The Magazine


The uses and abuses of science in political life.

Dec 8, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 12 • By STEVEN J. LENZNER
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Imagining the Future
Science and American Democracy
by Yuval Levin
Encounter, 145 pp., $21.95


Among the many authorities we adhere to today, only science rivals that of equality. This is not thought to be a problem because, as everyone knows, science is morally and politically neutral. Or so we are informed by luminaries ranging from Albert Einstein to George W. Bush. As such, science cannot come into conflict with our democracy. But is science as innocent as scientists claim?

Science, the argument goes, offers knowledge of the inner workings of nature that bestows upon us the power to alter the physical and material conditions under which we live. Yet that knowledge does not come with an instruction manual. Whether science is used for good ends or bad-in the service, for example, of freedom or of tyranny-is beyond its purview. Science stands outside of, indeed above, politics.

Henceforth, all who read Yuval Levin's Imagining the Future will refrain from availing themselves of this plausible, but deeply misleading, piece of conventional wisdom. Levin has a deep understanding of American political life, but he also has an expert knowledge of political philosophy, and puts both to good use in this important and enlightening book.

Levin shows that the Joe Friday ideal of science-"Just the facts, ma'am"-overlooks the woods for the trees. It ignores the reality that science, as we take it for granted, is a relatively new phenomenon in human history and was brought about by men who saw science and healthy politics as inextricably linked. Modern science came into being in the 17th century through the thought and action of a handful of great thinkers, foremost among them Francis Bacon and René Descartes. They successfully sought to change the character of scientific activity for distinctively human and political ends.

Ancient science was contemplative: It sought to understand nature, but was content to let it run its course. The scientific project founded by Bacon and Descartes saw nature as hostile to human prosperity, as penurious and arbitrary. Far from being a source of guidance on how to live, nature was something to be overcome or conquered. Science was, in Bacon's famous phrase, to be put in the service of "the relief of man's estate." A new order was to emerge in which science would progressively conquer poverty and disease and hold out the prospect of the indefinite extension of human life. Empirical science was to be the means of political reformation. Levin nicely sums up the less sober aspirations born of the modern scientific project in this way:

From the very beginning, the modern worldview has given rise to peculiar utopianisms of various stripes, all grounded in the dream of overcoming nature and living, free of necessity and fear, able to meet every one of our needs and our whims, and able, most especially, to live indefinitely in good health. This brand of utopianism generally begins in a benign libertarianism, though at times it has ended in political extremism, if not the guillotine.

We're far from the guillotine, but you only have to think about the relative capacities of smoking, on the one hand, and blasphemy, on the other, to generate indignation and see precisely to what extent this peculiarly modern moralism has taken hold.

To be sure, Levin is not the first to observe the hidden political foundations and aims of modern science, but you would be hard pressed to find a treatment that is equally accessible, engaging, and precise. What is new here is the manner in which he uses his scholarly knowledge to illumine the character of our contemporary (and future) political life.

The problem, as Levin diagnoses it, is that our constitutional order depends upon modern science and its blessings, yet science also works as a subtle moral corrosive that threatens to undermine the moral judgment essential to a healthy liberal democracy:

In our time, we are perhaps less inclined to recognize science as a set of ideas with aspirations to universality precisely because the scientific enterprise has been so successful. But the authority we cede to science, both as the servant of health and as the master of knowledge, weakens our allegiance to those other sources of wisdom so crucial to our self-understanding and self-government. Those other sources serve to ground our moral judgment, while science avoids or flattens moral questions, since it cannot answer them and rarely needs to ask them. .  .  . For all its power, science risks leaving us morally impotent.

Put another way, the hidden moral premises of science-especially those concerning health-have so insinuated themselves into our collective consciousness that any attempt to challenge them in the name of other goods is almost invariably a defensive, rearguard action. Such attempts can slow but not stem the tide of "progress," and rollbacks are all but unimaginable.

Levin dwells most extensively on biotechnology, which he sees as politically revealing and potentially explosive because it raises direct questions about how we define ourselves in the most intimate aspects of our lives, such as birth, death, family, sex, and so on. However important other controversies may be-climate change, say, or ethanol subsidies--they seem merely technical compared with the foundational moral quandaries raised by biotechnology, from embryonic stem cell research to human cloning to the prospect of "designer babies," and beyond.

The promises and hazards of biotechnology put formerly taboo subjects front and center. In the spirit of his hero, Edmund Burke, Levin laments the tearing away of what Burke called "the decent drapery of life"-namely, the realm governed by moral intuition, instinct, and sentiment. As soon as we must debate publicly (and justify with reasons) such sound moral rules previously taken for granted-the Hippocratic oath, or even something as intuitively repellent as incest-we grant that there is something to talk about, that everything is on the table.

