Are All Scientists Evil?

When I published the article What is Stem Cell Research Really About?, I got some feedback that indicated that I didn’t make my point clearly. One reader claimed I implied that all scientists are evil. While I think my writing was not nearly that bad, I do think it worthwhile to address this issue from that angle, that is, to ask, “Are all scientists evil?” There is some scientific research that is inherently evil but most is morally neutral depending on how it’s used. I did eliminate one good example from that prior entry at the last minute: Alfred Nobel invented dynamite to save the lives of miners and was horrified that it was so readily used in warfare. He funded the Nobel prizes to try to encourage moral and peaceful uses of science. Plenty of other scientists have done as much evil as Nobel did by accident, but some — maybe many — have intended to do that evil if that was necessary to gather money or power.

It wasn’t businessmen and politicians who invented all the evil technology that rips apart human bodies or destroys our social and physical environments, though some of the scientists and engineers who did invent that technology moved on to become businessmen or politicians. And some of those were in the same position as Alfred Nobel — the evil results of their work weren’t intended and might have deeply bothered them to the point where they did some sort of penance.

The problem we have in our age, and I’ve tried to make this clear in many entries and also in my only published book, To See a World in a Grain of Sand, is that scientists are no different from the rest of us and the rest of us are morally disordered (or perhaps unordered) creatures living in a society which has liberated its citizens from traditional moral relationships that they might produce and consume more freely in the public marketplaces.

There is another source of confusion about moral issues which I’ve tried to clear up in other writings but it takes some honest contemplation and maybe some reading of substantial history books to fully eliminate this confusion:

There is good reason to believe that most of the evil in the modern world was actually carried out by nice, middle-class people because the nuts like Hitler weren’t capable of carrying out their own schemes.

The most frightening books I ever read were Eichmann in Jerusalem and The Origians of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, the Jewish historian and philosopher who took the long way out of Europe when she had to flee her native Austria after the Nazi takeover — she stopped in Paris and helped others to escape, leaving only when the Gestapo was almost upon her. Eichmann, the bureaucrat who supervised the roundup and transporation of the Jews in Nazi-controlled lands, was captured in South America by Israeli agents in the early 1960s and transported secretly to Israel. Hannah Arendt was sent by one of the major American weeklies to cover the trial and was allowed to interview Eichmann after the shocked prosecutors had completed their interrogations. She was soon as badly shocked as they had been: Eichmann was a very, very nice man. It turned out that he had sympathized with the Jews and had helped many to escape, refusing bribes, when it had been possible for them to make it out of Nazi-controlled territory. He had simply been doing his job when he carried out orders and managed the logistics of the Holocaust. Adolf Eichmann was a nice man without any moral integrity.

It was Hannah Arendt who concluded that most of the evil in the modern world was actually, and necessarily, carried out by nice, middle-class human beings who were simply trying to make a good living. She didn’t say anything about scientists being a special group who had refused to go along with the commission of evil. In fact, much of the evil in modern times was carried out with the help of advanced technology. The collaboration of scientists and engineers was necessary to the Holocaust though Stalin in Ukraine and Mao throughout China murdered a lot of human beings with more primitive methods.

Somewhere in The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith stopped deceiving himself and his readers just long enough to wonder if the type of commercial society he was advocating might produce citizens who were genial without having any real moral integrity. His fears were valid. He was foreseeing us, the citizens of the modern West, and perhaps the citizens of China and India and Southeast Asia before long. The scientists are drawn from us. And we are like Adolf Eichmann, not wishing at all to do evil but doing it in pursuit of the goods we’ve been taught to value:

  1. economic prosperity,
  2. a good credit record,
  3. a clean record with the tax authorities, and
  4. children we’ve successfully raised to be just like us.

Our desire to meet those goals will lead us to all sorts of moral shortcuts. Mostly, we lull ourselves into a state of moral unconsciousness. And, no, I see no reason to believe that scientists are immune from these processes by which we put on blinders and delude ourselves.

Are we free and morally well-formed human beings who take responsibility for our own acts and for the acts of our elected leaders? No, not most of us.

Are scientists such human beings, free and morally well-formed? No, not most of them.

We, including the scientists amongst us, would prefer not to do evil. We’d prefer a world in which we can all become prosperous and there are no victims, but we do place our prosperity, our safety and comfort and long lives high on our list of priorities and rarely are we taught the practical skills of moral living and moral reasoning. There are some of us who do evil, in a fully conscious way, perhaps even enjoying the evil as much as the profits. Most of us just do our jobs and go about our peaceful way, working in a plant while caring — but not exessively so — what it produces. Napalm? Antibiotics? In the end, we just do our jobs, pay our taxes, and protest if anyone claims we aren’t morally responsible human beings.

