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Ethics in Science - Substance or Rhetoric?

Revolutionary Changes in Understanding Man and Society


Ethics is a hot commodity - with the general public, with philosophy and with the sciences. The reason for this lies less in the increased performance of ethical reflection than in a growing lack of orientation that has embraced even the sciences, or at least our dealings with scientific results. The great interest which greeted Hans Jonas with his "Attempt at an Ethics for Technological Civilizations" (the subtitle of his book Das Prinzip Verantwortung, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1979) bears eloquent witness to the fact that the modern world needs ethics - and apparently has not yet found the right ethics.
How much ethics and which ethics does the modem world need? How much ethics and which ethics does science need - natural science just as much as the science of man and society? In the following remarks I shall deal especially with this second question (with somewhat provocative intent), and I will concentrate in an exemplary manner in particular on the relation of ethics and medicine. For in medicine all the sciences of man are connected in a very concrete manner for the future of man and society.

1. Science and Pandora's Box

The modem world is, in its structures and forms of life, the expression of the scientific and technical mind. Science - and technology, too - is everywhere today. Wherever we go in the modern world, we always find that science and technology were already there. Whatever we know, the scientific mind knows it better; whatever we do, the technical mind guides our hand. Without science and technology the world today would be uninhabitable. Science and technology, thus, are not something that we could dispense with or exchange for another, non-scientific and non-technical form of life. Those who think this is possible not only deceive themselves, they also envision a situation in which the world and mankind have lost their rational essence.

Nonetheless, science in particular has today become somewhat notorious. The ivory tower in which it resided according to traditional notions and from which it blessed the world with discoveries and insights, has lost its luster. We hope that science can lead us back to a paradise lost (naturally much better furnished than the biblical one), but we also mistrust it, ever since Mephistopheles took possession of Faust. The reason for this mistrust is however by no means simply literary or academic, but rather quite concrete. It is that the progress in which science manifests itself has no immanent standard or measure. It goes where it will. It changes our world, it orients our world, but it also leads to problems of orientation. Furthermore, scientific developments and technical developments are mutually dependent. The progress of one drives the progress of the other forward. A standard for this development is not in sight. Should there be an inner standard of science and technology, then it would be to overstep any measure. A standard or measure is always a limit or limitation. But scientific and technical rationalities define themselves precisely by the temporary nature of every limit.
It is, therefore, not the performance or the capacity to perform of scientific and technological rationalities that is called into question, but rather the "inner reasonableness" of these rationalities, that is, a standard that evaluates not only in terms of scientific and technological dynamics but also in terms of compatibility with and support of well-grounded  goals and purposes. Rationality alone, precisely in its scientific and technical form, is not a sufficient condition for a humane world. The philosophical tradition has tried to give expression to this through the distinction between reason and understanding. Understanding provides the rationality that changes the world; reason provides the normativity that guides and judges the changes according to a reasonable standard.
Realisation of this kind of standard is what is problematic today. The ways of science in research and application become harder to oversee and supervise and also become more dangerous. One indication of this is the increasing and increasingly problematical entanglement of science and law, for instance in biology and medicine. Science's intemperance with its own measure affects its results as well. We have already reached the point at which the effort needed to deal with the consequences of scientific research is no smaller than that invested in the research and in drawing the consequences. Are the consequences getting out of control? Among the consequences of scientific and technical rationality that make the world not only more hospitable but also make life in this world harder to survey and more full of problems are the following:

1)   In progress, especially in so-called technological change closely connected to scientific developments, there is no longer a recognizable subject or agent. Technological change, which belongs to the dynamic of the modern world, has to a large extent become an anonymous affair. Progress has long since become incomprehensible to the individual, it transpires behind his back. This is why it also cannot simply be stopped and why responsibilities cannot be easily and definitely ascribed. This applies in the area of ecology just as much as in that of medicine and in all other areas in which the modern world displays itself. Responsibility thus becomes responsibility in regard to developments for which in a strict sense no one is responsible. The consequence is that structures of responsibility in general are on the decline, so too, in scientific contexts.

2)    Knowledge dissolves in information. The modem world dresses itself up in communicative structures as a world of information, modem society has become an information society. This, too, creates problems. Information, though based on knowledge, increasingly puts itself in the place of knowledge. Modern man is less and less able to comprehend what is made available to him as information, to distinguish what in the medium of  information is  knowledge and what is opinion. The consequence is a loss of epistemic independence. And this means, to the extent that information grows and the knowledge that one has acquired and mastered oneself decreases, to this extent does the incomprehensibility of the scientific-technological relations in which modern man lives grow. We all become giants in information and dwarfs in knowledge.