Levin has no illusions that the genie will return to the bottle. Nor does he believe that a reliance on moral intuitions is right or proper for our liberal-democratic way of life. He recognizes that moral intuitions based on instinctual repugnance may be the product of prejudices, and he acknowledges that our system requires informed citizen participation to inspire thoughtful deliberation by elected officials. So Levin keeps one eye dry. All he asks is that, prior to addressing policy questions involving such intuitions, we not quickly bypass them in our headlong rush to decide in a detached, "scientific" manner. Genuine open-mindedness requires that we ask ourselves if there are good, if inchoate, reasons for the powerful, visceral reactions some taboos evoke, reasons that should be respected and accommodated in our policies and practices.

Of course, the fact that we are willing to discuss matters previously veiled from public view does not mean that we will discuss them well. So Levin outlines what a genuinely and morally serious political debate about science would look like.

He shines a light, for example, on the impoverished character of the debate about the use of embryonic stem cells for medical research. Neither prominent academics, who seek to obscure the moral questions raised by such research, nor legislators, who believe that individual tales of woe are sufficient to dispense with moral argument, escape Levin's incisive skewering. Though an unapologetic opponent of embryonic stem cell research, Levin has less interest in winning converts than in persuading the open-minded that such research raises serious moral questions that should not be ignored: Regardless of where one ends up on the matter, only the incurably callous would shrug at the creation and casual destruction of potential human life.

Levin will persuade thoughtful readers. Yet even accepting Levin's basic argument, his secondary case against embryonic stem cell research leaves one feeling ambivalent. Having argued that we need to heed our moral intuition, he fails to provide a compelling reason why, in the matter at hand, we should not embrace those selfsame intuitions that tell us this minuscule entity-the embryo-has nothing in common with us, and its fate should not be causing sleepless nights. Levin avoids what is, at once, the principled but wildly impolitic argument that the embryo, as potential human life, deserves the same rights as actual human beings. Instead, he limits himself to making a case for "moderation"-a muddling-through that seeks to meet the demands of our citizenry for longevity and medical progress without running afoul of our moral sense and sensibilities.

In describing our democracy's constitutional impetus for discussing all matters in a forthright manner, Levin somewhat overstates our willingness to do so:

Modern democracy may have a greater sense than any of its predecessors of the importance of separating private and public affairs, but everything deemed public (as the questions raised by modern technology have rightly been) is, at least in principle, fully discussed and exposed. For good and bad, very few things are left implicit or unspoken in a liberal democracy.

Unfortunately, this is only half true. Much as we may congratulate ourselves for our openness to any and all opinions-prizing "diversity" for its own sake-not all reflexive sentiments on things public are open to discussion by decent folk. It seems that only the sentiments of the political right have become fair game.

Insofar as "traditional morality" appears to stand in the way of our aspirations for physical well-being and medical progress, it will be under assault. Yet the capacity for unreflective moral intuition (and indignation) is alive and well in certain important realms of American life. Consider higher education. Sad to say, it is precisely in the only institution where untrammeled questioning can do no harm-where it is the indispensable means to its end-that it is least respected. Political correctness employs the means of traditional morality, especially shame, less to silence certain opinions than to make them unthinkable.

The second half of Imagining the Future offers an insightful analysis of our politics in terms of left and right, and their respective attitudes towards science-attitudes which reveal much about our contemporary political ideologies. Levin identifies our two fundamental approaches in terms of a left "anthropology of innovation" and a right "anthropology of generations."

The anthropology of innovation is hopeful and discontent, animated by a belief that things here and now can always be better, and it views its task as ushering in that change, often hand-in-hand with modern science. The anthropology of innovation views the individual and his idiosyncratic aims-whether the "pursuit of happiness" or a quest for self-actualization-as primary. Levin notes a burgeoning tension between the left's desire to use science aggressively to improve human life and its simultaneous embrace of environmentalism, which refuses to "privilege" human life and sometimes betrays an antipathy to it.

The anthropology of generations is more resigned, content, and cautious; it appreciates the society it has inherited and is mindful of its responsibility to pass the riches to future generations. Though not hostile to science, the right views it more skeptically and worries about its capacity to undermine those institutions conservatives wish to preserve. According to Levin, this skepticism extends to reason itself, and accounts for the right's affinity for tradition. For the political right, the family-along with the conditions that allow it to thrive-is fundamental.

Steven J. Lenzner is a research fellow in political philosophy at the Henry Salvatori Center of Claremont McKenna College.