As preface to what follows, a personal word seems appropriate. I am an ethicist by trade, but, in fact, over the past six or eight years, I have been a sort of intellectual gypsy. My work has taken me down strange halls of the university filled with the odors of formaldehyde, into concrete caverns inhabited by beasts of technology as large as nuclear reactors and as small as plasma beams. It has flung me into the company of students of engineering whose slide rules joggle at their belts and whose minds buzz with mathematical formulae that I will never understand. In it all, I have had to confess my sense of being a kindred spirit to Sir Geoffrey Vickers, who begins his book, The Art of Judgment, saying that he has borrowed knowledge from so many other disciplines during his life that he feels like the dogs who eat of the crumbs which fall from the rich mans table; and in these days, he adds, when the rich in knowledge eat such specialized food at such separate tables, only the dogs have a chance of a balanced diet.¹
So, in quest of a balanced diet, this particular ethicist has consorted in recent years with scientists, engineers, and their like in the universities of North Carolina. From them I have learned more than I have taught in return. Indeed, for ethicists and other humanists, it is hard to make the books balance in that respect. The physicist will always be able to teach me something about his subject. I may not be able to add to his knowledge of ethics at all: in some realms of his ethical consciousness, he may be able to add much to my own. Aristotle knew the dilemma well: it is hard, he said, for any man to be accounted an expert in ethics, for all men think they know something about the subject. Indeed they do, and ethicists must be ready to accept the unequal terms of that trade; for, though few physicists wish for a world in which all men are physicists, every ethicist must wish for a world in which all are ethical.
What then can he contribute to a discussion of the future of a human civilization which is increasingly freighted with the blessings and the burdens of science and technology? Not, I think, a pontifical definition of the human values which should be joined to the technology of our time. Socrates had a better system, whereby he encouraged men from many walks of life to reflect on the values which they did in fact affirm without always being conscious of them. Having raised their consciousness of their values, Socrates was content to have assisted his colleagues in defining the terms of the choice between values. That is all that I want to do here; for, not only is the maieutic method an honorable tradition in ethics, but the more I company with scientists and engineers the more I feel confident that we are together the creators of our much-needed guiding vision of a desirable future. The phrase is Dennis Gabors—from a book he wrote in 1963. In that book he calls upon the clerks—the writers and philosophers of our time—to get their heads out of the sands of the past and to point out a way into the future that differs from the past.² I am all sympathy for that exhortation; but I am even more sympathetic to the project of some joint discerning of that guiding vision. That is my one last confession in this personal preface: that few of the questions which challenge my thinking now as a twentieth-century man are questions which I can answer on the basis of my thinking alone. All the important questions call for colleagueship among the specialists. All of us, when we are honest about the matter, are hungry for a balanced diet. …
¹ The Art of Judgment: A Study of Policy Making (New York: Basie Books, 1965), p. 11.
² Dennis Gabor, Inventing the Future (London: Seeker & Warburg, 1963), p. 182.
Donald W. Shriver, Jr., until recently associate professor of religion and director of the University Program on Science and Society at North Carolina State University, is professor of ethics and society at Emory University.
Technology and Values: New Ethical Issues Raised by Technological Progress by Harvey Brooks
While a discussion of the origin and evolution of social and ethical values is beyond the scope of this paper, it is impossible to deal with the impact of technology on values without some assumptions as to the social function of values. In this regard I tend to adopt a rather pragmatic approach. I believe that the formation of value systems is an adaptation which enhances the survival of the social entities in which the individual claims membership. In this respect, values are the product of a cultural evolution, and result from natural selection through social and economic processes in much the way that the biological characteristics of species result from natural selection acting on variations in genetic constitution. What makes cultural evolution more complicated is that it is partly conscious and partly unconscious. Values are transmitted culturally, especially in the process of socialization of children, and this process is analogous to genetic inheritance. Different sets of values have different survival value both for the individual in his social milieu and for the social entity of which he is a part. Values change both because the physical environment of the society changes and because of social units in which individuals have partial membership change. The first of these processes of change has an analog in biological evolution, but the second is more unique to cultural evolution. A biological individual belongs to only one species, but a cultural individual belongs to many different social entities simultaneously, and this plurality of membership, plus the size and inclusiveness of the membership group, is characteristic of advanced societies. …
Harvey Brooks is dean of engineering and applied physics at Harvard University.
