Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Ernest Partridge
The Online Gadfly


We've all heard the complaint that "science is amoral." Indeed, even scientists and philosophers of science persistently remind us that "science is value neutral." Both are troublesome half-truths: in a sense, science is truly value-free, yet in another sense, it is profoundly value-laden.

In book in progress, Notes from the Brink, I explore the ethical dimensions of science as exemplified by the contrasting careers of Andrei Sakharov and Edward Teller. The following is an excerpt from the manuscript. 


International affairs must be completely permeated with scientific methodology and a democratic spirit, with a fearless weighing of all facts, views, and theories, with maximum publicity of ultimate and intermediate goals, and with a consistency of principles.

Andrei Sakharov


"All men, by nature, desire to know." Alas, this timeless maxim by Aristotle was wide of the mark. Better to say that "humans, by nature, desire to believe that they know." Even this is not completely on target. The American pragmatist, John Dewey, enlightened by the insights of Darwinism and modern psychology, had it right when he observed (here in paraphrase), that "all humans, by their (animal) nature, desire repose" -- i.e., as the psychologists and biologists put it, respectively, cognitive consonance and homeostasis -- no fuss, no bother, "I'm all right, Jack!" Nature and society constantly put us off our balance, and all progress and growth follows from our anxiety to restore that balance. Hence the appeal of organized religion and political dogmatism.

As human history attests, the search for "repose" constantly undermines apprehension and acknowledgment of the truth. Human beings, both individually and collectively, have always shown a cussed preference for pleasant myths over discomforting truths. Witness the political career of Ronald Reagan. Only after repeated pratfalls, do we at last come to realize that short-term gratifications often lead to ultimate grief, that myth is a false friend, that reality bats last. From this realization, collectively acknowledged and institutionalized, science and scholarship arose in Western civilization. For both, a fundamental moral principle is that mental repose is to be purchased only at the price of validated evidence and cogent argument. "Humans, by nature, desire to believe that they know." The logic and discipline of science and scholarship requires that the repose of such belief can only be allowed to follow the assurance that one has the "right" to have such a belief.

"Scientific morality" is widely regarded as an oxymoron, since it is commonly believed that science is "value neutral." This belief embraces a pernicious half-truth. The logic of science stipulates that the data, laws, hypotheses and theories of science exclude evaluative terms and concepts, and that the vocabulary of science be exclusively empirical and formal. There are no "oughts," no "goods and bads," no "rights and wrongs." (The fact that social sciences deal with values descriptively, is only an apparent violation of this rule). Capitalist and communist missiles are subject to the same laws of trajectory. The same laws of physiology apply to the physician who heals, and the murderer who poisons. The "value-free" status of scientific vocabulary and assertion is the "truthful half" of the belief that science is "value free."

But as an activity, science is steeped in evaluation, for the "value-free" methodology that yields these "value-free" statements, requires a discipline and a commitment that appears to merit the name of "morality." Thus the advancement of science is characterized by behavior that can only be described as "virtuous," and the corruption of science as moral weakness. In other words, the activity of science (that is to say, of science as a human institution) is highly involved with values. Consider an example:

When Gregor Mendel published his studies of the genetic properties of sweet peas, he apparently gave a scrupulously factual account. Moreover, his failures and unanswered questions were reported alongside his verified hypotheses. Had Mendel not been impeccably honest, humble and open with his work, his reports thereof would have been, scientifically speaking, far less valuable. In short, the moral quality of the researcher gave explicit (non-moral) value to his findings. Yet Mendel's scientific papers themselves have not a bit of moral evaluation within them: no prescriptions, no exhortations, no "shoulds" or "oughts" -- only the straightforward exposition of observations and hypotheses. The accounts were value-free; but the conditions required to produce these documents and to give them scientific importance were profoundly moral. In contrast, consider the case of Lysenko, who displayed neither honesty, candor, tolerance or modesty. Because of these very failings, his work was scientifically worthless. Once more: the primary findings of science, and the language that reports it, are value free, but the conditions that permit scientific work and the attitudes of the scientists toward their work, are deeply involved in morality.

In his little book, Science and Human Values, Jacob Bronowski gives a masterful presentation of the moral preconditions of science. The fundamental moral premise, says Bronowski, is "the habit of truth": the collective decision by the body of science that "We ought to act in such a way that what is true can be verified to be so." This habit, this decision, gives a moral tone to the entire scientific enterprise. Bronowski continues:

By the worldly standards of public life, all scholars in their work are of course oddly virtuous. They do not make wild claims, they do not cheat, they do not try to persuade at any cost, they appeal neither to prejudice or to authority, they are often frank about their ignorance, their disputes are fairly decorous, they do not confuse what is being argued with race, politics, sex or age, they listen patiently to the young and to the old who both know everything. These are the general virtues of scholarship, and they are peculiarly the virtues of science. Individually, scientists no doubt have human weaknesses. . . But in a world in which state and dogma seem always either to threaten or to cajole, the body of scientists is trained to avoid and organized to resist every form of persuasion but the fact. A scientist who breaks this rule, as Lysenko has done, is ignored. . .

