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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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.