Science and Moral Imagination

Summary / Motivation

The values in science debate has shifted ground, from arguments for and against the ideal of value-free science, to detailed arguments about normative guidance for value-laden science. In this book, I offer an approach which I call “the ideal of moral imagination.” This ideal emphasizes the role of imagination in value judgment, and the positive role that value judgment plays in science. I contrast this ideal with other approaches in the contemporary debate that are best with a variety of problems. Contemporary accounts fail to specify what values are and what good value judgment consists in, or they presuppose untenable, simplicitic, or non-cognitivist views about values and value judgments. Many contemporary accounts of values in science are incompatible with our best understanding of the nature of scientific practice from the philosophy, cognitive studies, and social studies of scientific practice. Some of these accounts posit absolute or dogmatic criteria for “good science,” and compliance with such is liable to block the road of inquiry.

According to the ideal of moral imagination, scientists should be encouraged to recognize decision-points in their research, creatively explore possible choices, empathetically recognize potential stakeholders, discover morally salient aspects and consequences of their decisions, and make decisions that harmonize across ethical and epistemic considerations as far as possible. This approach joins recent work in practical ethics that emphasizes ethical perception, insight, creativity, and bottom-up problem-solving over top-down compliance, and so avoids the problems with compliance-oriented accounts.

The basic ideas behind the project are (1) that the scientific quest for knowledge and the ethical quest for a good life and a just society are deeply interrelated pursuits, ultimately inextricable from one another; (2) that scientific inquiry involves a series of interlocking, contingent, and open choices, which can only be resolved intelligently and responsibly through a process of value judgment; and, (3) that “responsible conduct of research” should be a process not merely of compliance with prior given principles or edicts, but should involve the creative exploration of the meaning and consequences of decisions made in the course of scientific inquiry.

The book is engaged primarily with the current debates about values in science, but it draws on two other influences. One is the pragmatism of John Dewey, particularly his views on the logic of inquiry, the nature of values, and the role of science in society. (The book is not, however, a work of historical scholarship on Dewey, and it does not engage in substantive Dewey interpretation.) The other is the philosophy of science in practice, a tradition that includes (in my view) the early Thomas Kuhn, the later Paul Feyerabend, Norwood Russell Hanson, Nancy Cartwright, John Dupré, and Hasok Chang, and also closely connected with the work of, among others, Peter Galison and Bruno Latour.

Projected Table of Contents

Draft chapters are unfinished and will change periodically. These chapters will often be missing citations and key examples. I am very eager for feedback on the ideas and structure of the arguments, but I would appreciate it if you would not quote from them as they are and that you not circulate them without this warning intact.