3)    Modern societies are transformed into expertocracies. The expert becomes the symbol of a world increasingly dependent on the employment of science and technology. Only the expert seems able to connect knowledge to practice, both social and individual. But this fosters the illusion that all problems can always be solved "technically", that is, that they are the kinds of problems that fall within the jurisdiction of experts. And this is, once again, a misunderstanding. It arises when man considers himself exclusively through the mirror of a world he has created with his scientific and technological rationalities. This world however does not explain man.

4)    Alongside the appropriation of nature, which brings its own (environmental) problems, we find the appropriation of man's own nature. With the rapid development of biological research (for instance, genetic engineering) man has come into a position to change himself, that is, to do to his own nature what he has long since been doing to "external" nature. What was once considered inaccessible, is being resolved into elements that are technologically at least partially accessible through the interventions into the genetic identity of humans. Herein lies not only a completely new quality of scientific and technical progress but also an immediate threat to mankind. People can, then, be manipulated not only ideologically but also biologically. The subject and agent of progress becomes its object.

What I have described in four examples here as consequences of scientific and technological rationalities can also be expressed as the tendency of these rationalities to take on a life of their own and of mankind in this development to confront itself ever more powerfully. The world, as a scientific-technical world, a work and artefact of man, itself takes on productive characters. It works upon man, it changes his environment and it changes him. But not always for the best of mankind and its world. Even developments such as those in the areas of energy and transportation, with which the concept of progress is bound, contain ambivalent elements. The danger to the biosphere through the gradual transformation of the earth into a garbage dump and the unmistakable burdens of toxic wastes may serve as examples. In Greek antiquity Pandora's box followed Prometheus' fire. Out of Pandora's box spring all evils; only hope remains inside. Will the Greek myths be confirmed in the modern world? Unmistakably, those who believe this world is lost and hold science in particular responsible for its fate are gaining an audience and (social) influence. The Zeitgeist paints in dark colors and science is a favorite subject.
Now, I too don't want to deny that science not only solves problems but also creates them. The danger to the biosphere is among others the effect of successful scientific (and technological) rationalities (for instance fluorocarbons). However, it would be naive to believe or attempt to persuade others that an injunction on science and technology limiting their power and efficacy would suffice to direct the world into calmer waters without at the same time making it lose its rational essence. It is true that a dilemma exists today between scientific-technological progress and its consequences, between technological change and technology's impact; but it is false that this dilemma can be resolved by scientific and technological asceticism. It would be straightforwardly mistaken to think that the problems of our world, including those due to its scientific essence, could better be mastered with less science and less technology. In fact, the opposite is the case: a marked cutback of scientific research and technological development would soon make the modern world incapable of acting or reacting. The problems of this world will not stand still if we stand still; and - whether this suits one's Weltanschauung or not - these problems won't be avoided by less science and technology, but only by more science and technology - or at least made more bearable.
With this we have formulated a scientific imperative, that is, a research commandment. While obeying this commandment will not deliver us once and for all from the dilemma of research and its (unwanted) consequences, its ineffectiveness would allow our world to sink ever deeper into self-caused and other problems. Thus, hunger in a world that has no control over its population growth, on an earth whose natural carrying capacity is long since exhausted, will not be conquered by political righteousness or ideological fundamentalism, but only - at least for the time being, that is, until other means, such as enlightenment and a rational world politics have a chance to act - with more science and technology. The alternative to a prudent further development of the modern world would be pure cynicism in light of the consequences of the renunciation of such a further development, which would likely result in the death of hundreds of millions. This means: in view of the self-caused problems alone, among them toxic wastes and overpopulation, there is no real alternative to the modem world. And therefore, there is also no alternative to research and development.

2. Ethics of Science?

In this context - of a prudent further development of the modem world and a formulation of a scientific imperative - we often hear ever more pronouncedly the keyword "ethics", not only in political discussions but also in scientific discussions. A new (or old) ethics is supposed to accomplish what science itself no longer accomplishes, what it cannot accomplish at all based on the rationality that defines it. Science, itself without internal measure, leads to ethical (and other) problems, it doesn't solve them. One example of this is the interface of genetic engineering and reproductive medicine when the former is applied in human genetics. Here, as in the earlier examples (that is, anonymity of progress, information society, rule by experts, appropriation of nature including our own), scientific and technical rationalities run away from life-world orientations and their ethics. Is a new ethics of science the answer to our problems? Many today think it is. My answer, however, is: No.

