Ethics, Science, and Power.

March 11, 2009

Today in my History of Psychology class we were discussing (or perhaps being discussed to) Neitzsche.  I’m fascinated by his view of the consequences of atheism on ethics.  So far as I can tell from Beyond Good and Evil Neitzsche* believed that when ethics meets relativism right is decided by the most powerful.   So where does this fit in with Science?  Wired published an article on the trouble of the terminology surrounding Obama’s lifting of Bush’s restrictions on stem cell research.  Phrases like Bush’s decision being a “really, really unwelcome intrusion of politics into science” proliferated in the wake of Obama’s decision.  In a democracy though, laws are ostensibly the tools of the citizens to ensure distasteful actions do not occur.

What Wired missed though was a much deeper issue.  In the penultimate paragraph Brandon Keim says this,

But there will be plenty of cases in the future when the aims of science — or, to be more precise, certain scientists — conflict with widely held values. And if the legacy of the stem cell debate is to label all conscientious objection as anti-science bias, it will be a toxic legacy indeed.

The idea that “widely held values” is enough to define morality runs into trouble not just with science (imagining how people from a hundred years ago would have viewed embryonic stem cell research might cast light on this), but also with much larger issues.  The atrocities in Rwanda were perpetrated by the majority.  We have in a situation like Rwanada a clear demonstration of the poverty of “widely held values.”

So here is my question.  Knowing that Hitler’s policies enjoyed support so wide it even surprised him.  His reaction to Krystalnacht is one demosntration of this.  Also while keeping in mind that most in Europe and the wider world did not go to war because of Hitler’s racial ideology but because of his aggressive militarism.  What would have been the case to intervene in Germany assuming they never invaded another country?

*I’ve yet to read much of it, although I’ve tried.


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