Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Science, ethics, and majoritarianism

I read with some interest President Obama's prepared remarks regarding his reversal of the Bush Administration's stem cell research policy.

Aside from the transparent preening about "restoring scientific integrity to government decision making," there's this very interesting and revealing bit:

Many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research. I understand their concerns, and we must respect their point of view.

But after much discussion, debate and reflection, the proper course has become clear. The majority of Americans - from across the political spectrum, and of all backgrounds and beliefs - have come to a consensus that we should pursue this research. That the potential it offers is great, and with proper guidelines and strict oversight, the perils can be avoided.

That is a conclusion with which I agree. That is why I am signing this Executive Order, and why I hope Congress will act on a bi-partisan basis to provide further support for this research.

With respect to science and the ethical dilemmas we might confront, what matters most of all is what the majority thinks. And how do we discern what the majority thinks? Surely the election wasn't fought on this issue, so there's no "mandate" for this. (Is there a mandate for anything other than not being George W. Bush?) And while opinion polls might--in a way that is both too casual and too easily manipulated--take the public's temperature on an issue, I would be loathe to affirm that any matter of genuine high principle should be concluded by referring to the wishes of the majority. On this matter Barack Obama seems closer to Stephen F. Douglas than to Abraham Lincoln.

The President is right about one thing. He recognizes that he is "advancing the cause of science," which he professes to recognize might reveal to us some "inconvenient truths" (to borrow a phrase from some obscure former politico). Is "the cause of science" always consistent with our moral and religious principles? This language at least leaves open the possibility that it is not:

[P]romoting science isn't just about providing resources - it is also about protecting free and open inquiry. It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it's inconvenient - especially when it's inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda - and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.

The agenda of science is supposed to trump any merely political agenda, even one presumably endorsed by a "majority." But what if the "political agenda" is based upon high principles, and the "truths" we discover are inconsistent with those principles? At the moment, President Obama seems to have one sticking point--reproductive cloning. But what if a majority of people decided that that would be just fine with them? (I'm sure some clever pollster could construct a question in a way that yields a majority in favor of reproductive cloning.) And what if some scientist--those Olympians beyond all merely democratic or republican questioning--promised a cure of some awful disease, if only we let him wander beyond the currently acceptable ethical limits? How much would we give to prolong our lives or the lives of loved ones?

Will President Obama have us choose the scientific way or the majoritarian way, if the two should happen to conflict? If you take him seriously here--a great risk, I know, but it's also, as we're learning, a great risk not to take him seriously--then I'd have to say that he'd go with science. After all, what we're talking about, he says, is "the progress of all humanity," which is no small consideration. This, he implies, is even endorsed by religion. We can avoid a "false choice" between "sound science and moral values" if only we interpret the principal goals of religion in terms of "car[ing] for each other and work[ing] to ease human suffering." If the goal of religion is, as that great political scientist Francis Bacon would have it, the "relief of man's estate," then President Obama is a Baconian "Christian." But I was persuaded a long time ago by a very fine Bacon scholar (no member of the religious right, he) that Bacon was well aware of the moral ambiguity and extraordinary heterodoxy of the project he was pursuing.

One wishes that our faux thoughtful and respectful President actually did take seriously the issues he so cavalierly and magisterially addresses.

Rick Garnett has some of the same reservations I have, and Yuval Levin demonstrates how political Obama's approach is.

Categories > Bioethics

Discussions - 4 Comments

The majority that Obama speaks of Joe is the "general will" as discerned by Enlightened philosophes like our philosopher-king president. He will lead us out of our cave of ignorance (supposedly). He pursues "free and open inquiry," while the other guys support intolerant, parochial, dogmatic, fundamentalism, narrow close-minded-ness to progress. Whoever said that scientists need to be constrained by morality and religion (except when they're doing things the philosophes don't like)?

"faux thoughtful and respectful president" -- very well said.

The liberals' idolization of science is morally illiterate.

Joe: Months before the election, I dubbed Obama a "faux-eloquent barbarian." He hasn't failed to live down to the description yet.

I had a professor once, in a class called, "Introduction to Political Science," who said we have to protect against the tyranny of the majority, which of course came from Madison's writings, but I liked the way he expressed it.

This seems to be the core of your argument.

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