We should note first that man, who takes his world in his own hands, who makes it his own work, that is, the inhabitant of the modem world, does not have fewer ethical problems than his ancestors, who had to arrange themselves with a much more natural world, but rather more. It is not only that our life-world problems do not in fact disappear when our scientific problems are solved, but that it is precisely the solutions to the scientific problems that cause new ethical ones. Such a problem, in the sense of the above mentioned appropriation of our own nature, occurs whenever the distance between man as researcher and man as object studied becomes too small and research begins to turn upon man. Informational self­ determination, reproductive medicine, genetic engineering are keywords for this diminishing distance. At the same time, it is not at all clear how long ethical boundaries that have held up till now will withstand scientific and technological developments; boundaries, for instance, between prenatal diagnosis and  its application as selectional diagnosis, between the sequencing of the human genome and its possible application, between genetic therapy and germ line therapy. In all these cases research creates problems that themselves have no scientific solutions, that cannot have purely scientific solutions. Ethics becomes the ever-longer shadow cast by science and technology in our world.

If science raises ethical problems that it cannot solve itself and (at least with regard to its consequences) is subject to evaluations  that it cannot supervise itself; if, in other words, scientific (and technical) rationality does not itself say what science (and technology) may or may not do, then apparently a standard of scientific (and technical) progress can only be a standard imposed from outside. Can a new (or old) ethics of science provide this standard?

On this point the hopes at present placed in such ethics greatly exceed the possibilities of realization. It is possible that the call for an ethics of science even leads us in the wrong direction. The reason for the negative answer indicated earlier is the following: science constitutes a special form of knowledge but not a special form of sociality with a corresponding ethics. Those who think this way not only confound the methodologically grounded rationalities of knowledge with ethically grounded social rationalities, but they are also guided by a false notion of ethics. I am referring to the notion that for all problems and all situations there is an ethical answer - indeed, the ethical answer - in other words: the notion that ethics is a discipline that in all imaginable cases puts us in a position to say what is morally justified and what is not. Such a notion is (some might say, unfortunately) misleading. It confuses ethics with a textbook and the solution of ethical problems with the application of theorems.

Ethics does not consist in the possession of such absolutes, and there can therefore not be an ethics of science as distinguished from other ethics. Furthermore, the scientist is the subject of moral claims not qua scientist but qua citizen, so that ethics is always a citizen's ethics. Ethics cannot be divided socially into a scientific ethics as special ethics for scientists, on the one side, and a non-scientific ethics as standard ethics of society, on the other. Strictly speaking, there are no closed ethical worlds in which respectively only a special ethics applies.

This caution is directed not only against exaggerated  hopes for a proper ethics of science but also against the notion that the scientist is responsible for more than the citizen. The scientist does indeed have a special responsibility insofar as the scientific mind cannot in principle be supervised by the non-scientific mind and insofar as modem society is dependent on the capabilities of the scientific mind, but this responsibility does not manifest itself in a special ethics. What is necessary, instead, is a particular ethos such as that long since practiced with social effect in the professional ethos of the physician. All rules, all norms that might be promulgated for the practice of science to strengthen its responsibility and secure its rationality would be a waste of time if such an ethos did not already exist. The freedom of science (in research and teaching) as a constitutionally protected value and in regard to the problem of responsibility  just discussed has as its prerequisite that this scientific ethos is, in general, not corrupt. And little more can be said at this point about an ethics of science.

3. Ethics and Medicine 

For a long time inquiries into the ethics of science were directed primarily at physics and biology. It was overlooked that not only the theoretical sciences but also the practical sciences immediately related to action, like medicine, are at issue here. The fact that this is not generally clear is in turn due in the case of medicine especially to the notion that medicine is an applied natural science and thus itself a theoretical science. But even the very notion is misleading. If it were right, it would mean that the ethical problems of medicine would have to be decided outside of medicine.

In connection with the question of a science ethics, what is much more important than the old question whether medicine is a science, is the structural transformation that has occurred in medicine. It is based on the increasing permeation of medical practice by science and technology - something that will not exactly be news to a radiologist. In this context, medicine has acquired dispositional power over man to an extent that was once unimaginable, and hence, what I have said about the accessibility of the nature of man in biological research also applies to medicine. Thus, in medicine, much more concretely than in other disciplines, even science­ related actions unavoidably acquire ethical dimensions. This is even the rule here, not just a borderline case. At the same time, the case of medicine makes it clear that the consequence of the increasing permeation of all areas of human life by science is not that ethical standards are dispensable but rather that they are unavoidable. The more knowledge and know-how we possess, the more urgent are orientations that cannot be provided either by knowledge or know-how. And, furthermore, a practice being transformed by science and technology will be ever less able to develop and instill such orientations in the form of practical knowledge.

