Bridging the divide between arts and sciences


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Imogen Miller
Culture Columnist – Music

Should scientists study moral philosophy?

In the middle of the wilderness, with no contact with the outside world, two groups of twelve year old boys are forced to compete for resources. They reach their limits, hysteria ensues and the two groups become violent. You may think I’m describing some version of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, but what I’m actually referencing is the outcome of a scientific experiment: The Robber’s Cave Experiment.

In 1953, only a year before Golding published his magnum opus, the social psychologist Muzafer Sherif opened a summer camp in Robber’s Cave State Park, Oklahoma. Unbeknownst to the 22 attendees and their parents, they were entering into a social experiment. At first, the boys were split into two groups and given team building exercises. The catch was that neither team knew about the existence of the other. After the teams were revealed to one another they were forced to compete in a series of tournaments. Hostility arose between the groups, which eventually led to physical violence and the experiment came to a halt. The outcome of Sherif’s research confirmed the common sense idea of group conflict. Take two tight-knit groups and force them to compete and you will see that conflict arises.

This explains the violence between inner-city gangs, football clubs, and even nations. But did the outcome of this experiment really justify the means? The boys and their parents were deceived and many underwent psychological and physical harm during the experiment. Sherif’s notes describe many of the boys experiencing extreme anxiety during their stay. There was a general feeling of homesickness, while some wet their beds and others tried to run away. Given the unethical treatment of the boys in the camp, it seems absurd to say that the results of the experiment justified the torturous days and nights that the boys underwent.

This is but one example of scientists not taking into account the outcomes of their actions. The harm done to the boys in Robbers Cave is minuscule compared to some of the research undertaken by scientists in the past. Albert Einstein could not have predicted that his theory of relativity could have made the development of the atomic bomb possible, ultimately leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths. On the flip side, many scientists are still drawing from the highly unethical experiments conducted by the Nazis during WWII.

We now face a new ethical dilemma. Research into genome editing may lead to a frightening reality of eugenics. Gene editing was originally used to replace the genetic mutations that lead to life threatening conditions such as multiple sclerosis and cystic fibrosis. Worryingly, though, it might not stop here. Parents could have the opportunity to edit out conditions such as Down’s syndrome and even, much like designing an avatar in the Sims, be able to select their child’s gender, skin colour, and athletic ability. Could this perpetuate existing discriminatory attitudes? Moreover, should we really risk meddling with lives in this way?

These are just some of the ethical issues encountered in modern science. Of course, there are ethical codes that scientists and doctors must follow. Some version of the Hippocratic Oath is written into the constitution of most public health bodies, the UK’s being the general medical council and the UN’s being the Principle of Medical Ethics. Doing no harm unto others may seem like a pretty common sense idea, but do we really care to know why we shouldn’t?

Scientists are rarely taught ethics alongside their scientific training. At Glasgow University there are currently only four courses covering ethics within the schools of sciences. Two cover animal ethics, one covers medical ethics, and one covers bioethics. None of these courses are compulsory. Perhaps with such a strong division between the arts and sciences we have forgotten the humble origins of the study of science. From the Latin word scientia, meaning ‘knowledge’, it was the philosophers of antiquity that made some of the first scientific enquiries. Thales of Miletus brought forth the theory that all matter was composed of water, while Heraclitus believed it was made of fire. Much later, Plato proposed his own theory of forms, while Aristotle began a classification system of animal and plant species. Most of their hypotheses are outlandish, and no honest scientist would take them seriously in modern times, but it proves that it wasn’t just metaphysical questions these men asked. They sought out the truth in all manners of life. And we still take many of their non-scientific ideas seriously today. Plato’s dialogues ask various questions about justice, the nature of good, and how exactly we should love. Aristotle explores what one must do to lead a virtuous life. These questions are all just as important as scientific ones.

Many scientifically related dilemmas arise in philosophy all the time. Philippa Foot’s thought experiment of the The Transplant Case is just one. It goes like this: a transplant surgeon has five patients, each of which need a different organ. A healthy patient walks in for a check-up and the surgeon realises that this patient’s organs are compatible with all five of her patients. This healthy patient also has no family or friends. Therefore, would the doctor be justified in killing the healthy patient to save five lives? It’s a pretty morbid question and a very tricky one at that.

Most people would say that murder is wrong, but there are ethical theories in which murder would be the correct answer in this case. We have to ask ourselves whether the ends justify the means. There’s no definitive answer, but if we delve further into the question we can find some reasoning for our pre-philosophical response. We shouldn’t want to blindly follow rules, we should want to know why. We should want to understand the truth, even if it seems obvious. And this seems like a pretty scientific method to me.

Science is about knowledge, and this should extend to our morals, especially when we’re faced with these difficult questions. Is it alright to use data produced by unethical experimenting? Should we be able to decide exactly how our children will look and act? Where will this lead us? The division between the arts and the sciences has gone on for too long and it is time that these long lost lovers of truth were reunited.