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Essay: The interaction between science and ethics

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  • Published: 15 November 2019*
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  • Words: 1,504 (approx)
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The interaction between science and ethics is one that has sparked controversy among almost all people, from those in academia to grass-roots activists and all those in between. Whether the argument surrounds the human diet, animal testing or factory farming, there are always different perspectives to be taken. While a great amount of what some may call “unethical” experiments have formed a large basis of knowledge for the human population, it is important to recognize that their significance does not make them morally correct. History cannot be changed, but that does not go to say that the future should not be. With this, it is necessary that we educate ourselves on alternative and more ethical practices moving forward. History, ethics, nature, altruism and morality all contribute to this interaction and can help elaborate on the complicated dynamic that exists between them today.

To begin, take into consideration the question, how ethical is nature? Before diving in, it would be helpful to operationally define ethics and nature. Ethics can be defined as “the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation” (Merriam Webster). William Cronon touches on the relationship between wilderness and nature when he states, “Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, it [wilderness] is quite profoundly a human creation-indeed…Wilderness hides its unnaturalness behind a mask that is all the more beguiling because it seems so natural” (Cronon 7). He also touches on why humans created this wilderness when he says, “As we gaze into the mirror it holds up for us, we too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires” (Cronon 7). According to Cronon, the definition of nature would then be something beyond wilderness, something that is not at all a human creation made to satisfy our wants. It is vital to recognize, though, that humans once did and continue to grow, live and interact with nature, therefore, the human species (excluding human creations) should be included in the definition of nature. Essentially, because wilderness and human creations are “unnatural” they are not part of nature, but humans themselves are.

Human interaction with the natural world dates back thousands and thousands of years. Most likely starting during the Prehistoric Era with hunters and gatherers, moving into Native Americans and then eventually coming upon present day. Clearly, human consumption of animals originated out of the need for food, otherwise resulting in starvation. As time went on and humans evolved, the carnivorous quality became part of our physical makeup, and resulted in our teeth being a specific shape, our life expectancies longer, etc. During a time of sheer necessity for survival, ethics are most likely not the topic with the utmost importance in our minds, as we are focusing on our next meal, place to sleep or other things to help us survive. During the Paleolithic era, not only was the homosapien brain most likely not fully developed enough to think about the principles of ethics, homosapiens were going to do what they needed to survive, whether that meant consuming an animal to satisfy their hunger, committing infanticide (which in itself is an ethical decision) etc. (Sahlins 92). In short, nature is essentially as ethical as we could have prioritized it to be during the Paleolithic era. Ethics was not exactly something that was highly considered or valued during that time. With that being said, the way things play out in nature in terms of the food chain are juristically more ethical when compared to the methods of, say, factory farming today. With time though, comes change, and the concept of ethics throughout history has a very different meaning than the level of ethics during present day.

While the model nature offers in relation to ethical behavior (killing animals to survive) may not seem like the most gentle, it is much more mild than the behavior practiced by factory farms in the U.S. today. The model nature offers actually teaches people to act in ways that will help society as a whole in the end. Take, on the other hand, practices of factory farms. Michael Pollan talks on the treatment of pigs, saying that “…premature weaning leaves the pigs with a lifelong craving to suck and chew, a desire they gratify in confinement by biting the tail of the animal in front of them…The U.S.D.A.’s recommended solution to the problem is called “tail docking.” Using a pair of pliers (and no anesthetic), most but not all of the tail is snipped off. Why the little stump? Because the whole point of the exercise is not to remove the object of tail-biting so much as to render it more sensitive. Now, a bite on the tail is so painful that even the most demoralized pig will mount a struggle to avoid it” (Pollan). This shows how incredibly horrid and unethical the common mass farming practices are in the U.S. and how it diverges from that which occurs in nature. These practices are specifically awful for the reason that they cause harm to innocent animals that result in their suffering. As opposed to succumbing to our country’s obsession with productivity and wealth as Sahlins touches on, we should be following nature’s patterns of looking out for the best interest of the future and the population.

Speaking of best interest, this brings about an important topic, altruism. Altruism is “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others” (Merriam Webster). Altruism is key to maintaining a positive relationship with those around us in order to maximize our growth and survival. Within the relationship between science and ethics, we see altruism prevalent in many ways. Take the concept of nature vs. nurture for example. Nature vs. nurture is a concept within Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which is essentially an argument over whether the characteristics we possess are a result of our genes/disposition or our situation and advancement overtime. We see the characteristic of altruism come up within nature vs. nurture when looking at how altruism evolved from natural selection. Nature must know altruism because of the fact that altruism could not have originated from natural selection for the reason that it essentially reduces personal fitness (Miller 214). Therefore, altruism must still be practiced through nurture related urges on a frequent basis.  “All such moral actions are said to have a genetic self-interest at their base” (Miller 214). This fact shows that in order for altruism to still be present today, organisms had to have a moral instinct to keep a trait that did not benefit their personal fitness.

Morality is an interesting and confusing topic. Said to be the “conformity to ideals of right human conduct” (Merriam Webster), it is an instinct prevalent in many different organisms. Take a child for example, who gets scolded for eating a cookie when they were not supposed to. Depending on the age of this child, they will most likely begin to cry. While it is unclear whether the child is crying out of fear or out of personal shame and disappointment, it is evident that the child has broken some sense of morals and fallen into a bad behavior. Morality becomes a topic of interest in relation to the interaction between science and ethics when human controversy and opinions form. The problem arises when the argument is about the treatment of humans, especially in relation to the treatment of humans in comparison to the treatment of animals. Pollan covers this idea when he says, “there are humans–infants, the severely retarded, the demented–whose mental function cannot match that of a chimpanzee. Even though these people cannot reciprocate our moral attentions, we nevertheless include them in the circle of our moral consideration. So on what basis do we exclude the chimpanzee?” (Pollan). Pollan expertly talks about how morality has one meaning in this context in which it favors the human, but it can also be interpreted as in a different context, in which it favors the animal. It is a very tricky argument, for the reason that animals have the ability to feel pain as well. The differentiation, I believe is that we are able to communicate with humans or those similar to us, and therefore we are more able to relate to those within our own species. This distinction, which sense of morality deserves more attention, is one of the main reasons the argument still exists today.

The interaction between science and ethics is one that has deep rooted meaning to people in cultures all over the world. Considering that it doesn’t seem to be very soon that we will entirely dissociate from “nature” it is vital to find reasonable and attainable goals within society to teach and help the future generations. The original mannerisms and occurrences of nature are ethical; it is when human disturbances and industrialization begin to make this change.

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