01 November 2004

can implies ought?

Imagine a scientific and technological possibility that has the purported potential to save thousands of lives and perhaps even protect many millions more. But while these claims are based upon a handful of interesting discoveries, they largely involve slim evidence, faith in the inexorable progress of science, and unproven and untested promises of spectacular results.

Some claim perhaps that it is necessary for the government to invest vast sums of money into these lines of research, even at the expense of other proven programs, even though many citizens have grave objections to such research, and even when those citizens protest that the research compromises the nature of human moral community and the future of the species.

The bottom line remains for proponents, however, that if we possibly can do something--even in the face of less problematic alternatives--then we must at least try to do it.

As a friend pointed out yesterday, in the 1980s and early '90s this might well have been a diatribe against a space-based missile defense system that was touted by the Reagan administration. Today, of course, the tables have turned as many of those critics of "star wars" have eagerly embraced embryonic stem-cell research.

None of this, of course, decides the substantive moral and scientific questions that run through both issues and the parallel is not, perhaps, precise. But it does seem to me that there is a peculiar irony somewhere in there.