Science and Ethics

by Dr. Mehdi Golshani in ‘Values and Ethical Issues in Science and Technology: A Muslim Perspective’

Science attempts at a systematic study of nature by recourse to observation, experiment, and reasoning. Ethics, in the sense used here, concerns rules of conduct, the so-called moral values. The fundamental question that confronts us is whether these two spheres of human concern are independent of each other or are interrelated; and in the latter case, what is the nature of their relationship?

At the first glance, they seem to be independent. But one deals with “facts, while the other is deals with “oughts”. This is in fact, what Hume expounded and since then this notion bas been increasingly accepted by western philosophers and intellectuals. We agree that on the basis of logic alone one cannot derive normative statements from factual statements.

Nevertheless, we also believe that scientists cannot ignore ethical issues, and science and ethics are related both at the metaphysical and practical levels, as will be argued in the following section. Thus, the claim for moral neutrality in scientific research and its applications is simply an illusion.

  1. Science deals with a very important aspect of human life, but it cannot deal with the whole spectrum of human experience. To deal with this wider spectrum, one needs an enlarged view of science, a metaphysics, which includes both science and ethics, among other things, and which can handle all aspects of human experience in a unified manner. Usually, the values that shape people’ s interaction with nature are derived from religious world views. In the words of Lynn White: “What people do about their ecology depends on ‘What they think about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny, that is, by religion.

At the practical level, science and ethics are interrelated for the following reasons:Science is a goal-directed enterprise. Thus, it must include some of those values that give direction to both its goals and the means of achieving them. For example, commitment to truth is a value which is essential to the enterprise of science. In the words of Karl Popper. “The fact that science cannot make any pronouncement about ethical principles has been misinterpreted as indicating that there are no such principles, while in fact, the search for truth presupposes ethics”. Furthermore, science is an important means for obtaining socially-valued goals like knowledge and power.

2. The scientific enterprise involves value-judgments. Here are a few important instances:

(a) Codes of conduct are involved in the practice of science which, inter alia, function as a quality control mechanism and ensure trust in science. These consist of honesty, openness, impartiality integrity, etc. There is a consensus in the scientifc community about the necessity of following these codes.

(b) Value-judgements also permeate scientific practice at the level of discovery, and may change a scientist’s line of research.

(c) Value-judgements play a very important role in the assessment and choice of theories. Since Scientific theories arc appraised on the basis of certain criteria which are value-laden, Thomas Kuhn counts the following as characteristics of a good scientific theory: predictive accuracy, internal and external consistency, broadness of scope, simplicity (that is, unifying power) and fruitfulness One could also add other criteria such as social utility and beauty. These criteria, as Kuhn and McMullin8 have emphasized, operates as values, “epistemic values” in McMullin’s terminology. As Kuhn put it: The criteria of choice function not as rules, which determine the choice, but as values which in?uence it. Two men deeply committed to the same values, may nevertheless, in particular situations, make different choices, as in fact, they do. Thus, for example, the disagreement between Einstein and Bohr about Quantum theory was rooted in the fact that they had different views about what a “good” theory is expected to accomplish.

(d) Value-judgement enter into decision-making concerning the applications of science and technology. Scientific discoveries and technological innovations often lead to important social, moral and political consequences. Thus, as a member of a society, a scientist should not ignore the consequences of his or her research or teaching. The destructive consequences of science and technology during the last century was the result of the separation of facts from values and the indifference of some scientists to the consequences of their scientific finding or technological innovations. The manufacturing of chemical/biological and nuclear weapons could be cited as an example. The progress of science during the last century has raised serious ethical issues about experiments involving human or animal subjects or public safety. To humanize applied science and technology, one needs to take into account ethical considerations, especially when one is dealing with the kind of research that affects humankind or the environment. This is because scientific and technological progress cannot, by itself, hold the societies intact; its accomplishment requires paying due attention to the moral dimension of the scientific activity.

3. Science has become increasingly interlocked with business, industry and political goals. This can lead to moral con?icts between proper scientific goals and business values or government priorities, which are oriented to political and economic interests.

4. Those who preach value-neutrality of science confuse the findings of science with its applications. Science is a double-edged sword, where it could be used to secure human welfare, or it could be used for destructive purposes. Something outside of science is needed to lead scientists to use their science for good causes.

5. To secure human welfare in all human activities, including scientific, a strong sense of responsibility on the part of the persons concerned is essential. Science cannot provide this. Moral responsibility comes from elsewhere, chie?y from religious belief.

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