Friday, October 08, 2021

Science and Political Theory (Narrowing the gap)

The most recent pandemic, coupled with the rapid rise of "non-ideal" theory in political philosophy/theory, will hopefully convince normative theorists that science and science-policy ought to be a the forefront of our theorizing (vs virtually non-existent, which has been the norm for too long).  No other area of public policy decision-making will have as profound an impact on the health, wealth and happiness of human populations this century as science policy.  

My personal journey down this path started in the year 2000, when the race to sequence the human genome captured my curiosity and imagination.  Tackling these topics in this way was (and continues to be) very challenging as very few scholars in the field were receptive to non-ideal theory at the time.  Taking seriously real-world empirical facts like population aging, multi-morbidity, and the ultimate and proximate causation of disease are still a stretch for many of my colleagues who have only recently come to expand the scope of their theorizing the moral landscape to take seriously globalization, colonialism, racism, climate change, and patriarchy.  But novel insights from the biological sciences remain outside the discipline's purview.  And this is very unfortunate.   

Here are a few details of the evolution of my intellectual journey into this domain, a journey that started over 20 years ago, and still has so far to go!

From the Introduction to Biologically Modified Justice:

As I began to follow the field of human genetics, and to think about the importance of science more generally, I realized that there was very little written by political theorists on these topics. Over the years the neglect of science, especially the biomedical sciences, began to trouble me more and more. It troubled me both as a teacher and as a scholar.  As a teacher I found it disturbing that my students learned about topics such as justice, freedom, and equality but do not really learn about the important role science and innovation play in helping humanity create more fair and humane societies. Current debates about distributive justice often give students the impression that justice only involves the distribution of wealth and income, or giving priority to basic liberties like free speech. But government decisions to stifle or promote basic and applied scientific research can also have profound impacts on our life prospects. What constitutes well-ordered science? Would we know unjust science policies when we see them? Neglecting these issues comes with great peril, as many of the most pressing challenges humanity faces this century will require new knowledge and innovation.

The divide between theoretical discussions of justice and the topics of science and science policy also troubled me as a scholar. My plans to write a book on genetics and justice were stifled and continually delayed by the fact that these issues do not fit neatly into the theoretical positions and discussions that have dominated debates in political theory for the past four decades. Most theorists presuppose that justice requires us to distribute things external to us (e.g. wealth, education, legal rights, etc.).  So how could we make sense of the idea of extending the domain of justice to include the distribution of things internal to our own biology, like our genes?

.Rather than opting for an add genetics and stir approach, I decided to start afresh, and to use the genetic revolution as a way of bringing to the fore some methodological concerns which I believe theorists ought to give more consideration to. Hence I ended up opting for a contextual approach. This approach takes human biology seriously (e.g. our susceptibility to different kinds of disease), and draws the theorists attention (rather than blinding her) to a number of relevant considerations ( public funding available for basic research).

.The intellectual gulf that exists between the humanities/social sciences and the natural sciences should be particularly troubling to political theorists.  Historically, the seminal works in political theory took seriously empirical insights from diverse disciplines. What would Aristotles contribution to political theory be, for example, if he cared little about the relevance of insights from biology? Or imagine what the state of political theory would be if Thomas Hobbes or John Locke expressed indifference to, rather than excitement about and engagement with, the scientific revolution of their day.