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Morality of science

This article (from today's New York Times) describes the views of one Leon Kass, whom President Bush recently appointed as chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics. It says, in short:

Science has become so dangerous, in [Kass's] view, because it is a powerful force, yet one that has been deliberately stripped of moral values by scientists who are trained to pursue the truth objectively.

I wonder if Kass would agree with that summation, and I truly hope he wouldn't. Saying that science has been "deliberately stripped of moral values" is just a dumb, polemical way of saying that it's governed by different moral values than our everyday actions.

In fact, science is based on a very simple moral principle: Knowledge is good. But lining up against that principle doesn't exactly get you appointed to president's councils on anything. And doing so explicitly just makes it obvious that you're skirting the real issue: What should we do with that knowledge, when we have it?

Some kinds of knowledge are indeed dangerous. So are cars and guns and plastic bags. The issue isn't, Are the things themselves good or bad, it's, How should we use them (and protect society as a whole from their abuse).

So the real moral question is how to decide medical policy and practice. (Kass is primarily concerned about the dangers presented by techniques for prolonging life, and cloning.) These should, by all means, be fully informed by moral concerns beyond the value of knowledge, and we should be careful and deliberate in deciding what procedures are morally acceptable. But fear of facing that decision is no justification for restricting the pursuit of knowledge in the first place.

Moreover, scientists have historically made many vital discoveries while pursuing entirely different objectives, and discoveries have turned out to be useful in ways not previously envisioned by anyone. Legislating against avenues of scientific study would undoubtedly cost us advances that would benefit society in ways we can't foresee. Morally speaking, that would be bad.

March 19, 2002 4:16 PM

Comments (and TrackBacks)

In fact, science is based on a very simple moral principle: Knowledge is good.

I disagree. Science is systematic common sense (method) plus everything we know so far (knowledge base). It's a tool and, like all tools, amoral. IMO, knowledge is neither good nor bad, it just is; morality is concerned with what we do with, or in order to obtain, knowledge, but not with knowledge itself.

So the real moral question is how to decide medical policy and practice. [...] These should, by all means, be fully informed by moral concerns beyond the value of knowledge, and we should be careful and deliberate in deciding what procedures are morally acceptable.

Yes, yes, yes! (And well put.) Scientists should not expect to, or be expected to, operate in a moral vacuum. If society wants ethical research, it must involve itself in science; if scientists want informed policy decisions, they must involve themselves in society. I think we see this starting to happen in debates like the current one over stem cell research, but these debates are too often hijacked by the likes of Kass (who is a nutcase IMO). The public seems willing to do their bit in directing research via the policy makers they elect (viz, science policy seems to be becoming an election issue). Scientists should recognise that this is necessary and meet the public halfway by providing the information required for choosing rational policies. An informed public would soon get rid of reactionary scaremongers like Kass.

(Obdisclaimer, for readers other than Matt, who already knows this: I am a research scientist by trade.)

Posted by Sennoma on March 22, 2002 7:08 AM

ur all a scary bunch o loozerz :)

Posted by yellow fellow on February 26, 2004 7:34 AM


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