Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

HOME PAGE                             
    Philosophy and Religion
    Ethics, Moral Issues, the Law
    The Environment

On Politics
    The Crisis
    Foreign Relations, War, Peace
    The Media
    The Elections
    Civil Liberties and Dissent
    Republicans & the Right
    Democrats & the Left
    Lies, Propaganda & Corruption
    Culture War & Religious Right
    Coup d'Etat, 2000

Published Papers

Unpublished Papers

Reviews, Lectures, etc.    

Internet Publications


Lecture Topics

Conscience of a Progressive
    (A Book in Progress)

A Dim View of Libertarianism

Rawls and the Duty to Posterity
    (Doctoral Dissertation)

The Ecology Project

For Environmental Educators

The Russian Environment

    (Critiques of Post Modernism)

Notes from the Brink
    (Peace Studies)

The Gadfly's Bio Sketch

The Gadfly's Publications

The Online Gadfly: Editorial Policy

The Gadfly's E-Mail: gadfly@igc.org

Classical Guitar:
"The Other Profession




Are Science and Scholarship 
"Value Neutral"?

Ernest Partridge

The origins of most of this unpublished paper goes way back: some thirty-five years, to the final stages of my doctoral studies. Over the years, I have occasionally returned to it for "fine tuning" and updating. Even so, the notes and perchance its style will betray its early composition.  In September, 2000 I gave it another look, tweaked a few phrases, added a few paragraphs and dropped still others.

In sum, I can say that today I will endorse the essential content that is found below, although if asked now to write, "from scratch," a paper under the above title, it would look quite different. After all, I'd like to believe that my thoughts, and my mode of expressing them, have matured somewhat. (EDP. May, 2007)


Don't say that he's hypocritical,
Just say that he's 'a-political'
"Vunst der rockets go up,
"Who cares ver zey come down.
"That's not my department ...."

Tom Lehrer.


Without question, the most troublesome and perplexing moral issues of our time have arisen out of the advance of science and of the technology based upon that science. Weapons of mass destruction, medical science, bio-technology, the information/communications revolution brought about by computers - all these introduce unprecedented capacities and choices to individuals and societies. And with knowledge and capacity, and the resulting forced choices among alternative futures, comes moral responsibility. There is no escape - not even the abandonment of science and technology, which, even if it were possible (which it is not) would itself entail a choice.

Having endowed us with this new knowledge and capacity, and the moral problems implicated therein, scientists have notoriously excused themselves from the moral deliberations which must follow. "Not our department - our enterprise is 'value neutral'." There are noteworthy exceptions, of course: Albert Einstein, Linus Pauling, Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich, Andrei Sakharov come immediately to mind. But such conspicuous concern for social and moral issues can be professionally perilous. It is rumored that the late Carl Sagan's failure to attain membership in the National Academy of Sciences was due to his excessive success as a "popularizer" of science.

How, specifically, have many scientists and scholars evaded their social responsibilities? We will devote our attention to these derelictions:

  • in their haste to embrace the neat techniques of objective, "descriptive" science -- in their easy acceptance of the pernicious half-truth that science is "value-free" -- too many scholars have chosen not to evaluate.

  • in their devotion to the minutiae of technique and specialization, many scholars have delegated the "larger" and "vaguer" questions of social responsibility to their sponsors in government and commerce, from whom they accept unquestioned direction.

  • and in general, that in their eagerness to keep their professional "academic cool," many academicians have detached themselves from the great moral controversies of our time.

These blunt and grave charges are surely oversimplified and insufficiently qualified. Still, they are not unworthy of response. Few of us involved in higher education can fail to perceive some substance to these accusations. And if we concede that they are even partially justified, we are immediately led to ask why? Why, in the presence of unprecedented issues of civil justice, of environmental degradation and of war and peace, have the academies not maintained their proper and traditional roles of moral leadership?

The question suggests many avenues of response: historical, psychological, political, and cultural. I will focus on one factor which I believe to be prominent: it is the "pernicious half truth" that science, and by extension modern scholarship, is value-free; that the abstract pursuit of truth is detached, as such, from an involvement in moral issues. I do not wish to suggest, of course, that many scholars are not deeply concerned with moral issues. I will, however, argue that they commonly feel that these issues are a thing apart from the immediate foci of their professional attention. This half-truth of moral detachment has a ready plausibility. It is supported by carefully articulated, historically significant and currently influential traditions of thought. As I have suggested, it contains some important truth -- hence its strength and persistence. But with this truth, it introduces some troublesome misconceptions, and it overlooks some essential dimensions of scholarly activity.


Historically, the doctrine that science is "value free" can be traced to the overthrow of Aristotelian natural science -- a revolution that took place at the time of the Renaissance, the threshold of the modern era. According to Aristotle and his medieval commentators, natural events are to be comprehended, in part, in terms of "final causes" -- that it, the fulfillment of "appropriate" ends and purposes.1  To Aristotle, then, description and prescription are inextricably mixed in the "four causes" which together explain a particular state of being.2

The physicists of the Renaissance came to recognize that the Aristotelian "final cause" was an unproductive notion, since it operated so as to rephrase the very mysteries that the sciences sought to explain. The new scientists preferred to observe and describe experienced phenomena, and to abstract the relationships among measured variables derived from these observations. The results were epochal, and empirical "descriptive" science was launched upon its career. The rest is history: a radically altered and accelerated history.

