pp. 179-182 in Intractable Neurological Disorders, Human Genome Research and Society. Proceedings of the Third International Bioethics Seminar in Fukui, 19-21 November, 1993.

Editors: Norio Fujiki, M.D. & Darryl R.J. Macer, Ph.D.


Copyright 1994, Eubios Ethics Institute All commercial rights reserved. This publication may be reproduced for limited educational or academic use, however please enquire with Eubios Ethics Institute.

Science and ethics

Norio Fujisawa
Vice President, MURS Japan, JAPAN


In considering the present subject, "Genome Research and Scientific Responsibility", it is desirable to confirm some basic points concerning the underlying problem of the relation of science to ethics.

It has been commonly held that "science" consists of devotion to the pursuit of "objective" knowledge for its own sake with a detached, value-neutral attitude of disregarding all practical considerations, and that, unlike "applied science" which puts science to practical use by means of technology, "pure science" is exempted from ethical or social responsibility.

True, because recently it has become difficult to make a clear distinction between "pure science" and "applied science", and also because there are cases, like human genome research, in which the subject of study obviously has in itself the possibility of involving individuals and society, people have come to think that scientific responsibility for ethical or social problems are often unavoidable. Even so, the claim that scientific research should not be subject to any social control is deeply rooted among scientists themselves in the U.S.A., it is reported, in the controversy about recombinant DNA research, scientists, resting their arguments on appeals to the scientists right under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, firmly resisted public supervision of the scientific enterprise.

Historically, these common views about the nature of science seems to have originated with Aristotle. For the first time in the history of thought, he made a rigid division of human activity into three dimensions, namely, theoria (viewing, contemplation or theory), praxis (doing, or acting), and poiesis (making); and corresponding to this, he also divided human intelligence into "theoretical" thinking (metaphysics, physics and mathematics) whose objects are of a necessary character, "practical" (ethics, politics, etc.), whose objects are of a contingent character, and "productive" (technical skill), which also deals with objects of contingent character. In his view, as the gods, whom man must endeavour to imitate, neither act nor make anything, theoria being their sole activity, so man's supreme activity is theoria; hence the most rigourous distinction is marked between theoria on the one hand, and praxis and poiesis on the other (the latter two together may be called practical activity in a wider sense).

According to these Aristotelian views, "physics" or natural philosophy is to be regarded as a "theoretical" learning that pursues knowledge for its own sake, disregarding all practical considerations and human values with which ethics and technology as practical activities are concerned. To believe so must, in a sense, encourage the study of nature, and after the study entered a new phase in modern age, the natural philosophers continued to accept that belief, while rejecting the Aristotelian natural philosophy itself. As a result, the following conceptual framework of rigid dichotomy seems to have been widely implanted among people:

1) Theoretical activity---Knowing necessary (objective) fact ("is") of the world---Science; and 2) Practical activity---Judging contingent (subjective) value ("ought") for man---Ethics and Technology. From this dichotomous framework of concept, I think, comes the common view mentioned above on the relation of science to ethics.

But understandable as it appears superficially, such a view is very doubtful fundamentally; and the more important the problem of scientific responsibility, the more fundamentally we must grasp the matter.

Let us consider what it is for human beings to seek after knowledge (knowing), by considering the most basic situation where man is living and acting with the world as his environment. The fact that man is living and acting in an environment implied that he is doing so by trying to know how the environment (or a thing he faces in it) is, and to get, from that very knowing, an indication of how he ought to respond to, deal with, or behave himself toward that environment (or an object in it). That is to say that, properly speaking, knowing how the environment is is at the same time knowing how to deal with that environment (or an object in it), and such a holistic knowledge that integrates knowing about "is" and knowing about "ought" should be the knowledge that man properly and naturally seeks after.

