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Does Science Threaten Democracy?

Yuval Levin’s Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy

Yuval Levin's Imagining the Future cover SOURCE: Encounter Books A recent book examining the errors of progressives and conservatives in scientific debates provides a fruitful accounting of the arguments. But grouping the left with science and the right with tradition is a flawed approach to talking about science policy.

For many liberals, it is a truism that the recently departed conservative administration used politics to undermine science. But in Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy, Yuval Levin suggests that the real problem is in a sense the other way around. Democrats, he argues, are the party of science, and “science threatens sometimes to overwhelm our institutions of self-government [2].” In the lesser, partisan thread of this book, one can almost hear Levin’s worse angels whispering in his ear: “Those Democrats don’t just lack seriousness and proper understanding. They don’t just have shallow souls. They’re democracy’s unwitting enemies.”

Imagining the Future

Imagining the Future by Yuval Levin cover

Yuval Levin, Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy (Encounter Books, 2008). ISBN: 13:978-1-59403-209-7

But Levin’s better angels, and much of the book, seem committed to the valuable task of understanding the insights and errors of the liberals—and conservatives—who engage in debates about science and technology in general, and about biotechnology in particular. The better part of the book explores the different anthropologies, or conceptions of humanity, from which he says the left-wing boosters of biotechnology and right-wing knockers proceed to the debates.

Ultimately, I will suggest that his organizing typology—the political left, science, and a commitment to innovation on one side; the political right, tradition, and a commitment to children and future generations on the other—is flawed, and will suggest why that flaw matters. But first I want to try to give a fair account of the better part of the book.

How Science Threatens Democracy

Levin begins with a critique of what he takes to be our mainstream way of thinking about science and technology today. (The critique will be familiar to those who are familiar with the work of Martin Heidegger, Hans Jonas, Leo Strauss, and Leon Kass.) According to the mainstream view, while science can be put to good or bad uses, science itself is morally neutral. Levin argues that, to the contrary, science “is driven by a profound moral purpose,” which is to gain power “over our natural limitations and afflictions [9].” That is, the moral purpose of modern natural science is to reduce the suffering that goes with being the sorts of vulnerable and finite organisms we are.

Levin is not arguing that reducing suffering is a bad moral purpose. He is arguing that it’s bad for it to become our primary moral purpose. When it does, it creates what he calls a “crisis mentality,” where the urgency of reducing suffering is so great that we are willing to sacrifice other, higher values to achieve it. Indeed, our pursuit of the lowly purpose of forestalling death blinds us to the fact that there are other, higher moral purposes, such as trying to live well.

Up until this point, this liberal is following him. I, too, sometimes worry that our commitment to reducing suffering compromises our ability to remember that there are other purposes worth pursuing. One doesn’t have to be a conservative to believe that, for example, our commitment of health care dollars is growing perilously out of proportion to our commitment to other sorts of goods, like education and music and art. I can’t follow him, though, to conclude that our commitment to reducing suffering blinds us to the specific moral value that is human dignity. Later I will discuss the key premise that motivates his conclusion, but for now will point out only that he worries that our commitment to cures makes us willing to sacrifice embryos—and thereby the value of human dignity.

In his critique of the view that science is morally neutral, Levin does more than just argue that reducing suffering is a thoroughly moral, if relatively low, purpose. Science, he suggests, is moral in another sense. To begin, he argues that science has become not just a way, but for too many, the way of understanding ourselves and the world. Modern natural science (as opposed to, say, Aristotle’s science) reveals ourselves and the rest of the world to us as matter in motion. Ultimately, and most destructively, it reveals ourselves and the rest of the natural world, as “raw material,” as aimless stuff, which we can do with whatever we want. This way of understanding ourselves, he argues, “must necessarily leave out some elements of the subjects it examines that do not aid the work of the scientific method.” That is, what modern science leaves out (and what Aristotle put front and center) is our purposiveness. It leaves out that, in addition to being objects, we are also subjects, beings who pursue purposes. The more that the power and prestige of modern natural science grow and provide us with material benefits, the less we notice that science is but one way of knowing the world, the less we remember that there are any other terms in which to understand ourselves. I would only point out, again, that one does not need to be a conservative to feel some sympathy for that concern.

Moreover, he argues that, if relieving suffering becomes our primary moral purpose, and science is better than any other institution at promoting that purpose; and if, more generally, science becomes the way of knowing the world; then science comes to enjoy imperial status. It begins to reign over other social institutions, like politics, which draw on sources such as human experience and tradition. He urges us to remember that it was not scientific and technological prowess that allowed the United States to triumph over the USSR in the Cold War. Rather, it was non-scientific values, like freedom and dignity.

He also says, however, that the divide within the United States about science policy isn’t between those on the left who are committed to science and those on the right who are committed to non-scientific or traditional values. Instead, he suggests, the conflict is between different conceptions of the proper place of science, which rest on different anthropologies and different conceptions of the future.