After a lapse of a couple of centuries, the philosophers began to sort out and to explicate what had happened in the sciences. First the rationalists and then the empiricists tried to annex the other's conceptual territory into whole synoptic systems. Then it dawned upon Leibnitz, and later Hume and Kant, that the sciences were dealing with two distinct kinds of assertion: statements of fact, and elaborations of definition.3  Of far greater difficulty to the philosophers was the task of assigning a place for values in the enterprise of science. Despite valiant (and radically divergent) attempts by such giants as Kant, Mill and Dewey, the gulf between descriptive knowledge and prescriptive assertion widened. With the rise of scientific materialism, and later in the twentieth century of Logical Positivism, moral inquiry was virtually banished from the realm of scientific investigation.4

Recently, several moral philosophers have challenged the entrenched "noncognitivist" tenet that value assertions are logically distinct from factual statements -- that one cannot infer an "ought" from an "is." Drawing from such diverse sources as Aristotle's "practical syllogism," Hobbes' "contractualism," Rule Utilitarianism, and the later linguistic philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, these "Good Reasons" philosophers (as they have been called), insist that moral claims can, and should, be supported by rational arguments and empirical evidence, albeit the rationale and objective of moral discourse differs substantially from that of scientific investigation. Science and morality, they assert, are distinct, but not, perforce, mutually irrelevant.5

Not surprisingly, the tradition of scholarly detachment from moral issues appears not to have been significantly budged by the cognitivist resurgence in moral philosophy. The doctrine of "value-free" scholarship is too deeply entrenched in the institutional structures, the habits, the folkways and, yes, even the mores of the academic establishment, to be much affected by this recent turn in philosophical debate.

These questions concerning the meaning of moral discourse and the justification of moral assertions, (which we have barely touched upon, above), are matters of acute and continuing interest and controversy among many philosophers. These issues, however, scarcely affect the working physical scientist. He has clearly staked his claim in the territories of objective, empirical (descriptive) investigation. The events that he attends to proceed quite independently of human pain, cruelty, aspiration or nobility. The elements, the particles, the cosmos literally could not "care less" than they do. The formulae governing sub-orbital ballistics belong to physics, not to international politics; they are the same for communists as they are for capitalists. The findings of physical science, deliberately and systematically abstracted from evaluative contexts, are value-free. This, I submit, is the way it is. This is the truthful half of the "pernicious half-truth" of the moral autonomy of scientific scholarship.

However, pure mathematics and physical science are, by common consent of their practitioners, not about persons. Furthermore, biology is not about persons -- not even human biology, for persons are not equivalent to their biologically functioning bodies, albeit these biological functions presumably sustain the person. "Human" (Homo Sapiens) is a biological category; "the person" is a moral concept.6  But what about sociology, psychology, political science -- the social and behavioral sciences? Aren't they about persons? Do not values have a necessary place here? Can these sciences escape prescriptive assertions? Strange to say, these sciences of human behavior and human social processes can, and generally do, remain wholly descriptive. They can do so if, by explicit fiat, they restrict their studies to the observation of what human organisms do singly and collectively.7

All this is quite according to the rules of descriptive science. The social and behavioral scientist can quite well remain "descriptive," however much he may be tempted to exceed the bounds of "strict" scientific discourse. But is it all we need to know about humans, or even enough? In trying to comprehend human events, is it enough merely to observe compassion and charity? Or might we not, by sharing and responding to these affective and evaluative dimensions of humanity, learn of some subjective, non-descriptive matters that are essential to the human condition? Should we not go beyond the "descriptive," behaving, stick-figure man if we are to obtain a more complete and worthwhile account of humanity?

Interestingly, these questions are outside the scope of a rigidly descriptive behavioral or social science. For if we ask, "Is this all there is to man?", the descriptive scientist, qua observer, can not from his frame of reference pronounce that human beings are only the sum of their genes, their past experiences, their functioning organisms, and their behaviors. Such a pronouncement would be circular, since the procedure of scientific investigation rules out the admissibility of confuting evidence. And if an affirmation of the completeness of the descriptive science of humans, within the language of this science, is logically inadmissible, so too is a denial of this completeness. Furthermore, if we were to ask if the "descriptive" account of humans contained all that was important to know, we would be similarly stymied. Descriptive science, as we have seen, is systematically value-free, yet it is an evaluation that we seek by our query -- an evaluation of the "importance" of the information that he provides and that he excludes. Such normative questions can not, according to the rules of scientific language, be articulated in the language of descriptive science.

We seem to be frustrated by the limitations of a "value- free" science of humanity, and yet we are not bothered by similar limitations upon the physical and life sciences. Why is this? Why indeed do the behavioral and social scientists believe that their investigations should be "value-free" -- that they should excuse themselves from the perennial issues of moral and political philosophy? I believe that in asserting this belief they have, to a significant degree, been captivated by the spectacular success of the physical sciences. Thus we find that studies of human behavior, of human society and culture, of economic and political systems, have diligently imitated the objective, quantified, analytical empiricism of the "exact" sciences. Admittedly, some of this transfer has shown merit and success. Some useful methods, significant concepts, important data, and fruitful taxonomies have come forth. Still, some vitally important human questions have been slighted, and even deemed insignificant, unimportant, or meaningless. Lacking from the start the precision and control of the exact sciences, the behavioral and social sciences have been most reluctant to venture far afield from the "scientific" core of safe, quantified analysis into the speculative realms of personal fulfillment or consciousness (in psychology), of justice and of ideology (in political science), or of "quality of life" (in economics). The precedent and example of the exact sciences has been persuasive and compelling, and so, like their honored predecessors, the social and behavioral sciences have eschewed moral evaluation. But in so doing they have made a fundamental error; for, unlike the natural scientists, the behavioral and social scientists have chosen to study beings that are also moral agents. They have also chosen to study the individual and collective consequences of the evaluations of these beings. The cold, objective methodology which freed the physical sciences from classical and medieval metaphysics has just possibly placed a fundamental constraint upon the study of ourselves. For while the scientific study of mankind has been quite capable of recording moral discourse and prescription, it has denied itself the means to evaluate this discourse in the prescriptive mode of the discourse itself. This has led, all too easily, to the conclusion that such discourse is without meaning, whereas it may only have been systematically and arbitrarily denied meaning due to the facile application of the rules of descriptive scientific investigation.

