(Note: The presentation below was given at the Unitarian Fellowship of Mankato on March 10, 1996. It was meant to be a stimulant to discussion. The Fellowship was offering a series on "Seven Root Causes of Violence," the list itself being attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. The material may be downloaded for personal, non-commercial use. Copyright 1996 by Ron Yezzi.)
When I first went off to college, we took placement exams where a student could "place out of" three-quarter sequences of courses--if you did well enough.
For the English placement exam, we had to write two essays--one dealing with the question, "Are Scientists Morally Responsible for the Uses to Which Their Scientific Discoveries Are Put?"
I took the negative position. I argued that scientists are not responsible for what others do. Besides, scientists have made so many contributions to human progress that society should not place additional burdens upon them. I then proceeded to list every scientific contribution I could think of.
. . . I ended up having to take the English sequence.
During the second quarter of the sequence, our instructor gave back our placement exam essays and asked us to rewrite them as an argumentative paper. I don't recall what I wrote--except that I took the same basic position but eliminated that embarrassing list of every scientific contribution I could think of. . . . The paper came back with a low grade--probably an F or a D.
At any rate, the issue of science and moral responsibility has been with me for a long
Before I talk about science without humanity as one of the root causes of violence, I do want to set some limits to my discussion.
I do not want to place science in opposition to humanity. I take humanity to be an intellectual and/or emotional appreciation of what it means to be human--that culminates in practical actions that recognize and advance human dignity. I think that science does much to aid us both in discovering what humanity is and in providing opportunities to enhance the development of humanity.
I also do not take too seriously the image in the popular media of the scientist whose fascination with new knowledge produces a madness leading to monstrous consequences. The movies "Frankenstein," "The Thing," and "Dr. Strangelove" come immediately to mind. Although I do not want to discount this danger entirely, I think that its origin lies more in the personality of the person than in the nature of science.
Finally, although there is some difference between pure and applied science, or between
science and technology, I will accept for our purposes the tendency by most people to
collapse the two together. So I take "the science" we are talking about when we
consider "science without humanity as one of the root causes of violence" to
include technology. (In passing, let me note that Marxism and the thought of John Dewey
both raise interesting questions about the possibility or desirability of separating pure
from applied science.)
With respect to whether or not scientists should be morally responsible for the consequences of their discoveries, I am always struck by the absence of any human concerns in the inherent structure of many natural sciences. For example, in physics, the fundamental concepts and their relations have nothing whatsoever to do with a human level of existence. That is to say, the subject matter of physics--matter, motion, energy, elementary particles, quantum states, laws in the form of equations--never deal with human beings as human beings. Similarly, the technology produced by physics, even nuclear weapons, does not require any reference to human beings in the knowledge of physics used to construct the technological objects.
So what gives rise to the moral responsibility of natural scientists?
I answer that it derives from their being human themselves.
In other words, the physicist, as a physicist, has no moral responsibilities. Yet since physicists are also human beings, they have moral responsibilities as human beings to deal with the implications of their work.
The same claim applies to the social or behavioral sciences--although I think that we can go a step further.
When we turn to social or behavioral sciences, where the subject matter is human beings as human beings, moral responsibility attaches to the inherent structure of the sciences themselves. We are human beings studying human beings. Hence purposes, or intentions, of human betterment are present both in the subjects being studied and in the scientists doing the studying. Accordingly, a moral responsibility to make human affairs better rather than worse becomes a legitimate, desired task of the social or behavioral sciences. Social scientists studying child abuse should not let their moral beliefs put up methodological or assessment blinders; but they still should seek ways of making the lives of children better rather than worse. Attempts by social or behavioral scientists to eliminate this moral responsibility by seeing themselves as perfect emulators of the "hard" sciences distort the subject matter and interests of their sciences.
I take it as established then that, as a matter of intellectual recognition, scientists have moral responsibilities to serve the interests of humanity. I also will just assume that scientists have an emotional appreciation of the value in serving the interests of humanity.
Now I am ready to consider ways in which science without humanity can be a cause of violence.
In talking about violence, I prefer to associate the term with intense harm as much as with physically destructive activity. So I want to allow for psychological violence as well as violence to the quality of human life. If this preference leads to too much "watering down" of the term violence though, we may have to search out more careful associations.
In a general sense, scientists ignoring their moral responsibilities create situations that increase the potential for science being the cause of violence. Thus scientists can proceed without humanity when they ignore the destructive force of technological products such as weapons. For example, they may make possible production of poison gas without considering how it may be used as a technique of genocide. It is not hard to come up with additional examples.
I want though to be more specific about the ways that a sense of humanity fails to appear and violence can result. I also want to consider the more subtle ways that science loses a sense of humanity. So I want to talk about two problems of overconfidence and two problems of distraction.
When scientists get overconfident about what science can do, they at least "set the stage" for violent consequences. This is a major theme of the movie, "Jurassic Park." Here I want to talk about two problems of overconfidence, Faustian bargains and oversimplification.
Faustian bargains occur when the promise of a scientific benefit masks greater consequential burdens that are ignored for the sake of the benefit. There is not so much a total absence of humanity as there is a stilted conception of it. So a new manufacturing plant provides jobs for people without taking account of the pollution costs for a greater number of people. Or a new textile factory in a third world country improves the quality of textile goods without considering how the technology puts large numbers of local workers out of a job--in a way that produces greater poverty or other hardships. Or a society accepts western style industrialization without recognizing how it will radically affect the traditional culture.
When science oversimplifies human behavior, it can increase the potential for violence to human beings. For example, what are alleged to be adequate scientific studies of race over the past few centuries have laid the foundation for violence against various social groups.
Another case may be the overextension of a field such as behavioristic psychology. Behavioristic psychology can function well as a technique for modifying and changing human behavior; but it treads on dangerous ground when it becomes an interpretation of human nature. As an interpretation of human nature, behavioristic psychology reduces human beings to something less than they are. By challenging notions of human dignity as--for example, B. F. Skinner did-it raises the potential for violence being done to human beings in the name of desirable conditioning.
When scientists are distracted from the consequences of their work, they create situations with a potential for violence. It is not that they do anything actively themselves to cause violence, but they omit doing what is necessary to prevent possible violence. My two problems of distraction are insulation from effects and overspecialization.
It is the nature of contemporary science that an active agent is often insulated from the consequences of actions. It is often pointed out that dropping a bomb from a plane flying at high altitude insulates a soldier from the human consequences of the bomb in a way that fierce hand-to-hand combat on the battlefield does not. Similarly, the specialization of activities and the "long reach" of science and technology can insulate, or distract, persons from the consequences of their actions. So the chemist who works out the formula for the poison gas may have nothing to do with the production or administering of the gas--thereby providing insulation from the effects of the chemist's own actions.
This problem also arises when an economist is willing to prescribe unemployment as a cure for inflation, without any personal contact with, or appreciation of, the consequences for workers who lose their jobs.
Another type of distraction occurs through overspecialization. The scientist becomes so involved in the excitement of some particular area of research that the greater significance of the work tends to get lost. Or the scientist loses interest in matters unrelated to one's own particular research.I might add that this is a general problem of an intellectual life--as likely to blind a philosopher as much as it does a scientist.
I do not think that there are simple answers to problems where science without humanity can cause violence. The problems become even more difficult when one accepts violence as sometimes being justified--as opposed to a strictly pacifist position. But we need to be aware of, and struggle with, the issues.
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