What are the points of contract between science and and morals?
At first glance there seem to be none, beyond the internal morality of being true to the standards of science itself. The sole aim of science is knowledge, its sole business the pursuit of it.
This clearly defined purpose imposes its own code of conduct which can be called the territorial morals of the scientific realm: Abiding by the rules of method and evidence, being rigorous and intellectually honest. These virtues are conditions of good science and imply no commitment beyond it. So considered, science constitutes a moral island by itself.
But is this the whole truth? Something like it was true so long as the contemplative sphere were cleanly separate (as they were in pre-modern times), and pure theory did not intervene in the practical affairs of men. Knowledge could then be considered a private matter of the knower. Being merely a state of his mind, it could do no harm to the good of others, as it sought only to comprehend and not to change the state of things.
However, the rise of natural science at the beginning of the modern age changed the traditional relation of theory pay homage to the indignity of "knowledge for its own sake." But it would be hypocritical to deny that in fact the emphasis in the case for science has heavily shifted to its practical benefits.
From the Industrial Revolution onward, there was an increasingly irresistible spill-over from theory, however pure into the vulgar field of practice in the shape of scientific technology. In the early 17th Century, Francis Bacon had precociously directed science to aim at power over nature for the sake of raising man's material estate. But it was more than 100 years later that his charge belatedly and almost suddenly became working truth beyond all expectation.
Therewith, the subject of "science and morals" begins in earnest. For whatever of human doing impinges on the external world and thus on the welfare of others is subject to moral assessment. As soon as there is power and its use, morality is involved.
The very praise of the benefits of science exposes science to the question of whether all of its works are beneficial. It is then no longer a question of good or bad science, but of good or ill effects of science (and only "good science" can be effectual at all. If technology, the offspring, has its dark sides is science, the progenitor, to blame?
The simplistic answer is that the scientist, having no control over the application of his theoretical findings, is not responsible for their misuse. His product is knowledge and nothing else: Its use-potential is there for others to take or leave to exploit for good or evil, for serious or frivolous ends. Science itself is innocent and somehow beyond good and evil.
Plausible, but too easy.
The soul-searching of atomic scientists after Hiroshima tells as much. We must take a closer look at how theory and practice are interlocked in the way science is nowadays actually "done" and essentially must be done. We shall then see that not only have the boundaries between theory and practice become blurred, but the two are not fused in the very heart of science itself. The ancient alibi of pure theory and with it the moral immunity it provided thus no longer hold.
The first observation is that no branch of science remains in which discoveries do not have some technological applicability. The only exception I can think of is cosmology. Every untravelling of nature by science now invites some translation of itself into some technological possibility or other, often even starting off a whole technology not conceived of before.
If this were all, the theoretician might still defend his sancturay this side of the step into action: "That threshold is crossed after my work is done and, as far as I am concerned, could as well be left uncrossed." But he would be wrong. What is the true relationship?
First, much of science now lives on the intellectual feedback from precisely its technological application.
Second, science receives from technology its assignments: In what direction to search, what problems to solve.
Third, for solving these problems, and generally for its own advance, science uses advanced technology itself: Its physical tools become ever more demanding. In this sense, even purest science now has a stake in technology, as technology has in science.
Fourth, the cost of those physical tools and of the staff to use them must be underwritten from outside. The mere economics of the case calls in the public purse or other sponsorship; and this funding of the scientist's project (even with "no strings attached"), is naturally given in the expectation of some future return in the practical sphere. There is mutual understanding on this. The anticipated payoff is put forward unashamedly as the recommending rationate in seeking grants or is specified outright as the purpose in offering them.
In sum, science has its tasks increasingly set by extraneous interests rather than its own internal logic or the free curiosity of the investigator. This is not a disparage those extraneous interests nor the fact that science has become their servant, that is, part of the social enterprise. But it is to say that the acceptance of this functional role (without which were would be neither science of the advanced type we have nor the type of society living by its fruits) has destroyed the alibi of pure, disinterested theory.It has put science squarely in the realm of social action where every agent is a accountable for his deeds.
Even that is not all. The involvement of scientific discovery with action goes beyond its eventual application. How does the scientist get this knowledge?
Through most of the history of the theoretical endeavor - from the Greeks to the beginning of the 17th Century - the seekers after truth had no need to dirty their hands. Of this noble breed, the mathematician is the sole survivor. Modern natural science arose with the decision to wrest knowledge from nature by actively operating on it, that is, by intervening in the objects of knowledge. The name for this intervention is "experiment," vital to all modern science. Observation here involves manipulation.
Now, the grant of freedom to thought and speech, from which freedom of inquiry derives, does not cover action. Action always was, and remains, subject to legal and moral restraints. Originally, experimentation kept to inanimate matter and to small-scale models in the laboratory, which still secured some insulation of the cognitive arena from the real world. But experiments nowadays can be ambiguous. An atomic explosion, be it merely done for the sake of theory, affects the whole atmosphere and possibly many lives now or later. The world itself has become the laboratory.
One finds out by doing in earnest what, having found out, one might wish not to have done. Moreover, the younger life sciences have extended the aggressive methods of physics to animate matter, and experimentation on living things inevitably deals with the original, not with substitutes: Here, ethical neutrality ceases at the latest when it comes to human subjects. What is done to them is a real deed.
"The interest of knowledge," cannot be used as a blanket warrant for the morality of such deeds. In short, the very means of "getting to know" may raise moral questiions before the question of how to use the knowledge poses itself.
From both ends therefore - that of its technical fruits and that of its methods of producing them - modern science finds itself exposed to the winds of ethical challenge.