Philosophical Chairs

Philosophical Chairs is an activity designed to foster critical thinking, active inquiry, and respectful dialogue among students. To play a game of Philosophical Chairs, participants agree or disagree with a series of statements, but the game doesn’t end there. The most crucial element of the game is what happens next: Participants discuss their points of view and can switch sides if their opinions change during the discussion. (For more tips on using Philosophical Chairs in a classroom or via a remote-learning platform, see the activity description in your Google Classroom.)

Each topic statement is deliberately open-ended yet ties into a number of the themes present in Doctor Atomic—including the scientific progress that the bomb represented, the long-term impact of the atomic bomb on warfare and international relations, and the moral complexities of the bomb’s use. As you and your students explore and learn about Doctor Atomic, you can return to these statements: What do they have to do with the opera’s story? How might these questions help us explore the opera’s story, history, and themes?

The Statements: Ethical/Moral Aspects of the Atomic Bomb

  • Science should only be used for good.
  • Every action has a consequence.
  • Humans have an innate desire to push boundaries.
  • Scientists alone should not determine the fate of others.
  • Politicians alone should not determine the fate of others.
  • Peace comes at a cost.
  • You cannot silence your conscience.
  • A country may keep secrets and withhold information for the safety of its citizens.
  • Everyone is born knowing right from wrong.
  • Nuclear weapons make the world safer. / Nuclear weapons should be destroyed.
  • The use of nuclear weapons today poses an existential risk.
  • The dropping of the atomic bomb was morally

The Statements: Political/Strategic Aspects of the Atomic Bomb

  • Terror is an acceptable form of negotiation.
  • It is our country’s responsibility to be the world’s police.
  • Rules of war do not exist.
  • Decisions of war ought to be based solely on military needs (as opposed to moral considerations).
  • The dropping of the atomic bomb was a crime as opposed to an act of war. (What is the difference between a “crime” and an “act of war”?)
  • The atomic bomb made the world safer.
  • Taking the life of a noncombatant (civilian) in war is murder.
  • The dropping of the atomic bomb was an act of genocide.
  • The dropping of the atomic bomb was the only way to end World War II, which justifies its use.
  • The president should be the sole person deciding when to authorize a nuclear attack.
  • A nuclear weapon will never be used again in war.

Keep in mind that the process of this activity is just as important as the statements themselves. Imagine a world in which everyone actively listens to one another and engages in respectful dialogue, honoring others and showing respect for the wide array of diverse ideas and opinions that others hold. Philosophical Chairs fosters exactly this kind of space, encouraging students to take what they’ve learned and change the global landscape for generations to come.