TCS Daily

The Return of Scientism

By Iain Murray - September 6, 2002 12:00 AM

When Shahana and Raj Hashmi discovered that their two year-old son, Zain, had the fatal genetic disorder thalassaemia, they applied to the United Kingdom's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) for permission to create a "designer baby." They would fertilize several embryos, and then choose from them one that would be a match for tissue donation to Zain, but which did not suffer from the same disease. Permission was granted. This gave hope to the parents of Charlie Whitaker, who suffers from Diamond-Blackfan anaemia, that a designer baby would help ease their child's suffering too.

Yet the HFEA rejected their request, on the grounds that it would be "unethical." Why? Because Zain Hashmi's disease was genetic, while Charlie's was not, being the product of random mutation. The Hasmis might produce another baby suffering from thalassaemia and so therefore it was ethical for them to screen embryos for the disease. The Whitakers, on the other hand, would almost certainly have a normal baby, and so screening was regarded as unethical. The HFEA allowed the Hashmis to indulge in tissue-matching, and therefore the designer baby creation, as a "freebie."

This may appear to be an arbitrary rule, but the author of much of the United Kingdom's body of reproductive regulations and the founding mother of the HFEA, Baroness Mary Warnock, does not think so. In her latest publication, "Making Babies. Is there a right to have children?" published in the UK by Oxford University Press, she is quite clear that, in the journalist Mary Kenny's words, "the notion of a universal moral law is obsolete: we take our moral laws today from science, and the state."

This is an odd, somewhat primitive position for such an eminent philosopher (Lady Warnock is 78 and the former Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge). At its heart is the idea that science - the investigation of what is - can tell us what we ought to do. Ever since David Hume's "Treatise of Human Nature" we have been aware that there is a distinction of some sort between "is" and "ought." It is the role of moral philosophy to examine that distinction and guide us to how we can move from the "is" to the "ought." In other words, presented with a case like Charlie Whitaker's, what should we do?

This is a difficult philosophical question. If we do not accept much difference between the "is" and the "ought," then we can read the solution simply from the facts. Either Charlie is doomed to die, or, alternatively, because his family can produce the designer baby, they should. If, on the other hand, we decide that "is" and "ought" are separated such that values are removed from the physical world, we reach the level of simple decision, where mitigating circumstances are not taken into account. By accepting, as most philosophers do, that "ought" and "is" weave together, then we can see that a situation demands special action. At the same time we also see that reflection on moral and ethical issues can affect, sometimes significantly, our understanding of our physical situation.

But Warnock seems to have rejected that distinction. By claiming that science gives us our moral law, she seems to be committing what philosopher G.E. Moore called the "naturalistic fallacy." The ultimate triumph of "fact" over "value" leads to us assuming that because something is natural, it is good. Because science says it is so, that is how it must be. The question of whether or not "human nature" tells us anything about rights is a hotly contested one (see, for instance, a recent exchange between Francis Fukuyama and Robin Fox in the pages of The National Interest) but it is something of a jump to say that science gives us moral law.

Science, after all, is not perfect. Depending on your concept of science, it is either simply a set of working theories that will do until they get falsified (Popper's view) or a dominant worldview that again will do until something better comes along (Kuhn's view). Can either of these interpretations really produce a moral law? It is hard to see science this way from Kuhn's viewpoint without a degree of circularity entering the argument (the Newtonian paradigm, for instance, included for many years a divine element).

What Warnock has embraced is essentially the return of scientism, a school of thought so despised that it is regarded by the Oxford Companion to Philosophy as a term of abuse. To its followers, philosophical problems are scientific problems and should only be dealt with as such. Thus authorization to produce a designer baby depends purely on whether or not your current child's illness is inherited or a random mutation. The ethics are subservient to the science.

Warnock's world is thus now one in which "ought" is replaced by "is," yet the very definition of that "is" depends on political considerations about what science tells us. The HFEA's regulations were authorized by politicians, who were advised by scientists and, yes, philosophers. When Warnock tells us that we take our moral guidance from science, she forgets that our idea of science is itself socially constructed. The Whitakers, meanwhile, are left to reflect on the discarded meaning of the word "ought."



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