And so, the scientific temperament has captured the academy. Scarcely a corner of the house of intellect has been untouched. This has been a mixed blessing. For while the core "data" content of science and scholarship (even behavioral and social science) is genuinely "value-free," some fundamental dimensions of the human experience, to the degree that they are "non-scientific," are systematically excluded from the scientific enterprise, and should be, if the integrity, clarity, discipline, and exactness of scientific information are to be maintained. But is the scholar, even in the pursuit of his professional work, free from moral presuppositions or moral involvements? I think not. Not only is he morally involved, he must be, for many of his policies, procedures, and decisions are value-laden, whether or not be acknowledges it. To believe otherwise -- to believe himself detached from moral involvement -- is to believe the false half of "the pernicious half-truth" of value-free scholarship. The charge is serious and the issue profound. Some elaboration is now in order.


My apparently contradictory case for the "moral involvement": of "value-free" science and scholarship rests upon a distinction between inquiry and meta-inquiry; that is, between (a) the body of information under study, and (b) the conditions and presuppositions th at guide the inquiry, and the intentions as to the use to which the information is to be put.8  While the inquiry is properly "value free," the meta-inquiry is not. Moreover, the former cannot effectively proceed without a commitment to, or assumption of, the latter. In other words, observation statements and their inferences -- the content of our scientific studies -- are, if true, true independently of what we would prefer or choose them to be.9  However, the finding of them involves preferences and choices. And so we find scientific research directed by such "meta-questions" as "What kind of information do we seek?", "What is worth studying?", "What do we want to make of this information?", "How do we want to articulate it?", "How do we want to structure our research and organize our hypotheses and theories?" And fundamental to these questions is the normative assumption that the truth, qua truth, is worth knowing. To be sure, these questions are greatly influenced by the factual (value free) results of inquiry, but not wholly so. There remain elements of normative choice. And it is by responding to these questions, if only implicitly, that the scientist evaluates.

To illustrate these covert matters of scientific evaluation, consider an imaginary critical review of a scientific paper. I will exclude any remarks pertaining to factual error ("inquiry"), and direct my attention to criteria of procedure, and the focus of attention (meta-inquiry").

While the author's study displays an ambitious scope of interest and some bold conjectures, it has little scientific merit. The experimental design is poor, showing scarcely any quantification and a vague specification of variables. Indeed, it is clear that the experiment was misguided from the start, since so many factors were operative that one could not reasonably hope to identify, much less specify and quantify them. The experiment was, in short, quite uncontrolled.

The author has attempted too much, and has included too much. Concepts have been brought in from disparate scientific fields, and attempts have been made to project results far beyond the scope of valid scientific prediction.

Clearly, the reviewer is evaluating. The evaluation is sound if the investigator has had at his disposal the appropriate terminology, experimental procedures, and rules of evidence to produce sound scientific conclusions. He would thus reveal an inadequate mastery of his science, and be quite properly rebuked. We can well imagine this to be the case if, for example, the experiment described were to be in the field of biochemistry or sub-atomic physics.

But what if the project is a study in political science, or in applied educational administration, or in the reconstruction and translation of ancient texts? What if all reasonable and appropriate attempts have been made at definition, quantification and control? What if the reviewer's standards simply cannot be met given the current state of the science? Who then is at fault? The critic for asking too much, or the experimenter for his excessive boldness? The hypothetical researcher is vulnerable: Clearly, he is taking chances. But by venturing into unexplored areas of speculation, he may come upon information and concepts of great scientific importance. Having opened up the territory, a crowd of researchers may follow and devote themselves to the sort of microscopic piecemeal work that would please such critics as our hypothetical reviewer. Moreover, as new information is secured, many of the pioneer's theories will subsequently be refined and others will be refuted. But the debt of his successors will remain. The history of science is rich in examples: Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, Mendel, and Freud. Contemporary candidates might include Noam Chomsky in linguistics and Lawrence Kohlberg in moral psychology.

We see then that the scientist has a procedural choice. He can engage in "safe" investigation, or he can take a chance and exercise his "nerve." The former I will call a "homesteader"; the latter I will call a "pioneer."

Science and scholarship require the efforts of both. The circumstances and methods of each approach might be contrasted in the following lists:10


(Scientifically "Safe")


(Scientifically "Bold")

Quantified - Statistical
Controlled, with few variables
Short-Term Projections
Use of Instruments
Analytic Procedures
Microscopic View
Theoretical Structure: Explicit, Logical 

Inexact (Vague and/or Ambiguous)
Qualitative - Impressionistic
Uncontrolled, many variables
Long-Term Projections
Personal, intuitive involvement
Synthetic Procedures.
Generalization, Eclecticism
Macroscopic View
Theoretical Structure: Implicit & Vague.

The scientific critic is correct to insist that all due care should be taken to display the qualities listed in the left-hand column -- to the degree that the subject matter of the investigation permits. And so, the "homesteader" can be properly chastised for unwarranted vagueness, inexact specification and quantification of variables, etc. Conversely, the "pioneer" can be criticized for pointless quantification, excessive trivialization, and other barren and inappropriate attempts to mimic the procedures of the exact sciences. Much of this "methodological over-reaching" is evident in the excessively quantified research of some sociologists and educators: "We don't rightly know what we've uncovered, but we've sure measured whatever it is!" or, "When in doubt, count and correlate!" (This sort of behavior by some social and behavioral scientists in known among philosophers of science as "Physics Envy").

Science, then, has its norms. Those that are listed in the left-hand column above are soundly based. When conscientiously and appropriately followed, they produce fruitful results. The norms are thus prudential: "If you can and do use sound scientific procedures, then you are more likely to obtain sound scientific (descriptive) knowledge." But there is a further norm that is not implied herein; and yet this norm has spread, with the spread of science, and is today profoundly influential in academic circles. This norm reads: "If the ideas that you present are not scientifically "safe" (bearing "homesteader" qualities), then they are not academically respectable and worth having." This norm properly and effectively discredits a great deal of prejudice, misconception and kookery. It does so when these items of counterfeit knowledge are countered by scientifically validated refutations, and are met with well-founded rival explanations. This exposure and refutation of error constitutes a cardinal contribution of science to our civilization.

