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Guest Post: Does Science Provide Moral Guidance?

June 27th, 2007 by Halli

From Rick Larsen

After President Bush vetoed the latest installment of Congress’ embryonic stem cell research bills, Senator Hillary Clinton made a comment that requires closer scrutiny than that afforded by reporters covering her comments.

The Senator said, referring to the President’s veto, “This is just one example of how the President puts ideology before science, politics before the needs of our families.” The significance of such a perspective on Clinton’s part would imply that science should take supremacy over values and places scientific theory in a position to eclipse morality in policy decisions about using the power provided by science.

I’m not a scientist, so some of my observations regarding science may not be qualified as those of a scientist would, but I find Clintons’ comments alarming. It seems to me that science is devoid of values and addresses the mechanics of life and the world around us, but does not afford moral guidance in the exercise of scientific discovery. Science, devoid of morality, led to the promotion of eugenics and horrible experimentation on Jews by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Devoid of morality (in the classic philosophical context), and in control of unwilling concentration camp subjects, the Nazis freely exercised their scientific experimentation without compunction. A truly frightening yet historical example of science bereft of morality.

In its purest form, science is amoral. It has no value system. Science poses hypotheticals, and provides the system and the mechanics to test, observe, and report. Because of its amoral nature, it doesn’t deal with the questions of “is it right to conduct such experiments,” or “is it right to clone a human,” or “is it right to deprive individual freedom because we think man is causing the earth to warm.” It simply doesn’t deal with questions of “should,” it deals instead with questions of what, how, and why. Science does not contemplate the philosophical purpose, the directive principle, or finality in nature or human creations. These are the province of religion, philosophy, and on a collective practical basis, politics. It harks back to the age old question of “just because I can do something, does that mean I should?”

Applying this principle to the stem-cell debate is extremely pertinent on two levels: first, is a fertilized human egg (embryo) just tissue or is it “life,” and secondarily, is it justifiable to destroy a human embryo for the purpose of alleviating human suffering? We all have our respective views on these questions, but the primary point is to illustrate how absurd it is to either separate science from ethics, or to place supremacy on amoral science, thinking that it somehow trumps values. If we were simply non-sentient beings or animals, the issue would be moot. However, since we aren’t, science and ethics cannot be bifurcated.

The second part of the Senator’s comment asserted that the President put “politics before the needs of our families.” Actually if that was the case the President would not have vetoed the bill. Public opinion is very supportive of stem-cell research. From a purely political perspective, it would have been a much more astute to sign the bill into law.

This is where the politics of the issue enter in, and they are crucial to understand. The bill the President vetoed does not ban embryonic stem-cell research, it just prevented the Federal government from funding it. There is plenty of private research into stem-cells, both embryonic and adult. But why anyone would want to invest in embryonic stem-cell research is a non sequitur. All the successful results are coming from adult stem-cells. The latest research even shows that stem-cells can be generated from skin, which makes the necessity of destroying human embryos totally unnecessary, especially since adult stem cells so generated provide the advantage of a perfect biological match. Which takes us back to the question, “just because I can, does that mean I should?” If there are more viable and efficacious means of generating stem cells for research and medical purposes with no ethical conundrums, why resort to an inferior method that has ethical quandaries?

There is also the hypocrisy element to the Senator’s comment. Although the “science” of man-made global warming is far from settled, the Senator has whole-heartedly embraced the draconian governmental controls and costs proposed by those engaged in “group think” on this topic. It fits her ideology, or value system: more government and more power in lieu of individual freedom and free market economy. It seems to me that she does exactly what she accuses the President of: placing politics and her personal ideology ahead of the needs of families. This speaks volumes regarding the Senator’s ideological priorities.

Illustrating how unsettled the claims of “consensus” are relating to man-made global warming, Reid Bryson, often referred to as the “father of scientific climatology,” recently called “anthropogenic global warming a bunch of hooey.” He says “the climate’s always been changing and [that] global temperatures are going up because we’re coming out of the Little Ice Age, not because we’re putting more carbon dioxide into the air.” He reminds us that the Vikings farmed Greenland for hundreds of years during the Medieval Warm Period, when the planet was much warmer than it is now without any help from industrial activity. Today those Viking farmsteads are covered by glaciers.” In fact, Bryson argues that warming global temperatures are “just getting us back to normal.”

With such eminent dissent from “consensus” views, it is obvious the issue is more political and dogmatic than it is scientific. So Clinton is placing her values ahead of science; exactly the accusation she levels against the President.
What makes us human is our ability to cogitate and reason, and our sense of ethics, or the differentiation between what is right and wrong. Secularization places science in a preeminent position ahead of values, but it seems to me that science only has practical value if used with propriety in light of our ethics.

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