Is Knowledge Moral?

Let us begin with a quote. The critic George Steiner concluded his 1970 essay "Life-lines" with this observation:

Since the Renaissance, Western civilization has operated on the confident assumption that the needs of man, that the requirements of social justice and personal worth, would prove to be in more or less natural accord with the discoveries of science. There might well be awkward patches, such as those caused by the excessive spread and pressure of industrial technology. But, all in all, man and the truth were companions. Certain trends in the life sciences now cast doubt on this assumption. It is as if the biochemical and biogenetic facts and potentialities we are now beginning to elucidate were waiting in ambush for man. It may prove to be that the dilemmas and possibilities of action they will pose are outside morality and beyond the ordering grasp of the human intellect. We seem to be standing in Bluebeard's castle. For the first time, the forward-vaulting intelligence of our species, which is so intricate yet so vulnerable a piece of systematic evolution, finds itself in front of doors it might be best to leave unopened. On pain of life.

We cannot concede that it is at all possible for a living human being to leave pain of life behind some doors and never to come into contact with it, but what seems important is that modern sensibility has become acutely aware of the dangers associated with unstoppable technological progress. It was by the time we began to question the inherent goodness of science that science fiction and SF anti-utopia sprouted as literary genres. The 20th century (see Fathi Habashi's article) saw too many times science put to various military uses and abuses. Literature reacted accordingly; from Wells's Time Machine and Zamyatin's We to William Golding's Lord of the Flies we are reminded of the fact that knowledge is morally indifferent and that it can be applied to cure a child as well as to eliminate several hundred thousand people, children and women included, in one blow. In movies this point is made even more persistently.

Melvyn Dresner in his recent article wrote that in a Western democracy a moral problem is solved within a rationalist approach which does not accept absolute truths but aspires to the greater good. It is a good point, but for a Russian it sounds very much like a Soviet slogan. This kind of rationalist approach works only when it is based on the mature personal responsibility of every member of a society. In Russia, a mere 13 years after the fall of the Soviet dictatorship, this personal responsibility is immature and needs cultivation. People in Russia were used to the situation where government took care of everything: scientific discoveries and general moral issues alike. They simply didn't have to worry: every moral question had been answered for them before they even began thinking about it. We would argue that there are Russians who are still waiting for someone to come and give them some sort of good, reluctant to make an effort and work it out for themselves.

Rational pursuit of a greater good usually brings inhumanly cruel results unless it is based on the strong moral sense of an indivudual. One can easily overrationalise when planning a society, but one can never be too moral about the welfare of one's fellow citizens. It might be dangerous to propagate the idea of no-holds-barred rationality in a morally weak society. The nation must first regain its moral sense, and then it will naturally evolve a rational idea of its greater good. Speaking of Russia, we are certain there are spiritual resources in this country which can bring this regaining of moral sense about.

To make a moral choice can be very difficult, and knowledge hardly helps at such moments. Quite to the contrary, it tends to make it even more difficult (it is not easy to refrain - on some vague moral grounds - from vaporizing your enemy when you can do this with perfect impunity; even the greatest nations could not resist the temptation, as recent history shows). The more we know, the more we can; the more we can, the more difficult it may be to stop to think for a moment. It seems inevitable that the human race should accumulate scientific knowledge with increasingly high potentialities. It is our hope that human morality will, as it were, rise to the occasion.

The French ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss has said that the 21st century will be a century of humanities - or there will be no 21st century at all.

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Copyright ╘ 2004 by Sergey Karpukhin
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