But the norm has another edge that escapes the notice of too many scholars. Many of the most vital and profound issues of moral commitment and social policy are not scientifically or academically "safe" - i.e., they are not scientific "homestead" issues. And yet, unlike kookery, prejudice, and pseudo-science, these moral commitments and social policies are not clearly refutable or even challenged by scientifically secure alternatives. More significantly, these ideas and issues compel our attention and our action. They cannot await definitive word from the laboratories. Indeed, the scholars and scientists have so arranged the conditions and rules of their work that these crucial moral issues have been systematically rendered "none of our (professional) business." And, to be sure, according to a strict reading of their rules and procedures of inquiry, these scholars are right. The solution to the nuclear arms race will not come forth solely from a computer read-out. If it comes about, it will come from international moral insight, trust, enlightenment, and dedication. The urban blight will not be solved solely by the amassing of sociological statistics and correlations -- not without, additionally, a generous supply of charity, good will, and forbearance. The problem of pollution will not be solved by technology, albeit much of the requisite technological knowledge may exist today, unutilized and undeveloped. Although the biologists could begin tomorrow to apply procedures sufficient to attain zero growth in world population, the social knowledge, administrative skill, and will needed to put these procedures to work are not at hand. The suggestions put forth to solve these overwhelming human problems are "pioneering" ventures. They are not scientifically "safe," and they are thus not academically respectable.11

Most assuredly, scholarly and scientific inquiry plays a vital part in moving toward the solution of these crucial human problems. But it is not sufficient. Also required are attitudes, commitments, and insights that are radically different, in logical kind, from scholarly and scientific information and inquiry. Unquestionably, the sciences and technology provide effective means to move human history. But toward what ends? Faced with these questions, the scholar stands mute. These are messy, risky, involving questions. They are not amenable to solution by neat, "safe," scholarly procedures. The are not, that is, "academic."

And so, while the world heats up, the scholars, in their professional capacities, keep their academic cool. Detached from these tribulations, involved in their scholarly minutiae, many professors find their "homesteads" to be cozy indeed. And, best of all, this detachment is all quite consistent with the rules of their work. But surely something is amiss here. An abdication of moral involvement in such times as these must present prima-facie evidence of some profound misconception and naivete. Indeed it does. But I urge, once more, that the misconception and the naivete do not lie in the strict adherence to the rules and procedures of "value-free" inquiry. They do not lie in the determination to keep descriptive accounts free from personal biases. The fatal misconception, I contend, is found in the scholarly habit of condemning, out of hand, all inquiry and involvement that lacks (as so often it must) the procedural rigor, conceptual clarity, and evidential support of hard, "safe," scientific and scholarly work.12

The naiveté rests in the assumption that the scholarly search for properly "value- free" descriptive knowledge is itself free from value-laden presuppositions, conditions and entailments.

Let us turn, then, to a consideration of some of these value-laden conditions that attend the search for "value-free" knowledge.


Two questions of meta-inquiry that arise at the outset are those of choosing a topic of study, and of choosing a method of studying it. Consider some typical options. A psychologist might study the roots of the dynamics of prejudice, or he might take on an obscure niche of perception theory. A sociologist might examine leadership roles in delinquent youth groups, or he might, with old questionnaires in hand, take just one more visit to "Middletown." The biologist might study the ecological effects of industrial pollution, or he might produce the definitive anatomy of the gnat's knee. "Value-free" facts are to be found in all these enterprises, and more. But facts do not dictate the choice of topic. The choice follows upon such questions as "What sort of knowledge is needed to advance the science? (To where?). "What sort of knowledge is socially beneficial?". (For what?). Some self-serving questions arise: "What project will get me a degree, or professional recognition, or a promotion, with the least amount of fuss?" And of course, there is the question: "Which project is the 'safest' - i.e., the most amenable to careful, sound, and academically respectable analysis?" This in contrast to: "Which line of speculation is most likely to open up new areas of scientific and human advancement?"13

Obviously, many of these choices have moral entailments, such as the choice to avoid "troublesome" projects and, rather, to attempt something easy and trivial in the hope of obtaining a facile assist to one's career. Significantly, these moral involvements are "forced," since, due to time limitations, the acceptance of one option generally closes the others.

Another important moral involvement of scholarship follows from the well-known fact that ideas have consequences, or, to cite Lord Bacon, that "Knowledge is Power." A standard scholarly disclaimer is that "I cannot be held responsible for what others do with my discoveries."14  It is a defensible point. No one can be fully aware of the consequences of his work. But it does not follow that one should be totally detached from these consequences. For if a discovery is put to pernicious ends, the discoverer is in a unique and privileged position to attempt to counteract it. If a scholar's words are distorted for another's private gain, the scholar should make it clear that "this is not what I meant." If a theory is misconstrued, and damaging policies instituted pursuant to the error, the theorist has a duty to attempt to set things straight. Ideas do have consequences -- for good and for ill. In many cases, the discoverer and innovator is eminently qualified to act and to insure that his work will have beneficial results; indeed, he is often in a prominent position to foresee these results. Yet, all too often, by doing nothing he allows his work to be put to malevolent ends. Thus the scholar makes a "decision by indecision." In his attempt to be "above" the issue, he becomes a tacit participant to its unfolding. By refusing to be part of the solution, be becomes part of the problem. The scholar and scientist, by the simple act of professional creation, may find himself in an inescapable moral bind, accountable for what he may do, or may not do, to direct the course of events.

