Sunday, December 7, 2008

Science and moral impotence

Steven Lenzner, at The Weekly Standard, reviews Yuval Levin's Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy. The cental thesis seems to be that modern science is not, as many would claim, neutral, but utopian and dismissive of moral objections. Because health and long life are the highest values — and science promises to deliver them — anything that seems to stand in the way gets shoved aside.

It is necessary to remind ourselves that, although health and long life are very good things — and medical progress has contributed enormously to both — death still comes, and that this temporal life has a context that demands much more of us than mere extended existence. "Health and wealth" have become ultimate values for many inside the Church — people who should have been taught to know better.

From the review:
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. ....

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. ....
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. [more]
PREVIEW: Biomorality

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated. I will gladly approve any comment that responds directly and politely to what has been posted.