  1. Introduction
    Science is a deeply value-laden enterprise, and this is very much a good thing. Not only does the ampliative, practical nature of scientific inquiry make values ubiquitous in science, but responsible value judgment makes science better, both ethically and politically. The possibilities revealed by science’s value-ladenness can only be realized if scientists recognize the need for moral imagination and value judgment in science.
  2. Empirical Science as Practical Inquiry
    The role of values in science can best be understood against a background image of scientific inquiry. While we tend to think of science in terms of an accumulated body of knowledge, this is more a residue of science than the main event. Scientific practice is primarily a process of problem-solving, practical inquiry into problems connected with practices of predication, explanation, and control. The distinctive value of science depends in the first instance on its nature as systematic, experimental, practical inquiry. In this way, science is much more closely aligned with engineering and biomedical research than philosophers of science have tended to believe.
  3. The Need for Values in Science: The Contingency Argument (Draft)
    The process of scientific inquiry involves many contingent features and decision-points throughout. Logically speaking, these contingencies amount to unforced choices, even if they are practically settled by habit or institutional factors. Scientific inquirers are not always aware of these contingencies, but recent empirical research shows that it is possible for scientists to learn to recognize them as such and make them reflectively rather than implicitly or habitually. Insofar as these choices have significant and foreseeable social and ethical implications, scientists are responsible for exercising sound value judgment in making those choices. This argument generalizes from a range of commonly used arguments for the value-ladenness of science, better capturing the general structure that shows that science requires values.
  4. The Need for a Theory of Values for Science and Values
    It is widely recognized by contemporary philosophers of science that science cannot be a value-free enterprise, and that the ideal of value-free science is not desirable. But most philosophers of science have thin, impoverished views about what values consist in. Indeed, many accounts of values in science presuppose a kind of unintentional, simplistic non-cognitivism. A better account of the nature and source of values, and their status in empirical inquiry, is needed.
  5. The Sources of Values for Value-Laden Science
    A respectable account of values for empirical, practical scientific inquiry should be naturalistic, pragmatic, but cognitivist. As it happens, such accounts are the most plausible accounts of values. Values have many sources and come in many types. Some are closely linked to biological imperatives. Others are specific to contemporary democratic society and the institutions of science. The many shapes and sizes that values come in make clear the need for an account of value judgment that can resolve their potential conflicts in practice.
  6. Value Judgment as Empirical Inquiry
    Moral deliberation or value judgment is not merely an a priori, rational, intellectual process. Moral deliberation must be sensitive to the context of particular problematic situations where values conflict or are indeterminate. The plurality of values, the need for situational specificity, and the continuum between means and ends mean that value judgment is a type of empirical inquiry. As a result, value judgments properly so called have an independent empirical status. Crucial to warranted value judgment is the use of moral imagination.
  7. The Ideal of Moral Imagination
    According to the ideal of moral imagination, scientists should be encouraged to recognize decision-points in their research, creatively explore possible choices, empathetically recognize potential stakeholders, discover morally salient aspects and consequences of their decisions, and make decisions that harmonize across ethical and epistemic considerations as far as possible. This approach joins recent work in ethics that emphasizes ethical perception, insight, creativity, and bottom-up problem-solving over top-down compliance.
  8. Values in Planning of Scientific Inquiry: Research Agenda and Methodology
    Some value judgments must be made before scientific inquiry gets off the ground. The choice to pursue (or to fund) certain projects over others is a particularly pressing moment for value judgment. Failures of moral imagination contribute to systematic ignorance and epistemic injustice. Likewise, the planning of methodological protocols can be an ethically significant decision-point, as evidenced by the fact of prior review when ethical issues are particularly acute, in the case of human and animal research subjects. Moral imagination can help empathetically guide the development of research protocols. Although these decisions can in principle be revisited later in the inquiry, they play a particularly important role at the beginning.
  9. Values in Framing Scientific Inquiry: Conceptual Choice, Problem-Framing, and Hypothesis-Formation
    Throughout the process of inquiry, there are important issues of framing that often require value judgments. The decision of how to frame the problem of inquiry, and the suggestion or formation of hypotheses about how to solve it, are potentially value-laden issues. More broadly, the concepts or language we use in scientific inquiry, to frame problems, propose solutions, characterize data, and form broader conceptual and theoretical frameworks, is always potentially value-laden, and often actually influenced by tacit or explicit social and ethical values.
  10. Values in the Conduct of Scientific Inquiry: Data, Testing, Acceptance, and Certification
    The role of value judgment in the conduct of science provides the most thorough challenge to traditional conceptions of science, but this is also where value judgment can be most pressing. In collecting and characterizing data, conducting experimental tests, assessing the strength of evidence, and deciding whether to accept, endorse, or assert hypotheses, it is crucial that we imagine the possible implications of the choices involved, and exercise careful value judgment over these processes. Likewise, the process of certification by which the results of scientific inquiry enter the published record and influence future research (or fail to do so) requires value judgment.
  11. The Influence of Science on Society: Application, Dissemination, and the Cultural and Ethical Impacts of Science
    One scientific inquiry proper has concluded, there are still important value judgments to be made concerning the way scientific judgment influences society. Often, the problems that spur scientific inquiry are closely related to needs for the application of knowledge through technology or policy. But the connection is never direct, and so there are important choices to be made, and value judgments must guide the process. In these cases, the role of stakeholders and the public in determining the source of values is paramount.
  12. Values and Scientific Worldviews: Scientism, Ideology, and Realism 
    I have focused primarily science as contextually-focused practical inquiry, and on the role of values therein. Practical inquiry is the proximate focus of contemporary science, and yet, many philosophers of science and science enthusiasts will insist that the ultimate focus of science is on truth and reality. Science has an impact on our beliefs, our lives, and our society beyond the resolution of particular problematic situations. Science plays a role in crafting our worldview, and indeed, this function is closely connected with the desire for science to address our basic curiosity and desire for a true picture of the world.  In this perspective, the value-ladenness of science is seen as pernicious because of the challenge it poses to ultimate truth and scientific realism. Yet the quest for truth often results in highly problematic forms of overreach on the part of science, as well as scientism and ideology in their pernicious senses. While science can have valuable, broad impacts on our culture, those impacts must be mediated by careful value judgments and honest images of science itself. Scientific realism itself is an interpretive stance that depends on value judgments, not something that follows with rational necessity. Careful value judgment can help us sort better and worse versions of scientific realism. A cautious version of pluralistic realism may be our best bet.