Frequently, a prominent scientific theory or method will produce a group of "satellite" attitudes and values. Far from being "free" in their evaluations, the scholars and scientists closest to these developments may be the most committed to such biases. This phenomenon is most apparent in the behavioral and social sciences. Consider, for example, the anti-Victorian feelings of many psycho-analysts and the pro-capitalist biases of some early "social Darwinians" (such as W. G. Sumner). Currently, there is a great deal of interest, in sociology and political science, in the concept of "systems-maintenance." This has led some radical critics to complain that such an approach can promote a politically conservative bias. They charge that, once such a theoretical frame of reference becomes established as "neat" and "safe," it becomes difficult to ask such "pioneering" questions as "should a (political, economic, or social) system be maintained? If so, under what conditions?" "If the social system should not be maintained, toward what goals should it be directed?" The academic establishment would, of course, be inclined to disallow these questions as being prescriptive and thus "nonscientific." But it would seem that the study of systems-maintenance makes a scholar very comfortable with the idea that a system should be maintained, for having the knowledge to maintain systems, and lacking the will to prescribe ends (much less, to determine the means to secure them), the social scientist is disposed to maintain the integrity of the system. Such conservatism constitutes a moral involvement rarely defended but rather arrived at by "indecision." One should thus not be surprised to discover that many academics oriented to the systems-maintenance approach are untroubled by their willingness to cooperate with government and corporate projects and research. Nor, conversely, should one be surprised to find that academic careers flourish, and research funds abound, in support of such "explicitly neutral and implicitly ideological" investigations as these. Herein may be a new "social Darwinism" more significant than that imagined by Sumner or his robber-baron sponsors.


I have attempted to show that those scholars who insist that academic research should be value-free fail to acknowledge the fact that the fundamental circumstances of their enterprise are normative. Once identified and explicated, these value assumptions usually appear quite laudable and uncontroversial. Yet the failure to critically acknowledge these presuppositions of scholarship allows extensions of principle that can become rather pernicious. As a review and summary of our argument, let us consider some sound normative presuppositions of science and scholarship, and some of their more questionable extensions.

I .     Assumption: Scientifically "safe" procedures of inquiry should be followed -- as much as the nature of the        problem warrants.

Extension: Neat, secure, scientifically safe knowledge is the most worth having.
(We have argued that there are exceptions that are of crucial human importance).

II.     Assumption: "The Rule of Detachment" - What we wish to find must have no bearing upon the content of  what in fact we find.

Extension: We are wholly concerned with the content of what we find, to the exclusion of the results of our finding it.

(But consider the surgeon who acknowledges that he has, lamentably, located a malignancy and, as a result of discovery, proceeds to act, as best he can, toward restoring the health of the patient).

III.     Assumption: There is nothing true that should not be known.

Extension A: All truths are equally worth seeking.

(The cure for AIDS and the cure for pattern baldness? Of course, in all fairness we should make the qualification that the scientist is not interested in collecting isolated bits of trivia. He seeks information that can be articulated in the generalized and precise nomenclature of his discipline and which can be assimilated into its theoretical system).

Extension B: There is nothing technologically possible that should not be attempted. "If it can be done, it should."

("But Senator, how do we know that this weapon will destroy all civilized life, unless we try it out?" Thus baldly stated, as in the New Yorker cartoon quoted here, the absurdity of this "extension" is manifest. Yet, there is a significant momentum operative between scientific discovery and its application -- too often before the long-range effects or moral entailments are carefully assessed. Consider, for example, the use of chlorinated hydrocarbons as pesticides, the by-products of nuclear generated power, the psychological effects of commercial television, the use of chloro-fluorocarbons in aerosol sprays, the widespread agricultural application of genetically modified organisms, etc.).

It will be correctly argued that few scientists and scholars would accept the "extensions" that I have summarized above. This I grant, provided these individuals are confronted with such explicit statements as are presented here. The crux of my point, however, is that they do not, as a habit, directly and critically acknowledge the moral presuppositions of their work, and consequently that their professional practice too often betrays these unguarded extensions of principle. If this point be doubted, ask yourself: (a) how often have the scientists and scholars preferred "pioneering" speculation to "homesteading" research? (b) How often have the scientists and scholars directly addressed themselves to the morally and socially important implications of their work? (c) How often do we hear scientists criticize proposed and operative governmental and commercial "engineering" based upon their discoveries and inventions?

Too many scientists and scholars have chosen to remain "strictly academic." We have indicated some historical precedents, some attitudes, and some habits that have led to this detachment. To close this account, let us add to our list some all-too human weaknesses that have contributed to this "academic delinquency."

Most apparent of the weaknesses is a yielding to direct personal and professional pressure. As scholarly detachment becomes a norm in academe, the activist professor acutely feels the force of peer pressure. His status in the faculty "club" is imperiled. His active moral involvement with issues threatens to "make waves" in the otherwise comfortable circumstances of the professorial life. Moreover, the pressures toward conformity are much more than social. One's career is on the line: tenure, advancement, professional recognition.15  There are compelling reasons not to "get involved." These pressures apply to even the most prominent scientists: the case of Carl Sagan in instructive.

Nonetheless, for all this moral detachment, for all this climate of "business as usual" amid social tumult and deterioration, there have been some significant moves toward involvement and relevance. There is a growing awareness in the academies that the responsible scholar cannot "sit this one out." To borrow the remark that Robert Oppenheimer uttered at Alamogordo: "The scientist has known sin." Many of his number are learning penance and working toward moral involvement and leadership. This moral concern is evident in such publications as The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Bio-Science, and Philosophy and Public Affairs. Especially noteworthy is the recent decision of the editors of Science, the venerable publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to publish a series of invited columns on "Science and Society," as well as debates on public policy issue.

For all this, the scholarly community has yet to manifest significant political leadership. Congress remains little moved by scholarly petitions for social reconstruction and moral commitment. University professors remain available to testify in behalf of various vested interests. Thus, as one cynic has put it, in congressional testimony, "for every PhD there is an equal and opposite "PhD." And the students, separated from the professors by bureaucratic manipulations and economics (e.g., TV instruction and teaching assistants) remain unpersuaded that the professors can, or care to, teach them the socially and morally relevant insights that they, the students, are eager to gain in the course of their education.

It is a mixed picture, to be sure, but the trends may be hopeful. However, there are some long-standing and deeply entrenched traditions and habits to be overcome. There is, then, a crucial need for courage and initiative, lest the contributions of the scholars in this crucial moment in the life of our civilization prove to be too little and too late.