How Progressives Threaten Democracy

Again, Levin asserts that different attitudes toward science and technology—in particular, toward biotechnology—align fairly neatly along party lines. On his account, the differences between progressives and conservatives are ultimately rooted in “different intuitions about the character of human life [55]” and different conceptions of the future. According to his typology, progressives think in terms of future innovations, and conservatives think in terms of future generations. And, his better angels add, “Each is too easily caricatured by the other… but if taken seriously, each also offers a rich and compelling anthropology of progress [56].”

The anthropology of innovation holds that life is “an array of individual experiments and choices,” aimed at achieving “ever greater control over nature and chance [56].” While Levin acknowledges the huge material benefits wrought by this worldview, he flags what he takes to be its two weaknesses. The first is its proneness to being seduced by utopianism; if we become intoxicated with our capacity to master the world, we are prone to imagine that, with perhaps just a bit of violence, we can perfect it.

But the second weakness is more pressing. Those who think of the future in terms of innovation tend to think of it “as something to be judged and understood in terms of the interests of the free, rational, individual adult now living.” What is missing from the anthropology of innovation, he suggests, is the child. If we focus on the rational adult pursuing material comforts, we fail to remember what children need most: the non-scientific, moral values that make life not just long, but good.

Moreover, Levin believes that the left’s anthropology of innovation and embrace of science put it at odds with two of the left’s own fundamental commitments. First, the left has failed to understand that science makes possible the technological power and environmental destruction that so many on the left lament. He writes that “the environmentalist ethic calls for a science of beholding nature, not of mastering it [92].”

In fact, many on the political left do agree that we need a science that is better at beholding, and less hell-bent on transforming, nature. Or at least we would agree that we need to get better at beholding, quite apart from whether that is a function of our science. It is too bad that Levin does not consider more seriously the possibility that, if, according to his typology progressives are the champions of science and innovation, and in reality progressives are champions of regulating science and innovation to protect the environment, then maybe something is wrong with his typology.

But he believes that the left’s position vis-à-vis science is much more confused—and dangerous—than its embrace of environmentalism suggests. The far deeper problem is that the left fails to see that “Science poses greater and deeper challenges to our belief in human equality than any other force in American life [97].”

According to Levin, science challenges our belief in equality in two ways. First, it cannot give us reason to believe that we are equal in our humanity. Science, after all, investigates the natural differences among us. This does raise an interesting empirical question, which in fact many on the left have long asked: as we learn more and more about the biological correlates of our behaviors and attitudes, will it be ever harder to believe that we are equal in our humanity? Or, will it be ever easier to believe that some of us, in virtue of our natural strengths, are entitled to more than others? Though he asserts that this danger is huge, to his credit, he also allows that scientific “evidence against material human equality” does not “in itself … undercut the case for equal humanity” [101] (italics added).

But, he argues, science poses a second challenge to our belief in equality. Science “also sometimes proposes means to material ends—to comfort, to wealth, to power, to health—that rely upon unequal treatment of human beings at the margins [101].” That is, as a powerful tool to achieve material comfort, science can seduce us to do virtually anything, including mistreating human beings at the margins of life. So this road, too, leads back to embryo research. The “twofold challenge of science,” he argues, “has crystallized in recent years in the heated public dispute over embryo research [103].”

To understand that claim, one has to understand his view of embryos. It is obvious to him that—“as a biological fact”—human life begins when an embryo is created, and that embryos are therefore human beings. If you grant that embryos are humans, you see the twofold challenge that science poses. First, insofar as science teaches us about the physical differences among us, it weakens our commitment to the equal humanity of us all. We’ve let the size and shape of embryos obscure the fact that we are of no greater value than they. Second, insofar as science holds out the promise of reducing suffering and improving material comfort, we have let it seduce us into sacrificing human embryos merely for the sake of medical research.

For now, I will mention only two problems with this view of embryo research. For one, it succumbs to the fantasy that Nature can tell us (“a biological fact”) what to imbue with value; it fails to accept our responsibility to determine what standing to accord embryos. (Before we on the left snicker, we should remember that more than one of us have suggested that we can know, as a scientific fact, that embryos are not human beings.) But as Levin knows well, even some of the people he most respects do not agree that embryos should be accorded the same respect we accord to humans. By making the line in the sand so clear, he risks needlessly alienating some people on the left and right who think that, though embryos aren’t human beings, they deserve respect.

Second, he fails to take embryo research as an opportunity to investigate a tension in his own thinking. On the one hand, he is disquieted by modernity, because its science and politics both fail to recognize natural hierarchies. He longs for the aristocratic affirmation of natural differences, and for the intellectual and spiritual hardness he finds in the ancients. On the other, he denies that there is a meaningful difference between the dignity of a grown human being and an embryo, thereby exhibiting a strikingly “democratic” softness with respect to embryos. Yet nowhere does he tell us how he reconciles his love of ancient hardness in general and his embrace of modern softness for embryos in particular. This is not to try to catch him in a contradiction, but to emphasize that, since we are the products of multiple traditions, each of us inevitably holds views that are in deep tension. Holding views that are in tension is not the problem. The problem is failing to engage the tension. Were he to face it more squarely in himself, perhaps he would worry less about the shallowness of the souls of those whose interpretation of the status of embryos are different from his.

