Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Missing Piece? The Fight for Science (and Justice)

Moral and political philosophers are concerned with how we ought to act, as both individuals and collectivity as societies. So we ask questions like: What makes an action right or wrong? What constitutes the “good life”? How should society distribute the benefits and burdens of social cooperation (like wealth, and rights and freedoms)?

As philosophers, it is not surprising that we turn to the history of philosophy to help us grapple with these timeless normative questions. So we turn to intellectual giants like Aristotle, Kant, Mill and Marx for guidance on how we can sensibly deliberate about the demands of morality and justice. More recently, moral and political philosophers have engaged (and still do) in many a spirited debate relating to John Rawls’s theory “justice as fairness”, and topical applied topics like multiculturalism, animal rights, deliberative democracy and cosmopolitanism. These are all interesting issues, topics I myself have published on and currently teach. But something vital is missing….

History is important, it can teach us a lot about ourselves and the world we have inherited. And so if we aspire to achieve wisdom (philosophy means “love of wisdom”) then we must appreciate the things we can learn from the past. But this must be tempered by a sense of proportionality. The collective wisdom of the disparate thinkers who lived centuries, even millennia, ago ought to be weighed against the “wisdom of the present”. Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that the *philosophers* of today have more wisdom than those of the past (far from it!). Rather, I mean that the general knowledge we have about our biology, knowledge that has only come to the fore in the past few years, adds incredible insights to the field of normative theorizing. Rather than just flipping through the pages of Rousseau or Plato, we need to also stay abreast of the findings of evolutionary biology, medical genetics, neuroscience and behavioural genetics (just to list some examples). For these empirical insights may prove to be much more valuable than the insights garnished from dead philosophers. I know that is hard for philosophers to believe (and swallow!), and I myself have opined that more attention should be given to the brilliance of Bentham, and the sharp insights of Marx.

But the history of Western moral and political thought is one that has, for the most part, evolved from religion or speculations into human nature. We now live in the rare and exciting times were this “veil of ignorance” is being lifted! We are beginning to see and understand how our brain works, why we age and the role genes play in things like intelligence and political behavior. Imagine if Aristotle, Hobbes or Locke were alive today. Do you think they would be flipping through the pages of philosophy journals pondering the abstract ideals of equality, or do you think they would be reading science journals and pondering the really big questions concerning the future of humanity? I reckon it would be the latter. They would be envious of the opportunities that we now have, and they would be puzzled by the snobbery and insularity of scholars who view such interdisciplinary interests and aspirations as “Philosophy-Lite”.

Perhaps you think I am being too hard on my fellow moral and political philosophers. They have an interest in science, you may say, it’s just that science does not really address fundamental issues in “political” philosophy. Hogwash! Political philosophy is concerned with the functions of government, and science policy is one of the most important activities of modern day governments. To illustrate the dire neglect of science in moral and political philosophy consider this question--- which major scientific breakthrough has had the greatest impact on the field of contemporary political philosophy- in particular, on debates concerning distributive justice? One is hard pressed to think of any. And yet, over the past two hundred years, the life expectancy of humans born on this planet has more than doubled. What caused this unprecedented and dramatic rise in life expectancy? Many things, by major contributors include medical knowledge and advances in technology. If political philosophers spent nearly half as much time pondering the importance of technological progress as they have on Rawls’s extension of his domestic theory of justice to the global arena, the discipline would be transformed in incredible and fruitful ways. But alas, I am not holding my breath that this will happen any time soon.

Just to be clear, I am not picking on Rawls, he was a great political philosopher. I am picking on us (and I include myself here, I am also guilty of this neglect!) Here is another example to illustrate my point. Rawls’s invocation of the veil if ignorance inspired a prolonged debate between “liberals and communitarians” that dominated much of political theory for the 1980’s and 1990’s. Is the self “embedded” or “unencumbered”? But what has been the real significance of this debate? Have we received a payoff proportionate to what we invested in it? No.