Should a professor be persuaded by such arguments as these, what then is he to do? How does he, with his small territory of professional expertise, become "relevant"?

First of all, he should be cautious. This leads us at once to a brief list of caveats. To begin, he should not give in to passing enthusiasms and jump on one, and then another, political or social bandwagon. It is pathetic to find a man of stature in one field of learning making a fool of himself by uttering oracular nonsense in another. Such spectacles can only serve to discourage scholarly activism by the uncommitted, and to devalue the coin of other scholarly involvements in social issues.

Further, the activist scholar should not be too quick to flash his credentials. The weight of his contribution should rest with the cogency of his arguments and the substance of the supporting research. His reputation will best serve his argument if he takes no trouble to bring that reputation to the attention of his public.

Finally, one should not place oneself in a vulnerable position by making sweeping pronouncements that claim more than the evidence will in fact support. If the scholar's conclusions are speculative, he should willingly admit this and be prepared to give a sound and vigorous defense of his speculations. In short, the activist scholar should not, as activist, cease to be a scholar. He should think, act, and discourse with the care, deliberation and discipline of thought that is appropriate to his tradition. However unlike his detached colleagues in the ivoried towers, he should be willing to exercise those scholarly virtues toward the resolution of "unsafe," ambiguous, yet socially compelling issues.

So much for the warnings. What, of a positive nature, is he to do?

As an essential beginning, he should take stock of himself and his work. He should attempt to assess the moral presuppositions of his field of study and his modus operandus. He should explore the social implications of his contributions, both as a researcher and as a teacher, to knowledge. In organizing his lecture notes and in choosing his research topics, he should at least have in mind some of the prevailing crises, with the hope that he might bring some of his specialized knowledge to bear upon them. All this should be done, of course, with the care, objectivity, and precision of thought that befits his scholarly calling.

Having assessed his place, and the place of his academic specialty, in the larger context of the human condition, he should proceed to extend his interests to related areas of social importance. Thus a chemist might study the chemistry of pollution. They physicist might study the "energy crisis." The sociologist might study the dynamics of directed social change. The psychologist might examine behavioral implications of mass media and advertising techniques, and not for the benefit of those interests that might exploit them. And so on. These areas of interest are best conceived as broad-based "problems" rather than small-scale "subjects." Accordingly, a proper study of these problems calls upon competencies that extend beyond "departmental" boundaries. Surely such boundaries are transcended as the scholar examines the moral as well as the scientific aspects of these problems. Accordingly, the relevance-oriented scholar will seek out colleagues who are similarly motivated and who have complementary specialties to bear upon their common investigations. Interdisciplinary committees, and later "institutes" or "centers" should then be established to direct expert scholarly attention to large-scale social problems, including the moral aspects thereof.

As work progresses in these problem-oriented centers, students and the public should be brought in. Discussion groups among the faculty should at times be open to the public or should be published. Students should engage in interdisciplinary study and discussion, with the hope that they might continue, refine, and extend this systems-oriented approach to the analysis of social problems.

All this need not imply the abandonment of detailed "strictly academic" inquiry. Those genuinely so inclined should be encouraged to mine additional knowledge in their chosen fields. Other scholars who so choose should be permitted to seek a place of relevance for their areas of academic interest. We are arguing here not for a curtailment, but for an expansion of the scope of academic inquiry -- an expansion that need tolerate no relaxation of intellectual rigor and discipline.

As the scholar becomes engaged in the broad-based systematic study of social problems, he will develop some carefully scrutinized moral commitments. But as they emerge, they too will be subject to rigorous analysis by his colleagues. Consequently, he will be obliged to subject his commitments to careful analysis, articulation, and justification. This accomplished, he will be well prepared to engage in public and political controversies.

The possibilities of such contributions are exciting to contemplate. The morally committed activist professor might volunteer to work with political and social action groups. He might make his talents available to like-minded foundations, politicians, or candidates. He might even find himself a candidate, as many have (e.g., Professors Fulbright, McCarthy, McGovern and Wellstone).

As one establishes and extends correspondence with colleagues of like convictions beyond one's campus, one might formalize those associations into state, national, or even international professional organizations. And so we might have The International Association of Political Scientists for Disarmament, the International Institute for the Study of Peace, The International Conference of Biologists on Human Survival, and so forth. Such organizations would gather data, publish opinions and conclusions and, most significantly, study the means to effect significant changes -- at the organizational level and at the level of the individual classrooms of the member professors.

The list of areas of effective action can be refined and extended. As the number of concerned, imaginative, courageous activists increases, be assured that it shall.

But the university is a thing apart from an aggregate of concerned, activist professors and students. Universities, as we have seen, too often reflect the policies of their commercial or governmental patrons. This is true enough, but it is also unquestionably true that a university is nothing without its faculty. And so a faculty, especially if it enjoys the national support of the academic professions, can exact leverage. A concerned faculty can, without fully "taking over" the administration of a university, institute significant changes. Among them:

  • Cut strings from research funds. Permit the faculties to determine the distribution of the funds. Remove all hint of prescribed results of research.

  • Supply funds for "loyal academic opposition" engaged in the constructive criticisms of operative economic, social, and governmental policies. The "loyal opposition" would also devote attention to the study of alternatives.

  • Supply funds for the study of college teaching. Surely if the scholars develop productive methods of moral criticism, evolve morally significant insights, and devise relevant and provocative systems of social thought and action, they will acquire collateral interest in quality teaching. Without dedicated students to perpetuate the work of the activist scholers, an academic move toward social and moral relevance will prove to be an ineffectual and momentary fad. Teaching must no longer be treated as a detested distraction.

To accomplish this, the scholars must regain the leadership of their academic communities. The faculty, not the administration, not the trustees, not the patrons, should govern the conditions of its professional endeavors. National scholarly societies, such as the American Philosophical Association, the Modern Language Association, etc., could significantly assist this move to redress the balance of academic power. These organizations have all too frequently directed the professor's loyalties and attention from his students, his college, and his community to his academic "profession" (as physicist, linguist, psychologist, etc.). These organizations could far better serve their members and the general society if they provided national support, consultation, and assistance to innovative, activist members who may be feeling the strains of reprisal from administrators or vested interests on their local campuses.

