The Values of Science: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures 1997

By Wes Williams | Go to book overview
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Science with Scruples

George Monbiot

I feel a little presumptuous talking about the ethics of science, as I am neither a scientist nor an ethicist. But over the last few years, new developments in the life sciences have begun to exert a profound impact on my particular interests: namely, the environment and social justice. What I want to talk about this evening is the scope of scientific enquiry itself, the applications of biological research in particular, and the ways in which they both affect existing environmental and social justice issues and establish new problems all of their own.

Following, as best we can, the daily developments in what we could call "the new biology"--new directions in molecular and, in particular, genetic research--it's hard to avoid the conclusion that this work could exert as profound an effect on human society as the splitting of the atom has done. In trying to shield ourselves from the ill effects of this new science while enjoying the benefits, I believe it would be a serious mistake to wait for the possible new biotechnologies to become either feasible or available before considering the ethical questions they raise. By then, I fear, technology will have taken the ethical decisions for us. New technologies emerge because, their developers hope, people will find them useful. If they are useful, there will be demand for them; if there is demand, society's ethics will change to accommodate them. The contraceptive pill is an obvious example.

But I would also argue that we should be looking not just at the technological applications of the new biology but also at the ethics of the science itself. Some people, notably Lewis Wolpert, chair of the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science, have argued that science is "value-free," that it carries, in other words, no ethical or moral implications. It is the simple search for information and the appeasement of scientific curiosity. It acquires ethical content only when the information it provides is applied. In what follows, I shall suggest that such an analysis


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