem: 218

[53] Murakami, ibidem: 220

[54] Murakami, ibidem: 224

[55] Interview with Robert Jay Lifton, broadcast by freshair ( on December 18, 2001

[56] Daston L., Galison P. (1992). The image of Objectivity. Representation 40, Fall 1992

[57] Merton and Webster in Cohen, B. I. (1990). Puritanism and the rise of modern science. New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press; Weber M. (2000). Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus. Weinheim: Beltz

[58] cited by Temkin O. (1969). Historical reflections on the scientist's virtue. Isis, Vol. 60, No. 4 (Winter, 1969), 427-438

[59] Winter C. A. (1970). Opportunities in the biological sciences. New York: UPDC: 29

[60] Rostand J. (1956). Peut-on modifier l'homme? Paris: Gallimard

[61] Reader 2000: 187

[62] Reader 2000: 49

[63] Reader op. cit.

[64] Vandermeer J. (1996). Reconstructing biology. Genetics and ecology in the New World Order. New York: John Wiley & Sons

[65] Reader op. cit.

[66] Murakami op. cit.

[67] Reader op. cit.

[68] Lifton 1986

[69] Damico, A. J. (1982). The sociology of justice: Kohlberg and Milgram. Political theory, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Aug., 1982), 409-433

[70] Kohlberg L. (1981). The philosophy of moral development: moral stages and the idea of justice. San Francisco; London: Harper & Row; Puka B. 1982. An interdisciplinary treatment of Kohlberg. Ethics, Vol. 92, No. 3, Special Issue: Symposium on Moral Development (Apr., 1982), 468-490

[71] Milgram S. (1974a). The perils of Obedience. Harper's magazine (online); Milgram S. (1974b). Obedience to authority: an experimental view. London: Tavistock Publications; Asch S. E. (1952). Social psychology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall.


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