In short, what I am advocating is nothing less than a deliberate and determined restoration of the Socratic function of scholarship. The Socratic calling is an old one, of course, but the concept is nonetheless modern; it has, in fact, been much enriched by the modern science of cybernetics (from the Greek kybernetes: "helmsman"). This science teaches us that a complex functional system (such as a technological society) must receive and respond to "corrective feedback" if it is to remain functional and evolve to states of higher efficiency and fulfillment of its functions. If the system is complex as, again, it most surely is in the case of modern society, then those who supply the feedback must be intelligent, imaginative, and highly trained. If the system is to respond to the feedback, then those who articulate it must exert power. And if the system is to fulfill its function -- by which we mean, in this case, fulfill the needs and enhance the health of the members of the community -- then the "helmsmen" who provide the "feedback" must be men of acute moral sensitivity and high moral purpose.

But, you may retort, however intelligent and lofty of purpose might be these academic men who will offer "feedback" to the forces that move men and nations, are they not, after all, still human beings who are thus heir to human failings?

Indeed they are. But what better do we have? What are our alternatives? Can we remain content with the present system of policy by power clique and economic interest group? Shall we leave the future to chance, to impulse, to vested interest -- or shall we be directed, at least in part, by trained intelligence and active yet critical moral purpose?

All this may appear visionary and utopian. Surely, one might rejoin, the powers that fund and thus direct the programs and policies of the universities will not allow the faculties to exert such autonomy. Surely such attempts to shift power to the faculties will result in effective retaliation. To put it bluntly, the scholars do not have the clout to pull it off.

I beg to disagree. Once enough scholars achieve a unity of purpose and a sense of national community, they can gain a significant voice in the corridors of power. For despite their current disinclination to "get involved," they presently have significant leverage. They merely choose not to push. For consider:

  • We have a society which, quite simply, requires the trained intelligence that resides in our universities.

  • The trained elite which will be required in the near future to maintain the technological- economic-political machine that is our society, now sits at the feet of the scholars.

  • The scholarly professions now have the national organizations which can exert powerful moral and social force. They are presently impotent by choice and not by compelling circumstance.

In brief, our colleges and universities have become indispensable to contemporary society. The faculties, being indispensable to the academies, have the potential for significant power. The commercial and political interests that control the universities do so by the tacit consent of the faculties -- not by any intrinsic necessity. The faculties have the ability, the insight, and even the duty to secure the moral governance of their institutions and to regain substantive moral leadership of their students and of their society.

For who is better qualified to guide the unfolding of human destiny, than those whose vocation is devoted to the disinterested study of the human condition -- those who examine, in a community of trained intelligence, the large-scale and long-range functioning of human events and institutions in their historical contexts and in their physical and biological environments? Who are less corrupted by power than those who seek, not power, but insight and truth -- those who are subject to rules of evidence, who yield to the discipline of critical inquiry, and who applaud the constant revision, refinement and grown of the fund of human knowledge?

The scholarly-scientific profession is one of the few human enterprises that continues, at its core, a confession of fallibility and, with it, the mechanism of constant revision and growth. The history of scholarship provides the evidence for this. Such a tradition should have a commanding voice in the governance of the affairs of man, and in the direction of the perilous and uncertain course of the human adventure. It is time again for the universities, the community of scholars, to make a difference.

This may well be the era -- even the decade -- that will decide life or death for the civilized condition, or even for the human race. How will the decision be made? If not in the universities -- then where? If not by dedicated scholars -- then who? If not through the resources of responsible, disinterested, yet compassionate intellect -- then how?

Copyright 2000, by Ernest Partridge



1. "Natural things are exactly those which do move continuously, in virtue of principles inherent in themselves, toward a determined goal. . .That nature is a cause, then, and a goal-oriented cause, is above dispute." (Aristotle, Physics II, Ch. 7).

2. In over-simplified terms: The efficient, material and formal causes are presented in largely descriptive terms, while the final cause employs prescriptive discourse.

3. David Hume called these "matters of fact" and "relations of ideas." Presumably the reader will appreciate that a very subtle and complicated slice of intellectual history is being compressed into these paragraphs. There is, of course, much more to it than this. (See following note).

4. One of the best statements of these historical developments is the five volume History of Western Philosophy by W. T. Jones (3nd ed.) published by Harcourt Brace and World. (1980). (See especially Vol. III which covers the period from the Renaissance through Hume). Jones is particularly interested in the problem of "values in a world of facts."

5. Some of the leading exponents of the "Good Reasons Approach" are Stephen Toulmin (The Place of Reason in Ethics. Cambridge, 1950), Kurt Baier (The Moral Point of View, Random House, 1965), Henry Aiken, Marcus Singer, and Kai Nielsen. For a good bibliography, see "Ethics," The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. III. (ed. Paul Edwards, MacMillan and Free Press, 1967), pp. 116-7.

6. Some elaboration of this rather dogmatic assertion may be in order. A "person" is generally understood by moral philosophers to be a rational, deliberative being with rights, with claims to these rights and, by implication, engendering in other persons duties to respect these rights. Reciprocally, a person is obligated to other persons to respect their rights. The terms, "rights," "claims," "duties" and "obligations" belong to moral discourse, not biological terminology. (But cannot animals be said to be "persons," then, since they have the "right" to be treated humanely? No, since they are not rational and have no duties). It is an empirical fact, not a logical necessity, that the class of human beings is virtually coterminous with the class of persons. Exceptions are imaginable, and perhaps actual: porpoises, or angels, or Venusians may be persons. Brain-damaged "human vegetables" are not persons nor, (I would insist) is a four-week fetus. See "In Search of Sustainable Values," this site.