A number of developments in which the researcher in medicine becomes a potential culprit, make it clear that we are dealing not just with "abstract" things of interest only to the philosopher of science. Examples of this are the disregard for patients' rights in pursuit of research, such as happened with the injection of virulent cancer cells presented as a therapy-oriented immunization test in the Chronic Disease Hospital in New York; or human embryo research, when this crosses the boundary to experiments with human life as in the case of the production of embryos for research purposes; or the already mentioned prenatal diagnosis, when diagnosis is used for selection. In all cases of this kind, but also, for example, in the case of cancer therapy where radiology often causes serious damage and where there is no technical answer to the question of which is worse, the effects of the disease or the effects of the therapy, scientific research has immediate ethical or legal implications. These arise not only because scientific knowledge in the form of basic research is applied in a problematical manner but also because, for instance in genetic research, basic research and applied research are meshed together so  that  they are  increasingly indistinguishable. For this, too, medicine is a prime example, since it not only applies the results of the biology of the gene but, in human genetics, also engages in it.

This view of things is, as a matter of fact, not restricted to the perspective of research but also holds for the perspective of the patient. The more intensive medical technology becomes, the more intensively must the physician as a person deal with the  patient. Wherever the physician disappears behind the apparatus, sickness, suffering, and healing lose their human measure and standard, the machines transfer their structures to the sick human being, who learns to consider himself even when healthy only as a well running machine. So far, medicine also retains more prominently than other scientific disciplines a remembrance of the fact that the world cannot be arbitrarily permeated with science and that the real measure of science is an ethical measure. And once again we see that, even in the case of medicine, there is in a strict sense no special ethics but only concretizations of a  general ethics, namely of the citizen's ethics, for medically relevant situations. Besides this, there is also a canon of rules for medical actions that determines not so much an ethics as an ethos in the sense explained.

4. The Future of Practical Reason 

If the remarks presented here on taking an ethical measure of science go to the heart of the matter and don't just hit the usual rhetoric, then the real problem lies not in the question whether an ethics of science is possible or not, but rather in the fact that an ethos which is indispensable in science, too, is no longer self-evidently anchored in a non-controversial universal ethics, namely the general citizen's ethics. In ethical questions as well, we no longer live in a closed world.

The dynamics of change, whose engine in the modern world is science, extends also to man and his orientational structures, including ethics. These orientations have long since ceased to be anything natural. A creature that makes its world with the help of science and technology and constantly subjects this world to changes cannot hope for or count on the naturalness of its orientations. These orientations, too, especially insofar as they are ethical, are not simply there, least of all there as part of the natural endowment of humans. They are rather "made" and they change to the extent that the modern world, the man-made world changes. In other words, to the extent that the scope of action of humans is widened by science and technology, the forms of orientation, including the ethical forms, are  also subject to developments.

Man will never get into a situation in which science finally explains everything and at the same time also creates those orientations according to which man should and can live. And this is less a disappointment than a glimmer of hope. Isays that man, without losing his modernity, can avoid his own transformation by science and thus, too, his appropriation by the world that he has made. This, then, is the real challenge to modem man presented by his world. The way to meet this challenge, however, does have something to do with ethics - with ethics not only as an authority that regulates the relations of humans among themselves and gives scientific and technological developments boundaries and measures, but also with ethics as a medium in which man and his world can once again find a unity. For this we need - according to a genuine and very concrete insight of philosophy - not theoretical but practical reason. Reason, too, not conceived as something "already there", already finished as a philosophical system or social reality.

Reason, rather, as permanent enlightenment and as the declared will to live once again in a humane world. Science and technology will be a part of this world. To imagine such a world without them would be naive and would mean wanting to return to mythic forms of life. It will, however, be science and technology within the bounds of practical reason, not in the overtaxing role of this reason itself. Idylls and science fiction lie close to each other when the measure of the world is sought not in the practical reason of man but in promises either of the simple life or of pure knowledge. This search is to be discouraged, even though reason, the production of a human world, is an infinite task. The ever renewed attempt to accomplish this task is the real conditio humana. And on this, I hope, even the scientist and the philosopher will be able to agree with all the others who today still adhere to the program of the Enlightenment, the "project of modernity".

from: J. Götschl (ed.), Revolutionary Changes in Understanding Man and Society (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1995), pp. 269-277