Undoubtedly, here is the very root of learning and science: all the human activity of learning and science is the activity of advancing and developing, in correspondence to each aspect of the world to which one's main concern is specifically directed, that holistic and integrated knowledge which is sought after in the basic situation above mentioned. Consequently, however much learning and science may be divided into specific disciplines, still each and every of them is participating, even though latently, in the pursuit of the holistic and integrated knowledge which is their very root; and even in the case of alleged "pure science" which claims to pursue knowledge for its own sake, it cannot be completely value-neutral and has necessarily in itself, even though weakly, latently or indirectly, a bearing on the practical "ought".

In this view, therefore, of the most basic nature of the human knowledge, we must say that the conceptual framework of rigid dichotomy we stated above, which appears to have dominated the general trend of thought since Aristotle, and the mutually-exclusive distinction based on it between science and ethics, or between "is" and "ought", is an arbitrary fiction.

In fact, before Aristotle, philosophers down to Plato never had this idea of "ethics" separated from natural philosophy or metaphysics: knowledge as to how the world is and knowledge as to how man ought to live and act had been inseparable from each other and sought after as knowledge that is an integrate whole. And the fact that in modern and contemporary times science and technology, which in the Aristotelian view were theoria and praxis respectively and as such very clearly distinguished from each other, has become united into "science-technology",---as well as the final obliteration of the distinction between "subjective" and "objective" by science itself (in quantum physics), and epistemological denial of the notion of bare fact imbued with no value at all---all these mean that the Aristotelian division of human activity eventually collapsed, and this collapse itself manifestly indicates that it was fictious.

Therefore, it is not true that the science becomes responsible for ethical and social matters only when it deals with (e.g.) the atomic nucleus or human genome as its research object, but it must be said that the scientific activity has ab initio in itself the possibility of influencing ethical and social aspects of human life and always bears responsibility for that. Having this in mind, scientists should at all times be open minded to human society as regards their own research.


Why do science and technology, which have given countless benefits on mankind, today often cause adverse effects on various aspects of human life? An ordinary explanation is that it is due to the misuse of the scientific, itself value-neutral knowledge. But we cannot be satisfied with such an superficial view; on this point too, we must grasp the matter more fundamentally.

We have seen in the previous section that scientific knowledge itself cannot be entirely value-neutral. What, then, are the specific kinds of value that modern science basically embodies?

The early Greek philosophers, with whom Western science originates, generally held that the fundamental principle of the universe was psyche (life, soul): the material principles such as water, air, etc., were at the same time psyche for these philosophers. A departure from this basic line of thought occurred with Democritean atomism of the late fifth century B.C., which explained all natural phenomena, including psyche, by reducing them to atoms as material or corporeal beings (soma, body-matter): the ultimate foundation of the universe was no longer psyche but soma.

Though a little later Plato presented a view of the universe which definitely regarded psyche rather than soma as the primary and most basic being, atomism, after having been neglected in the Middle Ages during which the Aristotelian view of the universe was dominating the general trend of thought, underwent a dramatic revival at the beginning of the Modern Age, following up the anti-Aristotelian tendency at that time. It was from this atomism that modern natural science inherited its basic world-picture which, excluding other real factors such as life proper, soul and mind (what Greeks called psyche) together with various values related to them, abstracts solely the body-matter (soma) aspect of the universe as the ultimate foundation, and by basing its policy of research on this world-picture, has achieved a great success in elucidating natural phenomena.

Now it is important to realize, I think, that the human beings can behave themselves most efficiently toward a phenomenon or situation which is usually vague and changeable, only if they can identify its cause (aition=that which is responsible) in the form of a solid and definite body-matter and concentrate on it as their target of behaviour: generally speaking, to do so is necessary for human beings to make their self-survival and behaviour as effective as possible for immediate needs. The world-picture modern science inherited from ancient atomism, namely, the world- picture which abstracts only the visible and tangible and measurable aspect of body-matter, may be regarded as arising from an instinctive desire for making self-survival and behaviour as effective as possible for immediate purpose, and this immediate effectiveness for survival and behaviour is the attraction of modern science. Consequently, also as a way of elucidating natural phenomena, the scientific one that explains a phenomenon in terms of corporeal constituents (minute matter-bodies such as molecules, atoms, etc.) has an effectiveness and persuasiveness corresponding to that value.

