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Science and EthicsReview - Science and Ethics
Can Science Help Us Make Wise Moral Judgments?
by Paul Kurtz (Editor)
Prometheus, 2007
Review by Eyja M. Brynjarsdóttir, Ph.D.
Dec 18th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 51)

What, if anything, does science have to contribute to morality? Is it ever worth the effort to look to science in our search for answers to moral dilemmas? The goal of this anthology is not only to give affirmative answers to these questions, but to explain how and why. This is done from a secular humanist perspective; the editor, Paul Kurtz, is the founder and chairman of the Council for Secular Humanism, and many of the authors write as humanists as well. Several of the papers in the book have previously appeared in Free Inquiry, a bi-monthly publication of the Council for Secular Humanism edited by Kurtz. The book covers a variety of issues, ranging from accounts of biological processes to abstract philosophical arguments. While most of the contributors are philosophers, some of the papers are written by scientists who offer their insights.

The questions raised in the beginning can be understood in different ways and answered accordingly. One way to construe them is to ask whether science can give us useful information on which to base our moral decisions. If informed moral decisions are better than uninformed, and if science does yield information, it seems inevitable that the answer is yes for the relevant cases. The bulk of the first six sections of the book is dedicated to illustrating this.

Sections I and II are about bioethics and stem cell research.  The papers by Ronald A. Lindsay, David J. Triggle, Berit Brogaard, and Richard T. & Elain M. Hull, can all be construed as support for allowing stem cell research. Lindsay and Triggle both present arguments with that aim, and Brogaard gives an account of the so-called twinning argument which is directed at one particular objection to stem cell research. Hull & Hull give a scientific overview of the process from fertilization to blastocyst and argue that the scientific evidence is in favor of stem cell research. The only dissenter is Don Marquis who presents an argument from a secular perspective against stem cell research. While Marin Gillis does not take a side in the matter of whether stem cell research is justified, she argues that counter to what is commonly held, a woman's autonomy over her body is relevant to stem cell research, just as it is to abortion. There is also a short interview with Arthur Caplan about the main issues in bioethics. Caplan expresses support for therapeutic cloning as well as several forms of genetic research. Paul Kurtz's contribution to this part of the book is to make a case for the freedom of scientific research. His discussion is of science in general and does not cover genetic research specifically.

Section III, Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, contains two papers. In the first, Kurtz discusses euthanasia in the context of personal autonomy and the right to privacy and defends some forms of it as a legitimate personal choice of the patient. In the second paper, John Shook criticizes the terminological distinctions widely adopted regarding euthanasia and suggests some different terms. He goes through AMA's stand on euthanasia in which passive euthanasia is accepted while active euthanasia is denounced and argues that it is inconsistent.

The fourth section is entitled "Organ transplants, sexuality, and human enhancement" and as the title suggests it covers quite a wide topic range. James Stacey Taylor argues that the Argument from Economic Coercion, a central argument against organ sales, is unsuccessful. He concludes that kidney markets should be allowed. Vern L. Bullough covers a list of topics within the realm of sex and gender, such as circumcision, children born with ambiguous genitalia, transsexual surgery, and contraception, and explains how they create problems to which medical ethics applies. And James Hughes argues that the spirit of humanism entails that it is personhood, and not biological humanness, that counts in moral matters.

Section V is dedicated to capital punishment. Richard Taylor writes in opposition to the death penalty and to the more general "getting tough on crime" approach. He suggests some alternative stragies for dealing with criminals that he finds more promising. Ted Goertzel criticizes the use of econometrics in assessing the relation of murder rate to capital punishment and argues that what research really shows is that capital punishment has not deterred homicide.

Section VI, Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, begins with an exchange between Thomas Szasz and Derek Bolton about the reality of mental illness. Szasz, known for his views about mental illness being a myth, argues that secular humanism is incompatible with psychiatry. As Bolton points out in his response, the root can be found in Szasz's definition of humanism as a rejection of authoritarianism and his definition of psychiatry, according to which psychiatry involves coercion. Given these definitions, the conclusion follows. However, Bolton expresses doubts about the definitions and argues that things are more complex. Scott O. Lilienfeld makes the claim that there is insufficient connection between mental health practice and the underlying scienctific research and that as a result, mental health practitioners are prone to adopting pseudo-scientific treatment methods. Barry L. Beyerstein argues in a similar vein in his discussion of fringe psychotherapies.

In the last third of the book, the question posed at the beginning is addressed from another point of view.  The question is now whether science and morality belong to separate realms. Are they unrelated phenomena? Can we ever derive moral knowledge from facts? If values do not have a religious basis and there is nothing but the natural world, then where do values fit in?

In sections VII and VIII,  entitled "Science, Religion, and Ethics" and "Naturalistic Ethics", Stephen Jay Gould's idea of nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA) is much discussed. According to Gould's idea, science is a magisterium that covers the empirical while religion forms another magisterium covering matters of meaning and value. The two magisteria do not overlap.  In his paper, Fred Wilson adopts a modified version of Gouldn's NOMA; one with a magisterium of science and magisterium of value but no place for religion. The paper by Christopher diCarlo and John Teehan, as well as Kurtz's paper on this topic, suggests, on the other hand, that there is a connection between science and morality. Kurtz considers Gould's division misguided. Kurtz rejects religion, and thinks values belong with science in the natural sphere, all there is. DiCarlo and Teehan do not address religion specifically but argue for a strong connection between science and moral values. Laura Purdy argues on a related note that ethics is a matter for scientific exploration; she proposes a scientific ethics. Similarly, William A. Rottshaefer makes a case for a scientific naturalistic ethics.

Tom Flynn's topic is standards for justification of ethical judgments. He argues that we should go along with the view of William Clifford, that a belief without evidence is not justified. This should hold for ethical beliefs as well. 

In the ninth and final section, Donald B. Calne argues that science and morality share the same evolutionary origins and that they should not be considered separate and independent from each other. David R. Koepsell discusses the methodology proposed in the works of Carl Menger and his heritage as a potential basis for social sciences. And, finally, Susan Haack explores attitudes to science and the ideal approach to finding a balanced way between the scientistic and the antiscientific.

Science and Ethics succeeds in giving the reader a good overview of a fairly wide range of issues where science is relevant to morality. This wide-ranging view does, however, come at the cost of depth; most of the papers (with a couple of exceptions) are much too short for the construction of a probing philosophical argument. The quality of the selected papers is somewhat uneven. Some of the authors present their positions convincingly and well supported by arguments (given the forementioned space limitations) while others seem less concerned with evidential support.

The book shows some signs of having been rushed through publication. There is no index of key terms at the end.  In one of the papers, by Goertzel, there are a few graphs to which the text refers in as fig. 1, 2, and 3. The problem is that close scrutiny is required in order to understand which figure is which as they are not labeled, and do not appear in the order corresponding to the numbers.

The conclusion is that while this book is in some respects lacking, it is well worth a look for someone who wishes to get acquainted with this highly important topic.

© 2007 Eyja M. Brynjarsdóttir

Eyja M. Brynjarsdóttir, Ph.D., University of Iceland

 

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