Does Science Need Ethics? Reply

Last May, I was invited to give a talk on this topic at the Faith and Leadership Conference, organized by Renewal in the Spirit Community in Hong Kong.   At first, it seems like an odd question.  It is evident that science and scientists needs to be ethical in their research and their work.  One only needs to recall the haunting images of the atomic bomb explosions over Japan and the Nazi doctors forcing experimentations on concentration camp prisoners.  Science can certainly offer many important advantages to improve our lives, but if it ignores ethics, it could also be used against humanity.

However, there are several currents of thought today that question the need of ethics in science.

  1. Scientism:  This is the product of the Enlightenment that enthrones science and reason to be the new goddess.  Science can only be good and positive and is the only savior of humanity.  Therefore, society should not put any limits to science, even ethical limits!  Thus, it is not uncommon to hear scientists decrying government or churches when they voice concern on stem cell research or genetic manipulations.  Last month, when some scientists discovered a way to create a deadly flu virus that could kill millions, the government asked the journal not to publish the details of how this is done to protect the society.  Yet, some scientists felt that this was an infringement on scientific freedom!
  2. Technological powers:  Technology has been booming in the last century, resulting in many positive improvements of the human conditions.  We live longer, healthier, and more comfortable lives than our grandparents.  Yet, there is a sense that technology can also be the cause of ills—the recent meltdown of nuclear reactors, oil spillage that could not be stopped, and derailing of high speed trains makes us realize possible harms coming from technology. Yet, we feel helpless without technology, and there seem to be no turning back to an age without cell phones, internet or organ transplants.  Can technology save us or destroy us?
  3. Moral Relativism:  In place of moral truths that are objective and obligatory for everyone, the current mentality seems to exalt personal choices and freedom at the expense of moral truths. Freedom without truth means that what I desire and want becomes the measure of “my” truth and “my” morality.  This is the common slogan of the pro-choice camps but is also evident in many who see no problems with gay marriages, transgender operations, euthanasia, and eugenics selection of offspring, etc, as long as the person wants it and is comfortable with his or her decision.
  4. Transhumanism:  With these ideas, there are some radical proponents who want to recreate the human race through merging the different areas of emergent technologies like neuroscience, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, genetics screening and manipulation, stem cells and regenerative medicine to create people with higher IQ, greater strength, longer lifespan, better looks, healthier bodies, and disease free existence.  In some way, this is the logical conclusion to the train of thought developed above.

Does ethics need religion?  There was a time when religious input was essential in any ethical consideration.  However, with the rise of modernity and secular humanism, religion was considered sectarian and detrimental to the good of humanity.  After the 9-11 tragedy, there were posters with this slogan: “Science will fly you to the moon…  Religion will fly you into a building.”  Lately, there has been constant reminder in the media by different writers that science and religion, reason and faith are incompatible.  Thus, the question of whether science needs ethics is complicated with another question of which kind of ethics is needed today—secular humanistic ethics or ethics open to religious input.

On this question, it is interesting to read the comments of Pope Benedict XVI.  While he was still a cardinal, he debated with the famous philosopher secularist Jürgen Habermas.  In his dialogue, he emphasized that faith and reason needs one another, to purify one another from possible excesses.  He writes:

“We have seen that there exist pathologies in religion that are extremely dangerous and that make it necessary to see the divine light of reason as a ‘controlling organ’. Religion must continually allow itself to be purified and structured by reason…There are also pathologies of reason, although mankind in general is not as conscious of this fact today. There is a hubris of reason that is no less dangerous. This is why reason, too, must be warned to keep within its proper limits, and it must learn a willingness to listen to the great religious traditions of mankind. If it cuts itself completely adrift and rejects this willingness to learn, this relatedness, reason becomes destructive.”

As we step into this new year of 2012, we can hope and pray that scientists and ethicists will heed the advice of the pope and see that science does need ethics, and ethics that is not closed to religion or the transcendent.

Fr Joseph Tham, LC, MD, PhD

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