"Science develops too fast for morality" is described by Mary Warnock as the cliche of the 20th Century. But this cannot be correct. Morality is concerned with how we use science and where we should be putting our efforts in research. At best, the cliche can be understood to mean that scientific research throws up novel issues for consideration, but this is to make a different (and non-controversial) point. At worst, it implies that morality should be understood as an inherently subjective framework for the guidance of human conduct.
The Committee of Enquiry into Human Fertilization and Embryology was set up by the UK Government to provide advice prior to legislation relating to in vitro fertilization (IVF). Morality is concerned with what we ought to do, but it is significant that the Committee focused on legislation without making any statements about the moral obligations of researchers.
"We were not a group of 'moral experts', with particular moral authority derived from our expertise. Rather, our entitlement to propose legislation derived from the fact that we had been set up by government and that we had been given the time and resources to do so. The only other requirement was that we should all be capable of formulating and listening to arguments."
Ever since the possibility of IVF emerged in the 1970s, there have been calls for a public debate about the ethical and moral implications. Some groups with a clear moral agenda contributed to this debate, but their representations were regarded as partisan. Warnock refers to the Roman Catholic Church and its opposition to the destruction of human embryos in research. The RC Church based this view on its understanding of the sanctity of human life from its beginning. The response of the Committee was significant:
"The Church claimed a right to regulate science in this area, because of its superior knowledge of morality. In sharp contrast, the committee's entitlement to issue moral advice to ministers derived from its having been set up to do so, and from its having a wide and non-partisan membership."
The Committee recognised that claims about the sanctity of human life and the status of the human embryo presuppose an authority. This is what delivers the 'ought' to morality. Where did the Committee find its authority? Not in any metaphysical foundations, but in the warrant they had from the UK Government to give advice. Thus, their authority has been socially constructed. Their approach is tacit acknowledgement that morality per se cannot be an outworking of the scientific method.
How did Warnock's team address the crucial question of the status of the human embryo?
"One of the most difficult tasks the committee faced was to get parliament to understand that the status of the embryo in vitro was a matter not of science but of moral decision. The novelty of the embryo in vitro meant that there could be no appeal to precedent or existing moral convention or to religious laws."
What is missing here is the acknowledgement that, biologically, the single-celled embryo is a human being at its earliest stage of development. This should be a point of agreement by all who contribute to this debate, and it is worth highlighting at the outset. The status of the embryo was considered by the Committee to be a matter of "moral decision", and a decision that Society must take through its elected representatives (and those it delegates to consider the issues). "Occasionally . . . those at the interface between science and politics are called on to define moral standards for society". Thus Parliament becomes the source of moral authority - the will of government prevails.
From the above comments, it is clear that all the characteristics of postmodernism are present in the way the Committee has handled its business. The moral obligation is socially constructed through the elected representatives and quangos. Moral decisions are made by those in positions of power on behalf of the community they govern. These decisions are ultimately subjective and they could change with the social context. Appeals to external authority may be admitted to public discourse but they are quickly dismissed as "partisan" and a matter of "private morality". Determining public morality is the business of Society and Government, not God as Law-Giver.
Curiously, one element of positivistic science has crept into this essay. The description of the Committee as having a "non-partisan membership" is one that relates closely to the concept of the researcher as an impartial, objective observer of the world. However, this is a complete delusion! No one is non-partisan on issues of ethics and morality. Everyone has an agenda that they bring to the discussion.
What we have here is a vivid demonstration of the fragmentation of knowledge and research philosophy within materialistic science. Humans, with our sense of 'ought' and 'duty', just do not fit into the materialistic worldview. The problems identified by the Romanticists of the 18th Century are still with us! Materialists today seeking to address the embryo research issue have found it necessary to adopt the mindset of postmodernism. They have tacitly acknowledged that no answers will emerge from within science. They have accepted that our rulers have authority to determine public morality. History suggests that this is a dangerous strategy. We need leaders who know themselves to be accountable to a higher authority. We need an underlying epistemology of knowledge that unifies the public and private arenas of life, and integrates the natural and the social sciences.
The ethical regulation of science
Nature 450, 615 (29 November 2007) | doi:10.1038/450615a
Abstract: Occasionally science makes procedures possible that are so radical that those at the interface between science and politics are called on to define moral standards for society.
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