7. The descriptive account of values is not ruled out. For example, it is quite scientifically acceptable to report that "the Wadjacallem tribe of the Island of Beri-Beri approve of head hunting." It is not scientifically cricket to say in addition: "How dreadful that they should do such a thing, and even approve of it!" (See "Environmental Ethics: An Introduction," this site).

8. A similar point has been persuasively argued in Jacob Bronowski's fine little book: Science and Human Values (Harper, 1965). However, while I deal with the moral dimensions of the presuppositions of inquiry, the choice of the projects, and the motives of the scientists, Bronowski examines the activity of science and the scientifically appropriate attitudes of the scientists. While I agree substantially with Bronowski, my argument takes on an independent direction. Furthermore, I believe that there may be a greater gulf between the precepts and the practice of "scientific morality" than Bronowski admits. Indeed, in this paper I argue that scientists and scholars often sin through an excess of virtue. In these respects, they are all-too-frequently like many Christians. A sketch of some of Bronowski's important points may be found in "On Scientific Morality" (this site), which, while briefer, presents my more recent views on the topic of this paper (c. 1993-4).

9. I am, of course, glossing over a highly involved and elaborate analysis concerning the nature of scientific discourse. This involves the subtle logical, semantic, and operational distinctions between scientific observation statements, hypotheses, laws, theories, etc. Some of the leading texts in the field are: The Philosophy of Science, by Peter Caws; Philosophy of Natural Science, Carl Hempel; The Structure of Science by Ernest Nagel; The Logic of Scientific Discovery, by Karl Popper; Readings in the Philosophy of Science by Feigl and Brodbeck.

10. These lists are not exhaustive sets of defining characteristics. Rather, they are collections of traits that might indicate "family resemblances." "Mixed" collections of these characteristics, in varying degrees, are, of course, to be expected.

11. Of course, many sophisticated studies of such "real" problems as disarmament, pollution control, urban blight, etc., have been conducted by such "think tanks" as the Hudson Institute, the RAND Corporation, and the Club of Rome. From these studies useful and significant insights have come forth. Unfortunately, the bias toward "objective" facts and procedures, and away from "value assumptions" -- the "half truth" that I have described above -- has possibly (and most ironically) introduced significant but unexamined value assumptions into the design of these "policy studies." This assertion has been brilliantly argued by Lawrence Tribe in his long and comprehensive essay, "Policy Science: Analysis or Ideology" (Philosophy and Public Affairs Vol.2: No. 1, Fall, 1972). Because Tribe's presentation is organically constructed and utilizes a wealth of technical and stipulated terms, it is impossible to extract a concise statement of his findings. However, the following excerpt from near the end of the work may provide a hint of his position and, hopefully, an incentive to read the entire essay.

The policy sciences' intellectual and social heritage in the classical economic of unfettered contract, consumer sovereignty, and perfect markets both brings them within a paradigm of conscious choice guided by values and inclines them, within that paradigm, toward the exaltation of utilitarian and self-interested individualism, efficiency, and maximized production as against distributive ends, procedural and historical principles, and the values (often non-monetizable, discontinuous, and of complex structure) associated with personal rights, public goods, and communitarian and ecological goals. And one might even venture the speculation that the policy sciences' partial origins in (and repeated forays into) military planning did little to humanize the methodologies involved, or to counteract the anesthetizing quality of such stunningly detached terminology as "body counts," "kill ratios," or "utilities." (105)

12. Noam Chomsky nicely characterizes this "misconception:"

Anyone can be a moral individual, concerned with human rights and problems; but only a college professor, a trained expert, can solve technical problems by 'sophisticated methods.' Ergo, it is only problems of the latter sort that are important or real. Responsible,"nonideological types" will "harangue" about principle and trouble themselves over moral issues and human rights, or over the traditional problems of man and society , concerning which 'social and behavioral science' have nothing to offer beyond trivialities. Obviously, these emotional ideological types are irrational, since, being well-off and having power in their grasp, they shouldn't worry about such matters." Noam Chomsky, "The Responsibility of Intellectuals," The Dissenting Academy (Cf. note 1).p. 271.

Of course, Chomsky himself vehemently rejects the position that he has thus caricatured. His recent career attests to this.

13. Unfortunately, I may be opening myself here to the charge that I am against "pure science" -- that is, against scientific investigations unmotivated by any interest whatever in "useful applications." This is not my intention. Knowledge, per se, is worthwhile; more so, if it has important bearing upon the existing fund and structure of "pure knowledge." I only wish to suggest that the choice of one's project is not free of moral significance. Generally such a choice will entail competing values.

14. Note the quotation from the Tom Lehrer song, which heads this essay. A fairer statement of this point of view appears in a letter by Prof. William C. Orthwein to Science Magazine (Vol. 174, 12 Nov., 1971, p. 645):

"The engineer's role is to make hardware available. Whether the purchaser of a box of matches uses them to start his furnace to warm himself and his family or to commit arson is his decision. This is not within the control of either the manufacturer or the engineer who designed the match. The same argument holds for any more elaborate piece of equipment, such as the internal combustion engine. . . It is no more possible for the engineer to foresee the use of his technological innovations than it is for the physician to foresee what good or evil will be effected by the child he delivers in the maternity ward. After all, the worst crimes and the greatest advances are all caused by people."

In the words of the National Rifle Association: "Guns don't kill people; people kill people."

15. On this point, Robert Engler remarks:

To cry out that something in the social structure is fundamentally wrong is to lose one's professional cool, and possibly the next grant, a consultancy, an academic reputation. Meanwhile, sociologists continue to teach the skills and grace necessary for successful living in a bureaucratic world. Or they theorize on an abstract level divorced from all reality. (The Dissenting Academy Op Cit. pp. 112-3).

Marshall Windmiller concurs:

When he comes out against a government policy he runs the risk of being regarded as incompetent, not only by other members of the profession who happen to support the policy but also by those who believe that professional objectivity requires that the scholar remain aloof, uncommitted, and impartial. Ibid. pp. 112-3.



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 .