Progress in science should be guided by moral principles

The great thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Age of Enlightenment were scientists. Not only did many of them contribute to mathematics, physics, and physiology, but all of them were avid theorists in the sciences of human nature. 

They were cognitive neuroscientists, who tried to explain thought and emotion in terms of physical mechanisms of the nervous system. They were evolutionary psychologists, who speculated on life in a state of nature and on animal instincts that are “infused into our bosoms”. And they were social psychologists, who wrote of the moral sentiments that draw us together, the selfish passions that inflame us, and the foibles of short sightedness that frustrate our best – laid plans. These thinkers –DescartesSpinozaHobbesHumeLockeRousseauLeibnizKantSmith – are all the more remarkable for having crafted their ideas in the absence of formal theory and empirical data.

Today we have the works of the great thinkers and their heirs, and we have scientific knowledge they could not have dreamed of intellectual problems from Antiquity are being illuminated by insights from the science of mind, brain, genes, and evolution. Powerful tools have been developed to explore them, from genetically engineered neurons that can be controlled with pinpoints of light to the mining of “big data” as a means of understanding how ideas propagate.

The worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science. The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves and our planet. For the same reason, they undercut any moral or political system based on mystical forces, gestures, dialectics, struggles, or messianic ages. So all of us value our own welfare and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct – the scientific facts militate forward a defensible morality. This humanism, which is inextricable from a scientific understanding of the world, is becoming the de facto morality of modern democracies, international organisations and its unfulfilled promises define the moral imperatives we face today.

The most common contemporary critiques of science on moral grounds are actually critiques of some uses of technology. Any westerner would recognise the image of dr. Frankenstein’s monster gone wild, the nuclear mushroom cloud, the dread of biological or chemical attack, and the stench of industrial pollution. Today we know that beneficial technologies can open up troubling ethical questions, and that these will only grow more vexing in the coming years.

The general problem is not that our inventions might be used for both good and evil purposes, but that we denizens of the scientific age are at risk of becoming unable to distinguish between good and evil purposes. The question is: To do what? Without resort to informed moral judgement the answer, which used to be “to be good”, slowly comes to be “to do what can be done”. In this way the means of science come to be confused with its ends, the progress of research becomes an end in itself, and we move from the imperative to seek the power to do what we know is good to the notion that whatever we have the power to do is good. “We have bricks, so let us build a tower”, we say to one another in the scientific age. We have “spare” embryos, so let us make stem cells. As science becomes able not only to reach into the skies but also reach into the human genome and the sources of life itself, we are in greater need than ever of the very moral powers that the success of science has made us weaker.

All of this, however, does not mean that science is immoral. Our challenge is to keep science true to its original moral purpose, while not letting its approach to the world make us blind to moral meaning and judgement. To do this, we must come to understand science as a moral endeavour, a human project with discernible ethical purposes. "The primary good is the foundation of all other goods of this life“, as Descartes so confidently asserts that knowledge is. Only if we see science in moral terms it would be true.

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