The values of science derive neither from the virtues of its members, nor from the finger-wagging codes of conduct by which every profession reminds itself to be good. They have grown out of the practice of science, because they are the inescapable conditions for its practice.

And this is but the beginning. For if truth claims are to be freely tested by the community of scientists, then this community must encourage and protect independence and originality, and it must tolerate dissent.

Science and scholarship are engaged in a constant struggle to replace persuasion with demonstration -- the distinction is crucial to understanding the discipline and morality of science.

Persuasion, a psychological activity, is the arena in which propagandists, advertisers, politicians and preachers perform their stunts. To the "persuader," the "conclusion" (i.e. what he is trying to get others to believe: "the message," "the gospel," "the sale") is not open to question. His task is to find the means to get the persuadee (i.e., voter, buyer, "sucker") to believe the message. Whatever psychological means accomplishes this goal (apart from "side effects") is fair game. (When the "persuader" and the "persuadee" are one and the same, this is called "rationalization"). If the message promises "repose," or otherwise is found "rewarding," the simple and primitive tendency will be to accept it.

Demonstration (or "argumentation" or "proof"), a logical activity, is the objective of the scholar and scientist. Therein, hard evidence and valid methodology is sought, and the conclusion is unknown or in doubt. However discomforting the resulting conclusions might be, "demonstration" has evolved as the best "proven" means of arriving at the truth -- or more precisely, at whatever assurance of truth the evidence will allow. "Demonstration" is exemplified in scientific method (in particular, through freedom of inquiry, replicability of experimentation, publicly attainable data, etc.), in legal rules of evidence, and in the rules of inference of formal logic.

A scientist or a scholar is an individual who has determined, as much as possible, to be (psychologically) persuaded only by (logical) demonstration. Being human, every scientist falls more or less short of the mark.

The temptation to resort to persuasion to the detriment of demonstration is universal in mankind. (After all, "all humans, by nature, desire to believe they know" -- their foregone conclusions). But the ability to resist this temptation is a matter of degree. Thus science has been devised to ensure the highest humanly attainable degree of non-subjective demonstration. Much of the strength and endurance of science derives from in its social nature, and the severe sanctions that are entailed therein. Thus the scientist who claims a discovery must tell his colleagues how he arrived at his knowledge, and then offer it for independent validation, at any suitable time and place, by his peers. If this validation fails, the "discovery" is determined to be bogus. If the failure is due to carelessness, the investigator is subject to ridicule. (This was apparently the case with Fleishman and Pons' claim to have discovered "cold fusion.") If it is due to fraud (i.e., "cooking the data"), as was the case with Lysenko and Dawson (the "discoverer" of Piltdown Man), the investigator is liable to be exposed, whereupon he loses his reputation and credibility -- which is to say, his profession. Due to its social nature, the institution of scientific inquiry is more than the sum of all scientists that participate therein.

To reiterate: the activity of science fosters such moral virtues as tolerance, mutual respect, discipline, modesty, impartiality, non-manipulation, and, above all, what Bronowski calls "the habit of truth." That is to say, in the pursuit of his or her profession, the scientist forgoes "easy" gratification through a steadfast allegiance to "truth," and the implicit willingness to acknowledge a failure to find the truth -- both of these, abstract moral principles. The scientist endures such morally virtuous sacrifice and constraint, because the discipline requires it, and the cost of violation is severe: lying and cheating in the laboratory are fruitless iniquities, since, by the nature of the enterprise, they are likely to be uncovered.

Yet, to be sure, scientists are capable of morally atrocious behavior. They performed experiments at Auschwitz, and they serve today as apologists for the tobacco and pesticide industries. Scientists are human, and thus vulnerable to all the usual temptations which flesh is heir to.

Still, for the scientist and scholar who chooses to pursue a moral life, the insight and discipline acquired from scientific training and practice, offers a significant "boost" to that pursuit.

The "virtues of science" can even lead to saintly behavior. Consider the case of Andrei Sakharov. Without question, Sakharov carried his allegiance to truth, and the habit of yielding to principle, beyond his laboratory. In this passage from his great 1968 testament, note how the extension of scientific method to politics and social activism, conveys essential moral qualities and implications:

We regard as 'scientific' a method based on deep analysis of facts, theories, and views, presupposing unprejudiced, unfearing open discussion and conclusions. The complexity and diversity of all the phenomena of modern life, the great possibilities and dangers linked with the scientific-technical revolution and with a number of social tendencies demand precisely such an approach...

Out of his respect for the truth and the institution of scientific inquiry, Sakharov would never hide evidence, whatever the apparent personal advantage. By analogy, he would not compromise a moral truth, even to save himself. When duty called, that was reason enough. It is this step, from the laboratory to practical life, that characterizes the saintly scientist. Saintly behavior is manifest when intellectual discipline of the laboratory, the willingness to accept evidence and follow the clear logical implications of perceived and discovered truth, is applied to personal life, even at the cost of personal sacrifice, and even when one has clear opportunities to "get away" with a distortion or denial of the truth and a compromise of one's principles.

Copyright 1997 by Ernest Partridge

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .