Morality and Modern Science

—Deepa Kylasam Iyer

Science cannot resolve moral conflicts, but it can help to more accurately frame the debates about those conflicts.
—Heinz R. Pagels

The history of mankind has been the story of an unending struggle of Man to understand himself and the world he inhabited within the limitations of his five senses. What were beyond his senses were beyond his horizon on a mysterious mystic plain. What he could not capture within the dimensions of time and space were indescribable and incomprehensible. The first seeds of religion were perhaps sown from our ignorance, limitations and fear of the unknown. The word religion itself comes from the word ‘religare’ — to bind together. Religion was an antidote to our ignorance, solace to our limitations and an explanation of our unfounded fears. We invented miracles and the sacred to explain the inexplicable. It was science that gave us the stunning power to overcome the natural limitations of our five senses. Thus began a new collective faith that gave us delayed mortality if not immortality and redefined what was sacred. From chance we moved to choice. We not only understood the origin and nature of life, but began to alter, manipulate and create life. We began to see birth and death in a new light; that is why we are grappling with Eugenics (good birth) and Euthanasia (good death) in biology today. Transhumanists believe that the new science will enable us to achieve immortality. We are in a period of transition trying to accommodate new values in our collective consciousness. It is in this context that we examine the importance of values in scientific practices.

On Ethics and Economics

The controversies surrounding the Korean Stem Cell Research and the case of tainted milk that killed hundreds of infants in China are still fresh in our memories. Our own Indian version of bio-ethical war has been waged for the humble brinjal. With the rapid strides in application of science and the founding of nanotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence and genetics, the question of ethics in science is becoming ever more relevant. In the post modern era of intense individualism, we are fast becoming media societies. Our overwhelming engagement in social dialogues through the media and the awareness of our rights are symbols of this transformation. There is a new world view with new societal paradigms. The pure mystery view of religion and the pure rational view of renaissance science have long been discarded. The new scientific spirit has brought in a degree of comfort with uncertainty, ambiguity and paradoxes. We have realized that the simplistic and reductionist approach to solve complex problems is impossible.

From this point of view, is science value free? Or is there a norm to be followed on what questions to pursue and where to stop? Ethics is not simply added as an afterthought to science. Power entails responsibility. However beneficial we think the results may be, if core values of ethics are violated the experiment has to be abandoned. By core value, what is suggested is a profound respect for all lives, especially human. There is an interesting saying in human rights that nowhere are human rights more violated than when we act purporting to do good. In our enthusiasm to bring path breaking results, we may become blind to the big picture. Unfortunately, economic interests often act against ethical interests. Money is pumped where values may not be. How do we please God and Mammon?

The Science and the Social

Science has long ceased to be an isolated activity. It is not a story written in the strange hieroglyphics of equations to be interpreted by the ordained men of an exclusive domain. The interest of science is in the interest of Man and we all share a deeply intuitive sense of connectedness with each other. Science is therefore a public enterprise whose aim is to widen Man’s intellectual horizon. It is not an individual experience but shared knowledge based on common understanding. The specific contents of science are therefore a matter of interest to all. Contrary to the common perception, the scientific community comprises men of all variety — explorers, artists, artisans, poets and philosophers. The complex decisions involving the interpretation of work, the question of which problem to pursue and when to conclude depends on the character of the scientist. When we speak about values in this context, we can only mean situational ethics based on moral relativism. Within the social space of creativity, we expect the scientist to show respect to the ethical norms based on the age old virtues of honesty, transparency and responsibility.

The True Spirit of Science

The UNESCO Constitution declares that peace must be founded upon the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind. Unbridled scientific progress cannot be accepted if values rooted in culture, law, philosophy, heritage and history are not maintained. Organisations like the International Bio-Ethics Committee (1993) encourages the scientific community to examine these questions, detect fundamental risk situations and share their ideas with the policy makers and the public at large. If the scientific community alone were to take complex decisions affecting the whole world, the credibility of science will be at stake. Throughout history, man has misused science and has unleashed many Frankenstein’s monsters. For science to direct its own path, it must first realize that it applies to the society. We must realize that as the radius of our knowledge increases, the circumference of ignorance expands too. Within our limitations, we are in a journey where there are many truths and many answers. The ability to understand this profound paradigm is the beginning of the true scientific spirit.

Science has made us Gods even before we are worthy of being men.
—Jean Rostand

About the Author
Deepa Kylasam Iyer is a writer, researcher, playwright and a poet. She has published in the anthologies of short stories and poems by the British Council, Voices Israel, Sampad and has contributed to Kritya, Muse India, Word Riot, Reading Hour, Cyclamens and Swords and VoicesNet Poetry. Her play ‘Metaphor’ was long listed for the Hindu MetroPlus Playwright Award and TFA Award 2012. She has directed plays and has acted in a Malayalam short film. Deepa is the recipient of the Chandrasekharan Medal for excellence in Arts (University of Kerala), Concour Meilleur Etudiante (Alliance Francaise) and The Young India Fellowship.

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