Friday, March 13, 2009

Science v. Values

According to President Obama, I was solidly within the majority American opinion last Monday when I breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing his decision to lift the ban on federal funding for stem-cell research using destroyed human embryos. In his trademark careful and conscientious rhetoric, Obama acknowledged the deep moral difficulties this issue poses, while at the same time reaffirming his steadfast commitment to "sound science." Here's what our President said:

At the same time as his executive order on stem cells, Obama also issued a memo on "Scientific Integrity," in which he called for the removal of "politics" and "ideology" from science. I think it's safe to assume that what he meant by "politics" and "ideology" there is the sorts of political ideologies that might view some scientific advances (like stem-cell research) as fundamentally amoral or immoral. And that's where things get tricky...

As I've stated numerous times before on this blog, it's a mistake to think that politics and ideology can be completely divorced from science. Science harbors all kinds of hidden normative values that dictate what counts as "scientific integrity," just like every other domain of human inquiry does. Not only do I think that there isn't such a thing as apolitical or non-idelogical scientific inquiry, but I'm not even sure such a thing would be desirable. So, the real challenge is to be clear what sorts of moral and political ideologies are informing the direction that science takes or doesn't take. Obama seemed to suggest that we've basically hog-tied science for the last eight years with utterly unscientific moral concerns (a claim that I basically agree with), and that the quicker we can dispatch with those concerns, the better for science (a claim with which I couldn't disagree more). That seems to me to be overstating the case, to say the least.

I agree with William Saletan's argument in his recent Slate article ("Winning Smugly"), in which he (rightly) points out: "you don't have to equate an embryo with a full-grown person to appreciate the danger of exploiting them." Simply removing these sorts of ethical concerns from the debates about what science ought and ought not do amounts to writing a blank check to scientists. Saletan's article takes even greater exception with Obama, as Saletan compares the President's rhetoric to the Bush/Rove rhetoric about torture, in which we were effectively instructed to lay aside our moral concerns about mistreating enemy combatants because, quite simply, the stakes were too high to permit that kind of bleeding-heart posturing. Saletan writes:

The same Bush-Rove tactics are being used today in the stem-cell fight. But they're not coming from the right. They're coming from the left. Proponents of embryo research are insisting that because we're in a life-and-death struggle—in this case, a scientific struggle—anyone who impedes that struggle by renouncing effective tools is irrational and irresponsible. The war on disease is like the war on terror: Either you're with science, or you're against it.

It's a harsh comparison that Saletan makes, but also an accurate one, unfortunately.


B Blake said...

I see an important disanalogy between the examples of stem cell research and torture. Torture is a mostly ineffective means to gathering accurate information. In other words, torture tactics are not particularly good at getting subjects to truthfully divulge information. Whereas, stem cell research is not considered one of the poorer potential avenues we have of treating/curing various diseases; it is widely considered one of the most promising.

It seems to me that Obama's comments about science are best interpreted through a moral lens of utilitarianism or at least another moral view with a strong emphasis on practicality. So really his comments about separating science from morality are likely best interpreted as separating science from less consequentially-oriented styles of morality.

DOCTOR J said...


I'm not sure that looking at Obama's remarks as "utilitarian" separates the reasoning behind them from the Bush/Rove rhetoric justifying torture at all. (And, btw, utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism!) Although I appreciate your noting that torture is NOT, in fact, utilitarian in the way that it is often argued to be... it still is the case that if we look at torture as being "justified" insofar as it can be determined to produce a certain consequence (i.e., information), then the analogy that Saletan makes is confirmed. This is the same argument that Obama is making about stem-cell research (only without the moral pretense). He is effectively saying, IF stem-cell research can produce a certain consequence (i.e., cures for disease), THEN it is justified (over and against any other non-consequentialist moral or religious objections one might have to it).

B Blake said...

