Moral values and the march of science
All law in some sense teaches and forms us, while also regulating our behaviour. The same applies to our public policies, including the ones that govern our scientific research. There is no such thing as morally neutral legislation or morally neutral public policy. Every law is the public expression of what somebody thinks we "ought" to do. The question that matters is this: Which moral convictions of which somebodies are going to shape our country's political and cultural future - including the way we do our science?
The answer is pretty obvious: if you and I as citizens don't do the shaping, then somebody else will. That is the nature of a democracy. A healthy democracy depends on people of conviction working hard to advance their ideas in the public square - respectfully and peacefully, but vigorously and without apologies.
Politics always involves the exercise of power in the pursuit of somebody's idea of the common good. And politics always and naturally involves the imposition of somebody's values on the public at large. So if a citizen fails to bring his moral beliefs into our country's political conversation, if he fails to work for them publicly and energetically, then the only thing he ensures is the defeat of his own beliefs.
We also need to remember that most people - not everyone, of course, but most of us - root our moral convictions in our religious beliefs. What we believe about God shapes what we think about the nature of men and women, the structure of good human relationships, and our idea of a just society. This has very practical consequences, including the political kind. We act on what we really believe. If we don't act on our beliefs, then we don't really believe them.
As a result, the idea that the "separation of Church and state" should force us to exclude our religious beliefs from guiding our political behaviour makes no sense at all, even superficially. If we don't remain true in our public actions to what we claim to believe in our personal lives, then we only deceive ourselves. Because God certainly isn't fooled. He sees who and what we are. God sees that our duplicity is really a kind of cowardice, and our lack of courage does a lot more damage than simply wounding our own integrity. It also saps the courage of other good people who really do try to publicly witness what they believe. And that compounds a sin of dishonesty with a sin of injustice.
As these concerns are especially pertinent to scientific progress, here let me present some thoughts from two very different sources. Here's the first source:
"Science, by itself, cannot establish the ends to which it is put. Science can discover vaccines and cures for diseases, but it can also create infectious agents; it can uncover the physics of semiconductors, but also the physics of the hydrogen bomb. Science [as] science is indifferent to whether data are gathered under rules that scrupulously protect the interest of human research subjects ... [or by] bending the rules or ignoring them altogether. A number of the Nazi doctors who injected concentration camp victims with infectious agents or tortured prisoners by freezing or burning them to death were in fact legitimate scientists who gathered real data that could potentially be put to good use."
The same source goes on to worry that, "today, many of the bio-ethicists who claim to counsel and guide the moral course of American science "have become nothing more than sophisticated (and sophistic) justifiers of whatever it is the scientific community wants. ... In any discussion of cloning, stem-cell research, gene-line engineering and the like, it is usually the professional bioethicist who can be relied on to take the most permissive position of anyone in the room."
Now, from my second source:
"What is our contemporary idiocy? What is the enemy within the [human] city? If I had to give it a name, I...
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