Rather than worry about whether or not John Rawls invokes a plausible conception of the person, shouldn’t we be much more interested in what sciences tells us about humans as a species? Advances in evolutionary biology, neuroscience and genetics are yielding new major insights into the kinds of creatures we actually are. Will we spend decades debating the consequences of these empirical findings for normative theory? I hope so, but that will only happen if we can narrow the gap between science and normative theory.

So my central point so far is this- if philosophers really “love wisdom”, then we ought to recognize the unprecedented bounty of knowledge that science now provides us with. Rather than viewing moral and political philosophy as a dialogue that occurred among the greats of the past, we should strive to connect the new empirical insights to these debates. While we may not have intellectual giants like Aristotle, Mill or Marx living among us today, what we do have is a wealth of empirical knowledge that ought to be an integral part of moral and political philosophy. No doubt some of you will still ask- “But why?” So let me come at this again from a different angle.

Moral and political philosophers should aspire to narrow the gap between science and normative theory because: (1) no other topic comes even close in terms of the important impact science has had on the wellbeing of humans; (2) these important issues have not received their fair share of attention from moral and political philosophers; and (3) if you want to teach something that will really get students excited about the relevance of moral and political philosophy to the real world, then explore the link between science and moral (be it moral psychology or applied ethics) and political philosophy (e.g. distributive justice).

The neglect of science is not unique to philosophy, in fact it permeates our culture. Today I was reading through this excellent lecture on the importance of technology. Here are a few snippets that really grabbed me:

Humankind's way of life has depended on technology since the beginning of civilization. It can indeed be argued that civilization began when humans first used technologies, moving beyond the merely instinctual and into an era when people began to impose themselves on their environment, going beyond mere existence, to a way of life which enabled them to take increasing advantage of their intellect.

....My contention is that technology is sidelined and undervalued - we become defensive about it and would rather retreat into the past, or into fundamental science, than to strive to stay in the race. The cost of this major social failure will progressively disadvantage all of us. Technology is determining the future of the human race. We need it to satisfy our appetite for energy, perhaps through nuclear power; to help us address hunger through plant breeding throughout the world; to monitor and find the means for avoiding global warming so that we can rescue our planet for future generations. Technology can improve our health, and lengthen our lives. I want this lecture series to act as a wake up call to all of us. Technology, I repeat, will determine the future of the human race. We should recognise this and give it the profile and status that it deserves.

....I have found that the possession of an understanding of technology, just as with an understanding of music, literature, or the arts, brings with it great personal satisfaction and pleasure. I still pause to wonder at the achievements of humankind, for example, when I am flying in comfort at 40,000 feet and look down on the white caps and spume of a turbulent sea so far distant below me, and realize the difficulties there were in crossing it only a couple of lifetimes ago. I know that I can safely drink the water that runs out of the tap in the majority of places I visit in the world, and can talk with my family or even hold in my hand a real-time picture of them wherever I am. How remarkable it is to gaze up at the moon and the planets and realise that we have already walked on that great sphere and have sent intelligent machines to those planets, even to their satellites, and received high-quality pictures and data from those remote surfaces.

My appreciation is all the greater because I know enough to realise how difficult it has been to accomplish these things, enough in fact to know how little - after a lifetime in science and technology - I actually know myself. I sometimes play the game of wondering how much I would be able to recreate if by some cataclysmic disaster I were to be the only person left with knowledge of how these wonders were accomplished. I am afraid that it would only be a small and specialized fraction of electronics.

At one stage of the lecture reference is made to this survey which took place in the UK a few years back. When asked what the most significant innovation of the past two centuries was, the general public chose... are you ready for this?... not the sanitation revolution, not antibiotics or the computer or the automobile, but... the bike. Furthermore, GM food -which could help alleviate global poverty- was chosen as the top innovation they wish we would “disinvent”.

If this is not proof of the need for philosophers to jump on board and join the intellectual battle against dogma and ignorance then I don’t know what is. The stakes in these debates are so high, and the champions of reason and reality so few, there is perhaps no other cause more in need of sympathetic allies that the battle for science. I don’t want my children to inherit a culture that celebrates riding bikes over having access to clean drinking water, antibiotics or genetically modified crops. Won’t you please consider joining the fight for science (and justice)?