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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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.