I'd 100% agree, it doesn't separate their reasoning too much at the theoretical level; it does though somewhat in the sense that one justification seems to more accurately tracks 'reality' than the other. Although I think Bush/Rove might make, and sincerely believe, some other appeals to justify their use of torture techniques or bans on stem cell research in addition to consequence-oriented one, whereas I don't think Obama would (but I could be off here). I'll admit I'm likely fairly biased as my moral compass leans toward consequential approaches to morality, but I don't see Obama's approach here as much of a problem. True, he doesn't look to really be advocating against any kind of moral influence on social policy decisions, but how much does that logistically matter (aside from maybe the sense of a poor precedent)?

IMO, the use of torture would be a much more difficult moral issue, if it actually worked well or we had some firm evidence that it did. But since torture doesn't, there are practically no situations that clearly justify the use of torture vs. other alternatives. I suspect we fundamentally disagree on this, but I'm open to further discussion if you want.

DOCTOR J said...

Wait, do you mean WE (like, me and you) "fundamentally disagree" that there are no justifications for torture? Or that you and Bush/Rove fundamentally disagree? Because, if you meant the former, I should DEFINITELY clarify...

I completely agree with you that there is no justification for torture-- utilitarian or otherwise. Basically I think that the people who try to justify it know that it can't be justified and that they use utilitarian arguments to lend some pretense of moral reasoning to their arguments. But, as you rightly point out, studies show that torture does not produce the consequences that torturers hope for and, hence, has no "utility."

I think our real disagreement, Brian, is in another place: namely, whether or not there are legitimate non-utilitarian moral objections to stem-cell research. (And, maybe secondarily, whether attempting to talk about stem-cell research in non-utilitarian ways is at all justified.) Basically, I think there are. That is, I think it's reasonable to have ethical objections to stem-cell research even while conceding that stem-cell research might do a lot of good for a lot of people.

It's reasonable to do so, not necessarily conclusive.

Here's an example: I might object to the use of destroyed human fetuses for scientific experimentation because I believe that a fetus has the same moral status as a full-grown human being, and hence I object on the same sanctity-of-life type rationale that I might use in arguments against torture. Or, I might object to experimentation on human fetuses because I am genuinely undecided about their status as "persons," and I want to err on the side of respect for human life. Or, I might object because I don't trust that there are sufficient regulations in place governing scientific research, and I fear that experimenting on fetuses begins us down a slippery slope that we won't be able to stop later. (Who's next? Comatose patients? The elderly? The chronically ill? The mentally retarded?) Or, I may really believe that fetuses are just small collections of cells with no moral status whatsoever, but at the same time realize that I live in a community in which this is still an undecided question, and I want to respect the deep ethical world-views that my fellow citizens hold.

My point is, really, that in none of the above scenarios will the response "But your objections are beside the point! Stem-cell research will help a lot of sick people!" address my concerns at all. Because, in most of the above scenarios, I'm perfectly willing to conceded that possibility... and STILL have ethical objections to the practice. What that response says to me is: "Stop all your stilly whining and get behind science! We've done the calculations, and our way produces a greater total profit!" And in the meantime, my moral conscience is not assuaged, because I don't think that scientific determinations of what is ultimately "profitable" for humanity are including all the important variables in their calculations.

As I said in the post, I'm FOR stem-cell research. I just think that it's reasonable to NOT be for it... and I think that it behooves us to remain sensitive to those considerations.

B Blake said...

Sorry, I was pretty ambiguous in that last section about. To clarify: What I suspect we fundamentally disagree on is if torture could ever be justified. That is to say, if torture was actually an effective interrogation technique I would probably favor the use of torture in certain extreme instances (like major 24esque scenarios), whereas I suspect you might still disapprove.

I do still think other variables, like those you've mentioned, can and should factor into a utilitarian calculus in some way. They'd need to be weighed according to the situation and those directly or indirectly involved or effected. Also, I do find the opinions stem cell opponents reasonable, in the sense that I can understand why somehow would oppose stem cell research, without denigrating them by assuming that such opponents must hold irrational beliefs or feelings on the issue. Indeed, such opinions frequently strike me as completely rational. Ultimately, however, the individual's or group's feelings and beliefs should yield to the greatest good for the greatest number, if and when an issue comes down to that.