Science and Moral Imagination


This is a book about the interplay of values and science. Science and values are mutually influencing and implicated in one another. I argue that the influence of values on science is pervasive and that science also can and should have an influence on our values. I argue further that this interplay must be guided by accounts of scientific inquiry and of value judgment that are sensitive to the complexities of their interaction in practice. Scientists and moralists, as well as philosophers of science and ethicists, have often presented distorted and even harmful pictures of science and of values for lack of nuance about their interplay.

The book is unabashedly normative, where “normative” means making claims about what ought to be and guiding our evaluation of the quality and worth of certain things. I directly challenges the views that science ought to be value-free and that values ought to be evidence-free, independent of science. I provide a new framework for thinking about how we ought to evaluate episodes and decisions in science as to the way they incorporate values, as well as to provide guidance to scientific practitioners and institutions on how they should incorporate value judgments into their work. As such, it seeks to revise our understanding of how science ought to work.

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 beset with a variety of problems. Contemporary accounts fail to adequately 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 criteria for “good science,” and compliance with such is liable to block the road of inquiry.

The basic motivations behind the project are three ideas: (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 contingent moments that can be rendered as open choices and 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.

Projected Table of Contents

Disclaimer: 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 (Draft)
    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 empirically. The influence of values has made science more egalitarian and it has opened productive new areas of inquiry. 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. The structure of the book is explained.
  2. Empirical Science as Practical Inquiry (Draft)
    The role of values in science can best be understood against the background of an account of the nature of scientific inquiry. Inspired by the practice turn in philosophy of science, I provide a framework according to which scientific practice is centrally 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 and only derivatively on its being an accumulated body of knowledge. 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 pathways and developments. 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 as choices, but they can become much more aware and exercise more control over those contingencies than they usually do. 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 Better Theory of Values (Draft) 
    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 or implicit views about what values are that distort their accounts of how values should be used in science. Specifically, many accounts of values in science presuppose a kind of tacit, unsophisticated 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 (Draft) 
    A respectable account of values for empirical, practical scientific inquiry should be naturalistic, pragmatic but cognitivist, and pluralistic. 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. Some values are future-directed and others are not. 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 (Draft) 
    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 relationship between means and ends lead to the conclusion that value judgment not only must draw on scientific results; it 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 (Draft) 
    According to the ideal of moral imagination, scientists should recognize contingencies in their work as unforced choices, discover morally salient aspects of the situation they are deciding, empathetically recognize and understand potential stakeholders, imaginatively construct and explore possible options, and exercise fair and warranted value judgment in order to guide those decisions. This approach joins recent work in ethics that emphasizes ethical perception, insight, creativity, and bottom-up problem-solving over top-down compliance with ethical theory or principles. The approach builds on, and has significant advantages over, previously proposed alternatives to the ideal of value-free science.
  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 are interpretative processes that required choice and conceptual innovation. As such, these choices are 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
    Once scientific inquiry proper has concluded, there are still important value judgments to be made concerning the way scientific results influence society. Often, the problems that spur scientific inquiry are closely related to needs for the application of knowledge through technology or policy, and it may not and should not be easy in practice to extricate questions of application, dissemination, and social impact from the phases of inquiry previously discussed. Nevertheless, this phase has its own distinctive questions and important choices to be made; moral imagination 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 on science as contextual, 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.