Science in the moral landscape

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Article Date: 
Dec 10 2012, 1239

Science plays an important and vital role in our lives. A scientist uses logic and imagination to discover patterns in nature. A scientist can help us understand what we should do to live the best possible lives. But questions such as these are often raised — does science shape human values? Do facts make people rethink some of their moral stances? Could the science determine what is right and what is wrong?
Recent reports have shed light on scientific reports that are withdrawn post-publication, most often because of data-falsification. It is a fact that, in spite of careful observation and deductive reasoning, a scientist may arrive at wrong conclusions. The chance of her/his moving away from objectivity is directly proportional to how much the new idea the scientist is pursuing deviates from the conventional idea. One consequence of the “wrong conclusion” is that some scientists add in ‘truth’ some amount of ‘construction’. Often the constructed ‘half-truth’ becomes more dangerous than complete falsehood. It is also said that the scientists, the intellectual gardeners, often “pay little attention to toads or other uninvited creatures residing among them, unless those creatures begin to munch or trample the plants.”
Sam Harris, the author of The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, believes science can help us answer questions about morality, because both science and values relate to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures. Some thinkers believe that facts and values are conceptually different. They say, “Facts are susceptible of rational investigation; values, supposedly, not.” But Harris says values too can be uncovered by science; the right values being ones that promote well-being. His advice for us is to go to the sciences that study conscious mental life, rather than going to Aristotle or Kant for our morality problems. In the absence of conscious minds, there’s no such thing as right and wrong, and good and evil. Is there a morality centre in the brain? Steven Pinker thinks there is not one centre, as our moral intuitions are not unified. Different intuitions pull us in different directions. Pinker, however, thinks that when someone is in the throes of moral deliberation, we have some inkling as to what parts of the brain are at war with each other during those moral deliberations.
Some people are not happy with the ivory tower mentality of the scientists. They say scientists only want to understand the laws of nature. They are not so much bothered about the general human affairs. This scenario was perhaps more in view in the past, when a scientific finding and its practical applications were well separated in time and space, writes Joseph Rotblat. This detachment enabled scientists to absolve themselves from responsibility for the effects their findings might have on other groups in society. The situation is now entirely different. Science has progressed so much in the past century. The first part of the twentieth century belonged to physics and chemistry, while the second part to biology. Due to the progress thus made, the relationship between science and society has changed substantially. It has brought great improvements, and also grave points in the quality of life. In this scenario the responsibilities of scientist, collectively as well as individually, needs an update. How about the oath to be taken by all scientists — I will be honest in all my scientific endeavours. I will not do anything, which in my view is to the obvious detriment of humanity.
(The writer is a biotechnologist and ED, Birla Institute of Scientific Research, Jaipur)