Ethics & Science

While in the 1950s and 60s many philosophers would claim that science deals in facts while ethics concerns our subjective feelings, such a view seems to have given way to the understanding this is a false dichotomy; science is pervaded by value judgments and is inextricably bound up with ethics.  You cannot practice science in a violent, lawless state, nor can science be collaborative and cumulative without a mutual commitment to truth-telling, accurately reporting data, respect for the findings of others, and so on.  Ethics itself seems to have a logic or structure in which we may fairly weigh reasons, develop objections, and the like. The difficulty of depriving ethics of any claim to make true judgments seems apparent whenever we attempt to describe our experience of health or disease.  The discovery of a malignant tumor on my best friend’s heart is not the discovery of some neutral fact, but one that is meaningful to me, in this case, the heart wrenching fact that my best friend is terminally ill.

Some of the sciences seem more wedded to certain values than others.  In biology, ecology, and medicine, the sciences seem to be practiced with value-laden ideas of what counts as healthy or unhealthy, curative or lethal.  The world as revealed in physics alone does not seem to disclose any moral values, but the person practicing physics needs agreed upon ethical codes if there is to be a community of physicists at all.

The practice of science may have intrinsic value.  That is, science is a way of knowing about ourselves, the world, the galaxies, etc., and simply possessing such knowledge may be good in itself.  But science is more readily seen in terms of instrumental value.  Science is good only when it serves good ends, such as assisting us in improving agriculture or transportation, curing persons from cancer, and so on.  And of course it is bad when put to bad ends, like building bombs to blow up innocent children.  Moreover, the way science achieves a good end needs to be taken into account.  If we improve agriculture, but only at some terrible cost (using human remains as fertilizer), the science is abominable.

That much, in general, seems obvious, though as we get into the details there are some difficulties.

First, there appear to be genuine disagreements about what means or tools scientists can employ in achieving their ends.  What is the ethical status of nonhuman animals that are employed, and often destroyed, in scientific inquiry?  Is the cloning of human parts compatible with a proper view of human dignity?  Is it permissible to use fertilized human eggs in experiments that will lead to their destruction?  Also, consider research done in the past that has involved great injustice (innocent persons were killed in the course of researching how humans respond to extreme temperatures).  We now have the data, and using it may save future humans, but is it right to use the data when it was collected in such a monstrous way?

Two other areas in which ethics and science are interwoven involve funding (or prioritizing) and risk-taking.

The practice of serious science requires financial support, and in most economies discretion must be used when choosing which programs to fund; funding one program might mean refusing to fund another.  How would you prioritize the following: birth control, preventative medicine for physical and mental impairment, research aimed toward genetically engineering healthier persons, making childbirth safer for both child and mother, pediatric medicine, developing cures for AIDS, cancer, diabetes, or blindness, developing artificial limbs, creating better weapons, helping human beings live longer, space exploration, making buildings safer, making it safer to get a tan – the list goes on and on.  In a free market, many of these matters might get sorted out in economic terms, but that does not avoid the struggle to rank priorities (it must confront every consumer), and it is hard to conceive of serious science without public funding and control.

A second area concerns risk-taking in at least two ways.  First, as we have seen in the USA recently, major doubts have been voiced by conservatives about the impartiality and reliability of the sciences when it comes to climate change.  There seems to be an ethical vacuum or gap between parties in the public debate, both sides of which doubt each other’s scientific sources.  What should we do?  How might we have a respectful, fair assessment of the data?

The other ethical question that arises is: after we have settled on a common understanding of the risks involved, what should we do?  How do we decide which risks are worthy or unworthy of our support?

So, there is reason to think one cannot practice science without ethics as a foundation, nor can ethics (or values) be cast aside when making decisions about what and how science should be practiced.  One must also appreciate that a great deal of ethics requires science.  It would be difficult to debate a host of laws and policies without science to provide factual information to ground the discussion.

The relationship between science, Christian theology, and ethics has been the topic of recent public debate.  I suggest that the so-called “conflict thesis” (that Christianity and modern science are incompatible) is without merit, and that the defense of the “cohesion model” (modern science coheres with Christianity) is hard to reject out of hand.  Michael Ruse, an atheist and non-Christian, has done a remarkable job demonstrating something like a cohesion model in his book, Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science. Also check out Ian Barbour’s book, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues, as well as The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity.

A very interesting debate concerns whether the problem is not really between science and religion (or theism in particular), but that some forms of naturalism undermine the very foundation of science.  The book, Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? contains a debate on this important matter.