The Ethics of Nature and Nurture by Van Rensselaer Potter
In 1962 I was invited to participate in a celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of the Morrill Act, which established the land-grant colleges. I chose as my theme The Concept of Human Progress and spent most of my allotted time arguing two main points: first, that progress is not inevitable, and second, that widely held concepts of human progress will have to be drastically revised if humanity is to survive. This essay was my first step in a series that finally led to the publication of a small volume in which the new hope for a bridge to the future crystallized in a word—bioethics.¹ In my innocence, it never occurred to me that the concept of progress was inherently fictional, if not actually sinful, in the minds of many scholars who had devoted a great deal of thought to the subject. I never doubted the validity of the concept as a goal, it was just that I assumed that there were several kinds of progress and that all of them came at a price. My acquaintance with the concept grew out of my training as a biologist and also from a fortuitous purchase in 1958 of a secondhand copy of Darwins Origin of Species (6th edition) at Blackwells. In his conclusion Darwin commented that since no cataclysm has desolated the whole world … we may look with some confidence to a secure future of great length. And, he continued, as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being [surely an exaggeration], all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection. As Darwin contemplated the future, he saw a world in which a grand and almost untrodden field of inquiry will be opened, on the causes and laws of variation, on correlation, on the effects of use and disuse, on the direct action of external conditions, and so forth. In this one sentence we can see the germ of the whole subject of nature and nurture, the two forces that must be reckoned with if humanity is to survive and progress. Darwin never doubted either survival or progress for mankind. Today we are sure of neither, and thoughtful individuals everywhere are earnestly convening in search of answers. With the interjection of the issue of survival, the old question takes on a new urgency. We no longer can ask merely which is more important, nature or nurture? Today, we are impelled to inquire what ought we to do, or what must we do to survive? Thus the question becomes an ethical one, and we are confronted with an old question in a new frame: the moral decisions of ethics seen in the light of the facts of nature and nurture, which is what I believe bioethics is all about. …
¹ Van Rensselaer Potter, Bioethics: Bridge to the Future (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971).
Van Rensselaer Potter is professor of oncology, McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research, University of Wisconsin.
Human Values and the Technology of Weapons by Bernard T. Feld
Within my own lifetime, I have witnessed a profound revolution in the pace of technological innovation not only in the realm of weaponry but in almost all aspects of the application of science to societal problems. Not only the intensity of wars but the consumption of electrical power for the production of civilian goods, the number of automobiles in use, the spread of worldwide communication via radio and television, the production of synthetic materials in clothing, the use of disposable bottles for soft and hard drinks—all these amenities of contemporary civilization, and many others, have been growing inexorably at a constant rate. In fact, the majority of the attributes of modern civilization—at least those so regarded by the inhabitants of the so-called developed world—from lethal weapons to TV dinners, have been doubling themselves every ten years or so. (This rate of growth, though it sounds impressive, corresponds to only about a 7 percent annual growth rate, which is certainly not all that far from what has been happening in most industrialized countries since the end of World War I except for a short interruption, of some five to eight years, during the depression of the twenties.) …
Bernard T. Feld is professor of physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and president of the Council for a Livable World.
The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science: A Twenty-Year View by Ralph Wendell Burhoe
The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (IRAS) provides a channel of communication between the religious community of our society and its scientific community. It recognizes the essential roles of both religion and science, but regards the chasm that separates religious and scientific thinking as one of the most serious weaknesses of our culture. …
Ralph Wendell Burhoe is research professor in theology and the sciences, Meadville/Lombard Theological School, Chicago.