Moreover, this explanatory effectiveness is directly connected with the possibility of controlling and remaking things by manipulating their constituent matter-bodies, the possibility, that is, of being directly applied to technology. Francis Bacon's belief, that human scientia and potentia coincide because knowledge of the cause make possible the effect to be produced, can have its most definite and concrete meaning in regard to scientific knowledge brought about by the atomistic way of looking at things. As the result, Western science has in due course of time become united with technology into "science-technology".

It is no doubt that the immediate effectiveness of survival and behaviour is itself a great value to man and the aspect of matter-body is an important aspect of the universe for man. Consequently, up to a certain limit science and science-technology bring about nothing but benefit for human beings, so that the basic world picture of science above mentioned has been apt to be regarded as depicting exactly the real universe as it is. But the truth is, as we have already seen, that since it omits the undoubtedly real factors in our world such as life proper, soul, mind and the values related to them, this world-picture is an abstract or abridged one, not a picture of the actual world as it really is, and hence the value it embodies, that immediate effectiveness, does not cover the total of human value. Pursuing a single value by fixing our eyes upon a single aspect of the world---this is the upshot of what science and science-technology have been doing.

Therefore, very beneficial as science and technology have been up to a certain limit, it is inevitable that its straightforward advancement should sooner or later conflict with those ethical and mental values which had originally been excluded from the basic world-picture of science; for by nature it lacks in itself the function of checking its own products with due consideration of values other than the immediate effectiveness for self-survival and behaviour, namely, the values related to mind or soul which cannot be the object of measuring.

As regards scientific study which, like the human genome research, is directly related to human life itself, it is especially important to have firmly in mind these points concerning the nature of science and science-technology.

First, the genome too is a figure appearing in the body-matter (soma) aspect of life, which the researching policy peculiar to modern science has found. (By the way, the word "genome" comes from the Greek genea + soma, as "chromosome" from chroma + soma.) Man and his life can not be "reduced" to the human genome (genetic reductionalism): as the question "Why is Socrates sitting now in the prison?" cannot be wholly answered in terms of Socrates' bones, muscles, sinews, etc. (Plato's Phaedo '98C-D'), so the question "Why man is living?" cannot be wholly answered in terms of their genome.

At the same time, because this research gets to the innermost details of the body-matter aspect of life, it has distinctly the motif implied in the policy of the modern science, i.e. that of making biological survival most effective, and so it has a strong tendency to be readily allied with medical technology. However, to try hastily to actualize that great, but single, value will inevitably cause, as a natural consequence, conflicts with other human values, which will presumably occur in the forms of negative influence on the mind that a (false) idea of genetic determinism may give, various discriminations in social life (e.g., in employment, insurance, etc.), a risky conception of eugenics, the possibility of using human genome for commercial purpose, and so on.

Consequently, it will be particularly necessary for this research to be checked at institutions open to society, such as ethics committees and public hearings as to its direction or its possible effects on human life, even though his may be very troublesome for scientists themselves. An ideal way of research would be pursuit of holistic knowledge, that is, instead of receiving assessment afterwards, ethical consideration should be integrated from the first. But since it would be impossible for science to abandon entirely the policy it has hitherto followed, and that policy has been established just by cutting out ethical considerations, and also since in the case of bioscience or biotechnology the bearing on ethical problem is especially conspicuous, it would be a necessary entailment for it to receive some ethical regulation from society.

On the occasion of such open discussion and examination, the judgement and speaking of the scientist concerned are commonly regarded as deserving of attention because of his expertise. This may be a very natural tendency, but, strictly speaking, this expertise is solely in the pursuit of a single value related to a single aspect of the matter and not to the total of human values, that the scientist qua scientist, not qua a man, is a "specialist". Scientists as well as laymen had better bear this point firmly in mind. Two thousand four hundred years ago Socrates in Athens keenly realized this about specialists "because he practises his own art well, each one thought he was very wise in other most important matters" (Plato, Apologia Socratis '22D'). Laymen as well as scientists themselves, I think, should not allow the same state of affairs to continue indefinitely.


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