Monday, April 11, 2005

Scientists Talking about Ethics

It usually doesn't provide sound results. Consider, for example, an excerpt of an editorial from the recent Science, ominously titled "Twilight for the Enlightenment?"

Finally, certain kinds of science are now proscribed on what amount to religious grounds. Stem cell research is said by its opponents to pose a "moral dilemma." Yet this well-advertised dilemma does not arise from a confrontation between science and ethical universals. Instead, the objections arise from a particular belief about what constitutes a human life: a belief held by certain religions but not by others. Some researchers, eager to resolve the problem, seek to derive stem cells by techniques that might finesse the controversy. But the claim that the stem cell "dilemma" rests on universal values is a false claim, and for society to accept it to obtain transitory political relief would bring church and state another step closer.

It's difficult to determine the exact target of this paragraph, or what the objectionable statements the author has in mind are. But a few things are clear. The author thinks that a proposition expresses an "ethical universal" only if it is believed by all people. This is false. A statement expressing a universal (or objective) fact about ethics is either true or false regardless of who believes it. It is similar to the universal law of gravity. The law of gravity is still universally valid even if not everyone believes it to be true. The same goes for ethical facts.

Our author ignores this point when he states that objections to stem-cell research (presumably of the embryonic kind) "arise from a particular belief about what constitutes a human life: a belief held by certain religions but not by others." But if there is a fact of the matter about what a human being is, then a human being will have certain properties regardless of whether everyone believes that human beings have those properties.

The author also suggests that these universal facts of ethics can only be tenably held by religious people. This is also false. Many facts of ethics can be known apart from the special revelation of a religion. For example, one does not need to believe in the veracity of the Bible in order to know that kindness is a virtue, not a vice. Whether or not the ethical facts relevant to the debate over stem-cell research fall into this category is an open question, but one should not assume that objections to embryonic stem-cell research must be made on religious grounds. Realizing this obviates the worry that agreeing with objections to stem-cell research legitimizes the position of "the church." (One should also note the assumption that science is part of the state. Since when is science identifiable with the state?)

Scientists often claim that philosophers or theologians wrongly impinge upon scientific territory and make pronouncements about science without being qualified to do so. Since the problem is a lack of qualification, it is just as wrong for a scientist to speak about matters of ethics when they are not qualified to do so, and in light of the basic mistakes noted above, the author of the Science editorial is clearly not qualified to speak about ethics.

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