Magazine article UNESCO Courier

A New Ethical Outlook

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

A New Ethical Outlook

Article excerpt

A new ethical outlook

"SCIENCE without conscience spells the ruin of the soul". Much water has flowed under the bridges of history and science since Francois Rabelais wrote those premonitory words in the early sixteenth century. The author of Pantagruel can scarcely have imagined the extremes to which the moral contradiction that he so shrewdly pinpointed has been taken in our own century. In Rabelais' time, the dawn had hardly broken on what was to become in the ensuing centuries the dazzling sun of modern experimental science. And nobody--except perhaps Leonardo da Vinci, with his prophetic vision--could when have suspected the extent to which the world would be conquered by science and technology and the promise of a radiant future which they hold out, still less the dangers that might loom for mankind as the result of so exhilarating an enterprise.

The result is plain for us to see. Never before, until now, has the tension between science and the human conscience, between technology and ethics, reached a point where it has become a threat to the world as a whole. Molecular genetics and nuclear energy, to cite only two outstanding examples, can, depending on how they are used, generate great benefits or wreak great havoc. It all depends on the use to which scientific knowledge is put and on whether it is applied correctly or incorrectly. For instance, so-called "industrial civilization", which has in so many respects been beneficial to mankind, can, when economic criteria alone prevail, adversely affect that precious entity known as the environment, which people were scarcely conscious of only a few decades ago.

This is the other side--the one we are reluctant to contemplate--of the gleaming coin of progress. We are so dazzled that we do not perceive the threats hanging over our heads, warning us of the pressing need for a radically new and universal ethical outlook on the future of present-day science. We have to bear in mind the negative aspects, the dark underside of science which appears when its applications are at variance with profound and far-reaching cultural requirements, when basic human needs in keeping with the principles of equity are disregarded, or when science is not regulated as it should be by the interests of society. Although science and technology can contribute to wisdom, it would be very dangerous if they were to try to supplant it. Bertrand Russell made that point perfectly clear when he wrote that thanks to science and technology, mankind is united in evil but not yet united for good; that people have learnt the technique of mutual destruction, but not the more desirable technique of worldwide cooperation. Russell believed that wisdom becomes increasingly necessary with every advance in knowledge and technology, and that although our age has surpassed all others in knowledge, it has not enjoyed a correlative increase in wisdom; and he called for a "new moral outlook".

Without such a new moral outlook, the wholesale slaughter that threatens us could become inevitable. Whence the need for a scientific revolution which can take place when knowledge acts as a counterweight to power instead of being subordinated to it. Today, knowledge is increasingly becoming a prop for power, and science is unduly subservient to force--whereas it should work exclusively in the service of reason. …

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