Playing catch-up with scientific change

University of DelawareThe dramatic developments in biotechnology in recent years have allowed levels of human intervention at the very foundations of life that would, even a few years ago, have been unimaginable. Not surprisingly, these developments have led to the raising of many ethical concerns. Moreover, the ethical concerns raised often are, indeed, concerns – that is, reservations of an indefinite kind about some innovation, rather than definitive judgements either for or against it.

This shows that there are often no ready-made answers to the questions that the new biotechnology raises. This situation is often described as ethics lagging behind, or failing to keep pace with, scientific change.

But is it right to describe this state of affairs as ethics lagging behind science? After all, everyday life presents us with difficult ethical problems without ready-made answers, but it would be absurd to say that ethics therefore lags behind everyday life. Ethics is not a handbook of answers to every conceivable problem we might confront in life.

The justifications offered nearly always suppose that the end justifies the means. It should be obvious that to be committed to such a position is to be on extremely shaky ground.

Nevertheless, the problems posed by modern biotechnology seem to raise this sort of issue in a sharp form: they are not merely difficult, but involve scenarios that are so novel that tried-and-tested rules and analogies seem to offer no help. A question like "should we allow the cloning of animal-human hybrids for research purposes?" is not merely difficult to answer – it is a question never before faced in human experience.

In such cases, it seems, our ethics does lag behind the new scientific developments. But if that were concluded, what would it mean? The conclusion often drawn is that ethics needs to do some catching up before it can judge the achievements of science. When it is the scientists who say this sort of thing, this appears to be what they mean.

They could be right. But it should be recognised that this is not the only possible moral of the story. It could equally be concluded that, if ethics lags behind, then science needs to do some slowing down so that ethics can catch up. It is striking, however, that this conclusion is rarely, if ever, drawn. Why not?

What kind of progress does science represent?

The obvious answer would seem to be the widespread belief that scientific research is beyond reproach. But if it is getting ahead of our ethics, how could this be? Science is not some natural force that proceeds independently of the decisions of the human beings who make it. So, if scientific research is ahead of our ethics, then, that is because the scientists themselves choose to press ahead into areas of research in which there are no ethical signposts. In short, if research is ahead of our ethics, then it must also be ahead of the ethics of the scientists themselves. Put more bluntly: if ethics lags behind science, then the scientists themselves do not know whether what they are doing is morally justified or not.

This thought seems never to occur to our scientists. Why not? The simple answer is that they believe that science embodies progress, and as such is necessarily justified. But this is dangerously ambiguous. That it embodies epistemic and technical progress is almost beyond doubt; but this does not show that it is progressive in the most basic sense, of being a good thing to do. So what makes scientific research a good thing?

The typical answer is in terms of the benefits it brings to human life. But this answer invites two objections. In the first place, it is not the gross benefit, but the net benefit – the ratio of benefits to burdens that science has delivered to the world – that matters here. And, since the burdens it has imposed are anything but trivial – nuclear weaponry, just to mention the most frightening – it is simple blindness to appeal to science’s benefits without also bringing into the picture the dark side of its consequences for human life.

Of course, specific research programs do not need to be justified by appeal to the overall net benefits of science as a whole – they need only to appeal to the (net) benefits that they each individually bring. But this brings us to the second objection: that the justifications for scientific research are, almost without exception, offered in terms of their promised benefits – and not in terms of the justifiability of the processes by which those benefits will be delivered. In short, the justifications offered nearly always suppose that the end justifies the means. It should be obvious that to be committed to such a position is to be on extremely shaky ground.

The rise of science to pre-eminence

How did the scientists come to find themselves in this position? There are two main reasons. First, natural science made most of its greatest strides without employing controversial methods – in fact, by methods which seemed so unexceptionable that they became a model of good practice for all forms of intellectual endeavour. So it came to see itself, and to be seen by others as, a morally unimpugnable activity. (This is why the experiments of the Nazi doctors were so shocking.)

Secondly, it achieved intellectual pre-eminence in Western culture by defeating the alternative claims of religious authority. It thus came to be seen as the definitive intellectual authority of our culture, such that criticisms of its practices must be due either to religious prejudice, or some other form of hatred of knowledge and progress.

For these reasons, the scientist came, in our culture, to represent both moral purity and intellectual enlightenment. Amongst the scientists themselves, this attitude lives on: it is a rare scientific researcher who does not think of him or herself as a member of an intellectual vanguard which pushes our culture on to ever-greater achievements.

It should not need pointing out that, in so far as this picture of the scientists’ world is accurate, it would be difficult for them not to fall into a complacent sense of superiority. If, to such a world, one were to add the temptations of money and fame, and all the scope for conflicts of interest that they bring, it is clear that, in such circumstances, fair-minded and clear-headed moral reflection might not be the commonest of qualities displayed therein.

Resisting temptation

Do such conditions actually exist in modern scientific research? Unfortunately they do, and especially in just the area with which we are concerned: the new biotechnology. In this area, money and fame are to be made; it therefore attracts the ambitious rather than the reflective. The benefits these scientists stand to gain are an ongoing and distorting pressure on the justification they offer for their work.

We find ourselves, then, in a situation where the selective assessment of science’s impact on society, combined with the moral complacency generated by a long period of uncontroversial successes, has anaesthetised the scientific community to the shortcomings of its favoured utilitarian justifications for research, and blinded it to the conflicts of interest inherent in its most highly-controversial contemporary practices.

The claim that ethics has fallen behind scientific change is, then, an indicator of a serious social problem – but not, primarily, of the problem commonly supposed. If our ethics cannot keep pace with our science, it is not, primarily, because of the challenging nature of the questions we need to answer – even though they are challenging, and we do need to answer them. It is, rather, because, in precisely the most controversial fields of endeavour, the scientific researchers are, in large part, ill-prepared and even ill-fitted for the impartial and serious ethical reflection that their activities demand.

Stephen Buckle lectures at Australian Catholic University


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