Explore posts in the same categories: Moral issues, science, Stem cell research, technology

6 Comments on “Are All Scientists Evil?”

  1. Dan Says:

    You’re still not explaining:
    1. why you used the absurd strawman example of “growing human babies for experimentation,” when clearly no scientist would consider such a thing.
    2. how the NAS guidelines go beyond reasonable ethics
    3. how the NAS guideliines might be inadequate

    Or are you going to come up with more irrelevant diatribes against scientists in general?

    Please, if you can’t come up with specifics to back up your earlier reproductive cloning strawman, just give it up.

  2. Diganta Says:

    “Are scientists such human beings, free and morally well-formed? No, not most of them.” – What is your source of this emperical study?

  3. Dan Says:

    “Are scientists such human beings, free and morally well-formed? No, not most of them.”

    … and Loyd here says that he “didn’t say scientists were evil.” What a damned liar.

  4. Loyd Fueston Says:

    You have a funny definition of evil. To say someone isn’t a saint, or to say they’re not virtuous pagans at the level of integrity of a Cato, isn’t to say they’re evil, though perhaps they’re more inclined to becoming evil or to doing evil in particular situations.

    In addition, the argument you tried to raise was over the question, “Are all scientists evil?” Some are. Some doctors are. Some priests and ministers are. Even some mothers are evil.

  5. Loyd Fueston Says:

    As far as the question of empirical data goes: the history of science including some recently written books that describe misbehavior, not necessarily evil but seriously wrong, on the parts of scientists or entire scientific organizations. In one of my entries, I mentioned Gerd Gigerenzer’s book, “Adaptive Minds”, where he discussed the marginalization, in one case outright censorship by a major society of scientists, because those individuals differed with mainstream views. That censored scientist, John Garcia, had provided strict proof that a major assumption of B.F. Skinner was wrong but behavioralism had become the mainstream view.

    Michael Polanyi talked about the deterioration of scientific ethics in some of his books. David Ruelle, one of the founders of modern chaos theory, talked of going to universities where his major rivals were present and finding his articles had been cut out of the journals in the physics library (“Chance and Chaos”). The entire struggle over nuclear weapons was interesting — few of those scientists were outright evil but only Oppenheimer and a small handful were willing to take a stance against the development of the so-called hydrogen bomb because they saw clearly it was a weapon of terrorism and not a ‘legitimate’ military weapon. Most scientists in that community of nuclear physicists just laid low and didn’t take any chances.

    This is what history tells us about human beings. Few Americans in the 1700s and 1800s had anything but good intentions towards the Amerinds, but a few saw them as easily exploitable. When those exploiters carried out their evil acts, did the quiet and not-evil majority do anything? They apparently didn’t want to get involved or didn’t want to risk their own livings or reputations or whatever. This vast number of human beings in the moder age who are nice but aren’t willing to risk much when real moral issues are at stake are the ones who aren’t evil, at least they’re not in an active state of evil, but they’re also not free and morally well-formed.

    Scientists are us and that’s all I was arguing before some tried to take it out of context.

    For those who actually care about science and have bothered to learn a little: My current theory is that we’re seeing a mismatch between our evolved moral characteristics (our characteristics were formed in the New Stone Age with its families and small tribes) and we’re now living in a mass society which requires the development of characteristics we (oddly enough) seem to have but few develop those characteristics which are necessary if we are to form morally well-ordered mass societies.

    Mismatches of this sort are often discussed in books on evolutionary biology, especially those within the domain of sociobiology. It’s caused by the fact that our characteristics reflect the environmental pressures of our ancestors and our environment is radically different than that New Stone Age. In fact, the AMA has a college devoted to using appropriate evolutionary reasoning to deal with our problems caused by mismatches between, say, our evolved state as foraging creatures who walked many miles a day and our current sedentary state. One of the founders of that college, Randolph Neese co-authored a book presenting this sort of reasoning using specific medical examples. His co-author was the prominent evolutionary theorist, George Williams. The book is “Why Do We Get Sick?”

    I’ll also comment here that anyone reading my various entries knows that I’m a great admirer of science and of scientists — but, knowing the history of science, I know scientists have the same mix as other populations of moral giants, evil human beings, and lukewarm human beings. Like the rest of us, even moral scientists have various problems and the more powerful the implications of their work, the more we should be careful of the power we cede to mere human beings. On the other hand, Americans have never been that careful about ceding political power to men of doubtful moral characteristics.

    Some just don’t get the point: If stem cell technology, or genetic research, is powerful enough to potentially solve very serious problems, those fields are also powerful enough to generate technologies to enslave us or to manipulate our characteristics or to do other evil things to us.

  6. Dan Says:

    Sorry Loyd, but not “morally well-formed” sounds pretty much like the opposite of “good” to me. Sorry though for mistaking “most” with “all.”

    But from your longer comment, apparently no, you don’t have anything to contribute to my three questions above. Do you have anything specific to say, or are you just blabbering?

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