Monday, March 16, 2009

Is Morality Obsolete?

Science has come a long way over the last few hundred years. From a nascent field that was almost strangled in its cradle by religious and political forces intent upon maintaining their hegemony over the 'truth' to a point where scientific analysis is sought after in virtually every field and has led to innumerable benefits to humankind.

Advances in the understanding of bacteria helped us understand proper sanitation. The ability to generate and direct radiation has been used to treat patients with cancer. Materials sciences have brought us the computers that you are using to read this post. The continued advancement of science expands our horizons and enables us to live longer and better than those before us.

But science itself has also brought about great damage to society and to individuals. The invention of rifling enabled soldiers to shoot more accurately. The Gatling gun (the precursor of the machine gun) was originally invented by a man who had sought to reduce the number of casualties in war! Scientists as prominent as Einstein himself argued in favour of the development and use of the nuclear bomb as a means for waging (or rather - ending) war. Some early geneticists argued in favour of eugenics and indirectly helped promote ideas of 'racial purity' and 'racial superiority'.

Some might argue that the examples I've given are those where people have 'misused' or 'abused' science. But how can you 'misuse' science? Science is amoral and does not concern itself with what the results of its application are. Physics does not care if its laws are used in a nuclear bomb or a nuclear power plant. Chemistry does not care if its drugs are used to treat an illness or cause a death.

Which is why talk about 'listening to the science' I think misses a key point. Science unbounded by morality or ethics performed grusome experiments on human subjects deemed to be 'inferior'. No one today would argue that such experiments were proper, but scientifically speaking there was nothing objectionable to them and at the time to the scientists they seemed like valid methods of scientific inquiry. The scientific questions were valid, the methodology properly documented and the results validated by repeated experimentation. However, morally they were reprehensible and unforgiveable.

Its great that as a society we've come to respect scientists for their contributions to humankind, but that doesn't mean a blank check should be handed to every scientific inquiry without consideration as to the moral and ethical implications of the research which they do. Research into 'designer DNA', research using fetal stem cells, research on live animals all have ethical and moral considerations that must be examined.

Morality without science is ignorance.
Science without morality is evil.

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