Science and Moral Imagination

Science and Moral Imagination: A New Ideal for Values in Science by Matthew Brown 2020

About the Author
Matthew J. Brown is associate professor of philosophy and director of the Center for Values in Medicine, Science, and Technology at the University of Texas at Dallas

About the Book
The idea that science is or should be value-free, and that values are or should be formed independently of science, has been under fire by philosophers of science for decades. Science and Moral Imagination directly challenges the idea that science and values cannot and should not influence each other. Matthew J. Brown argues that science and values mutually influence and implicate one another, that the influence of values on science is pervasive and must be responsibly managed, and that science can and should have an influence on our values. This interplay, he explains, must be guided by accounts of scientific inquiry and value judgment that are sensitive to the complexities of their interactions. Brown presents scientific inquiry and value judgment as types of problem-solving practices and provides a new framework for thinking about how we might ethically evaluate episodes and decisions in science, while offering guidance for scientific practitioners and institutions about how they can incorporate value judgments into their work. His framework, dubbed “the ideal of moral imagination,” emphasizes the role of imagination in value judgment and the positive role that value judgment plays in science.

“Matthew Brown advances the literature on science and values in a manner that will serve multiple audiences. For the scientific community, he provides an inspiring new ‘ideal of moral imagination.’ For philosophers, he draws on the work of John Dewey to develop a rich pragmatist account of values and value judgments. This is an accessible and creative book.” —Kevin Elliott, author of A Tapestry of Values: An Introduction to Values In Science

“Finally, a book that grapples in detail with the really hard, central questions concerning values and science—the nature, sources, kinds, and cognitive status of nonepistemic values, how they stack up against epistemic values, how conflicts among these nonepistemic values are to be resolved, and so on. Science and Moral Imagination will be a winner among students and professionals alike, from the sciences as well as science studies.” —Janet Kourany, University of Notre Dame

“Citing the pervasiveness of choice and contingency throughout the research process, Brown cuts through misunderstandings to offer a welcome new account of values, one that suggests a new type of responsibility that is aimed at avoiding failures of moral imagination in scientific inquiry. Science and Moral Imagination provides a refreshingly pragmatic approach to the urgent question of how to manage values in science.” —Erik Fisher, Arizona State University

Summary of Foreword
How we act on what we know is surely a problem that predates Homo sapiens, and over our long history one aspect of that problem has evolved into the vexed relationship between science and values, which has puzzled philosophers from the ancient Greeks on.

For the field called philosophy of science, the shift to theory manifested as what we now call science studies.

In this garden of forking paths, philosophy of science became much more his- tory of science; using one of the last great models out of philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn’s paradigms, we might say that the old paradigm of science itself broke apart under the impact of theory’s radical questioning of language, history, power, and cognition.

One result of this paradigm breakdown was that academic science studies became more and more technical and ingrown, such that only other practitioners of science studies could understand the context and import of new work.

The academic field plunged down rabbit holes; it got lost in the weeds, such that its use value to working scientists and the general public, or let’s just say everyone interested in science, which really ought to be everyone alive (there’s that word ought again, but let’s keep it), can no longer get much use out of the discipline.

Among other aspects of the scientific method deployed here, we see a kind of structuralist description of the problem, de-stranding conglomerate realities in hopes of finding causes and ef- fects; also reductionism, where the problem is contained to the point where it can be understood and discussed—even Occam’s razor, by which I mean that Brown has decided to trust the language to convey commonly agreed-upon meanings.

This is crucial, because after the stupendous and no doubt useful work of linguistic deconstructionism, which turned the lens of philosophical inquiry onto language and cognition itself, one now has to work with a level of uncertainty concerning the level of discourse one wants to use to make the points one wants to make.

In this case, concerning the relationships between science and value, where the problems are central to the fate of human civilization and affect every person alive, it makes sense to try for clarity.

It’s a choice that has been made many times before in philosophy, and often when science is the subject of inquiry.

Philosophers like William James, John Dewey, and Alfred North Whitehead made this choice, and their school of philosophy was called pragmatism partly as a result of that choice.

How can we deploy this amazingly powerful method we have invented, that we call science, to make ourselves and our descendants and our biosphere, which is to say our extended body, safer and happier?

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