Science versus ethics
By James Carroll | July 24, 2006
IN ISSUING last week's veto of legislation to fund stem cell research, President Bush centered his
opposition on the destruction of embryos. To him, that marked a boundary. ``Crossing the line,quot; he
said, ``would needlessly encourage a conflict between science and ethics that can only do damage
to both, and to our nation as a whole.quot;
Leaving aside the political ramifications of this debate, what are the implications of the dichotomy
the president has drawn ``between science and ethicsquot;? Do scientists carry on their work in one
realm, while ethicists do theirs in another? Does the expertise of a researcher exclude concern for
the moral meaning of research? When we define ethics as a discrete specialty, as, for example, by
establishing a separate office in hospitals for the medical ethicist, does that mean that questions of
right and wrong are not central to the work of others in healthcare?
An inch below these questions are others about science and religion, because the assumption that
many make is that moral thinking is tied to religious belief. God is the source of moral law, and if
you want to know what is right and what is wrong, then the expertise of theologians or pastors is
called for. To the realm of science, in which every question opens into a new question, belongs a
necessary skepticism, but the realm of religion is defined by the certitudes of revealed faith.
Scientists should be free to do their work, but religious authorities should be at their elbows,
reviewing it for moral significance. The one knows only what can be established by observation,
while the other knows truths that are eternal.
Sometimes, both scientists and religious figures affirm this dichotomy, with scientists so focused
on the narrow inquiry of testable knowledge that they disavow any interest in broader questions,
and with religious people appealing to received absolutes that are broad enough to apply to even
the most unprecedented scientific investigation. What occurs in the Petri dish can look very
different to two such views. This is a formula for the conflict ``between science and ethicsquot; of
which Bush warns. But what if the revolution in human thinking initiated by the age of science
involves a simultaneous and intrinsic revolution in ethical reasoning? What if the scientific
method is a moral method? In that case, certitudes in the realm of religion would be overthrown
every bit as much as those in the realm of science. Such a shift, seeming to eliminate all appeals to
authority outside of testable experience, would be so fundamental that humans of both kinds --
researchers and pastors -- might prefer to act as if it had not happened. Might prefer to act, that is,
as if science and ethics are two realms apart.