While in the middle of a thread debating on the ethics of stem-cell research on another site, I stumbled upon this interesting post, and found myself nodding in agreement as I read.
I tend to agree with the main idea, which, as I read it, is that science can supply facts, but the factors that lead to prioritization and decisions on laws are inherently not scientific, but rather moral – or at least based on some sort of value system apart from the science.
Of course, I have an strong distaste for anything that allows politicians to escape decision-making responsibility (read the end of the post), so I could be reading my preferences into the whole thing.
I’m interested in everyone else’s take.
SCIENCE AND MORALITY
… I do think I ought to say something on what seems to be the premise of the good Professor’s proposal, that science can give us ready-made answers to difficult moral or political questions. I don’t think it can, and it’s a really slippery slope to suggest it can.
For example, if science tells us that greenhouse gases are warming the atmosphere, then many scientists would argue that science demands that we reduce the amount of such gases in the atmosphere. Yet this simple linear thinking ignores so many other factors it’s difficult to know where to start. What would be the cost of such an action? Would the benefits outweigh the cost? Are the benefits and costs unevenly spread such that some people will suffer from one course of action and others from the other? To come to an equitable solution to the problem scientists have alerted us to involves not just the scientific judgment of the problem, but a whole host of economic, political and, yes, moral judgments that are independent of the science. Science can help by providing a range of practicable options that we may or may not choose to implement, but it cannot pull the definitive answer out of a scientific hat.
I think the same applies here. Science has alerted us to a problem it cannot solve. In days past the question was simple. As Blackstone wrote, “Life is the immediate gift of God, a right inherent by nature in every individual; and it begins in contemplation of law as soon as an infant is able to stir in the mother’s womb.” The quickening was the point at which we could ascribe rights to the nascent individual. Thanks to modern science, however, we are faced with the question of what to do about a child before the mother is really aware of it. Science certainly tells us that the zygote, blastocyst and embryo are potential human beings. It also tells us that, unless I am very much mistaken, actually a majority of zygotes will not become human beings (and so one might suggest, if one took a probabilistic approach, that the science tells us, on balance, we should not treat them as such). Yet science cannot tell us that a human being comes with certain rights. That is a moral, philosophical and legal judgment. If we choose to ascribe rights to a being that has only a 33% chance of ever developing a head, that is a moral judgment call. Equally, if we decide we can kill living human beings to harvest their cells so that rich people can live a few years longer, that is a moral judgment call. Neither is dictated by the science.
There is rightly concern about the politicization of science. As I mention in my recent paper ( http://www.cei.org/gencon/004,04696.cfm ) on the threat of nationalization of basic science, I think we also have to be worried about the “scientization” of politics. When people appeal to science in political arguments it is generally either out of an attempt to steal lightning for their preferred policy position (the “science says we must” argument) or in an attempt to introduce uncertainty where ever increasing numbers of scientists will argue over ever more complicated issues that fail to provide the certainty politicians say they need (the precautionary argument). In either case, politicians have abdicated their responsibility to debate the moral and political aspects of the issue, which may well come up with a solution that doesn’t need science. And the logical outcome of the scientization of politics is handing over much of policy to technocrats. We’ve seen this in the UK, where expert panels are the solution to just about any complicated question. The result, of course, is that bodies like the Human Embryology and Fertilization Authority decide the answers to things like the very question we’re debating here with only minimal reference to the general public. I don’t think that’s a road I’d like to travel down here.
So let’s debate the ethics of human life and other “scientific” questions robustly, and keep the scientists out of the solution business as much as we can…