The Magazine

Can We Talk?

About the moral dimensions of science.

Sep 8, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 48 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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But if you've managed to resist the happy talk about unimpeded technological progress--whether the fatuous variety on the network news or Pinker's more sophisticated version--you will find in Cohen a provocative guide, with a sharp eye for paradox and an appreciation of ambiguity. He notes how strange it is that scientists who proudly describe themselves as materialists and naturalists should show such a disdain for matter and for the limits that nature imposes on us. But this is part of a larger paradox that Cohen sees lurking behind the secular faith of modern science: "an extreme belief in both human greatness and human smallness." Human greatness is seen in the confidence that scientists have in their ability to manipulate nature, grasp it with their intelligence and bend it to their will. At the same time the final triviality of human beings is seen in science's view of human origins: "its view of man as emerging from the dust of the ground," with no higher obligation or purpose built into the fact of his existence.

Taken together the two ideas make for a creepy and combustible blend--as imaginative artists from Hesiod to Hawthorne have tried to show.

It's all the creepier as the success and power of science increase. Not only has the new science given us the ability to harvest human embryos and pick them apart for the useful bits--always, of course, with the noblest intentions--it has also allowed for pre-genetic screening of fetuses in the womb, so that those not suited to our tastes can be identified and discarded. It has brought us to the brink of cloning and man/animal hybrids--always, of course, for research purposes only. Through psychotropic drugs it allows for the minute manipulation of consciousness, reprogramming faculties like memory and perception, refashioning the self.

In the face of these awesome powers we tend to forget that the expertise of scientists is limited. They can tell us whether such things can be done. Whether they should be done is a question for all of us--a matter on which scientists have no special claim to expertise.

Addressing this second question, Cohen writes, "requires not just the peer review of fellow scientists"--or, for that matter, the say-so of bioethicists on their payroll. "It requires moral deliberation and democratic debate, and in some cases it requires the willingness to say 'no,' 'stop,' or 'here but no further.'"

Saying no may be harder now than ever, owing partly to the dazzling temptations of the new science, but also to a change in the democratic tide. The political push for unlimited scientific research has made for strange bedfellows. Not so long ago, "it seemed as though the culture of technology and the counterculture were mortal enemies. The machine vs. the spirit. Rational investigation vs. Dionysian feeling. Gradual progress vs. spontaneous liberation." But now, Cohen says, the two opposing strains have discovered a more fundamental unity: "a connection grounded in the belief that human limits should be overcome, taboos are anathema, and human shame is an illusion. Both cultures believe that no knowledge or experience should be off-limits."

The promise of the new science, with its hope of liberation from nature and its ancient constraints, has brought the counterculture together with the culture of technology and commerce it once despised. Politically the combination seems unstoppable, thanks in part to publicists like Pinker.

"What do we live for?" That, Cohen writes, is "the central question of bioethics." People dislike the deep-digging bioethics of Kass and Cohen because they dislike being confronted with the question. It is, by democratic custom, a question that everyone is supposed to answer for himself--a private matter ill-suited to bickering in the public square. And we especially dislike imposing our answer, our "values," on others, so we tell ourselves.

At first glance, this is a position worthy of respect, showing a kind of modesty that democracies can't survive without. It would be more convincing, though, if we weren't already trying to impose our values on one another all the time anyway. The question "What do we live for?" is unavoidable. Every step of the new science's accelerating progress throws it right back at us. Those who want an unlimited pursuit of embryonic stem cell research, for instance--they declare their modesty by refusing to make a judgment about the moral status of the embryo, and then immodestly work to impose their agnosticism by law, as a general principle.

When it comes to the new science, even declining to impose our values is an imposition of values. Refusing to try to answer the question "What do we live for?" is an answer to the question. And a pretty sneaky answer it is, too.

Eric Cohen deserves our admiration for having the nerve to raise the question and to answer it--in good faith and in public. Amazing, for a theocrat.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.