How Conservatives Might Threaten Democracy

According to Levin, when those on the right think about the future, they don’t think first about innovation, but about the continuity of generations. Those who truly care about children understand that what children need most is the wisdom accumulated in our traditions. Moreover, children deserve to receive from us bodies that have not been altered in ways that could deprive them of the sorts of experiences our bodies have allowed us. Were we to “reorder and transform some prime ingredients of the human experience,” we risk making changes “in the relations between parents and children, between effort and performance, [and] between body and soul,” which “could hardly help but influence humanity’s understanding of itself and so our very sense of what a human life entails [76].”

Not only does he grant that it will be enormously difficult to put into the language of the public square what we might lose if we pursued such transformations, but he also thinks that trying is dangerous. The real danger, he fears, is that, by using arguments to articulate what might be lost if we violate what is now taboo, the political right could destroy exactly what it seeks to preserve.

Until now, he suggests, the source of our daunting obligation to provide for the next generation has been veiled in mystery. He invokes Edmund Burke, who suggested that our moral duties have arisen for us out of “physical causes,” which are “unknown to us, [and] perhaps unknowable [119].” When we lift the veil from that mysterious source, we risk destroying our bond to the next generation; in looking at embryos in the way that embryo research requires, we “sever the generations by exploding in a flash of light the mysterious ties that bind them [120].” If we seek reasons to ground the daunting demands that children make upon parents, if we lift the veil for long enough, we will find that reasons alone are impotent. By doing research with embryos we look upon what was “never meant to be looked upon,” we violate a mystery, a taboo. “There is,” he says, “no clearer example of a profaning of the sacred in our time [128].”

To suggest that people who do research on embryos are blasphemers is strategically unhelpful, if one genuinely wants to make progress in this conversation. But does he even really believe that all embryo research pushes us across our generation’s moral Rubicon? Even the embryo research that allows people to create a family, so that they can pass on to their children their ways of loving and respecting life? If he thinks that the embryo research that helps people to create families is blasphemous, he should say so clearly and give reasons. If he doesn’t, he owes his readers a more nuanced account of embryo research.

Better Angels

After he has carefully laid out his worry about the damage that the political right might cause in its attempt to defend taboos, he says explicitly, if somewhat abruptly, that the right cannot rely on sentiment, but must come up with better arguments [129]. That is, he takes a step back from the strong claim that, to make arguments in defense of the taboos that a good life depends on, is to jeopardize the foundations of that life.

Then, in his conclusion, apparently listening to his better angels, he takes one more step back, when he suggests that the two anthropologies and two political traditions, which he has spent the book setting against each other, are actually two parts of one larger project.

[America] must not lose sight of the careful balance it has always sought between material advancement and moral progress; the protection of our own rights and liberties, and the passing down to our descendants of the great traditions we inherited. This is neither quite a conservative nor a liberal project. It is the American project, and it is grounded in the view that concern for present freedom and regard for future generations are not two aims but one [134].

Those words could have been spoken, and meant, by Barack Obama. We do need a way beyond the partisan, ideological spitting that has for too long substituted for public conversation in this country. And there are at least two reasons why biotechnology could be a good place to start the sort of bipartisan, respectful, non-ideological, “bioethical” conversation that I would like to think President Obama will stand for.

First, the debates about biotechnology can help us remember that, regardless of party, we share a fundamental question: What is real human flourishing? I say “real” to emphasize that everybody is for a technology that will “really” promote flourishing. Our disagreements are about whether a given technology will really promote flourishing, or will inadvertently thwart it. Maybe our conversations would go better if we remembered that we share that question.

Second, the debates about biotechnology could help us to, as we used to say, “disrupt” the right-left distinction. We could begin to see that, actually, it is not the case that progressives are boosters of science and conservatives its critics. Our views about biotechnology just do not align neatly with our party affiliations. It’s awfully hard, after all, to construe left-leaning critics of “the new eugenics,” or left-leaning critics of medicalization and normalization, or left-leaning environmentalists as boosters of science and technology. And it’s equally hard to construe right-leaning defenders of embryonic stem cell research, or right-leaning biotech-free-marketeers, much less the Ronald Reagan of Star Wars, as knockers. Instead of using our discussions of biotech policy to reinforce the ever-higher wall between progressives and conservatives, we could use them as a chance to lower it. At the risk of lapsing into what Levin might call “lovely foolishness,” maybe such discussions could even be a way of cooling some of the contempt that we’ve come to find so sweet.

Erik Parens, PhD is a Senior Research Scholar at The Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute in Garrison, NY. He also teaches in the Science, Technology, and Society Program at Sarah Lawrence College. Most recently, he is editor of Surgically Shaping Children: Technology, Ethics, and the Pursuit of Normality (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006) and co-editor of Wrestling with Behavioral Genetics: Science, Ethics, and Public Conversation (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).


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