So I spent a few days this week attending a conference at Berry College in Rome, Georgia hosted by Peter Lawler and Eric Sands. It was a terrific and well organized series of events capped off by a thought provoking presentation by our own Jim Ceasar on Tocqueville, his consideration of the Puritans in America, and his neglect of the Declaration of Independence. This is the second time I’ve gone to Berry and the students there are not only impressively polite and friendly but genuinely and enthusiastically open to serious dialogue about serious things. My own contribution to the conference was pretty modest–I partipated in a panel devoted to the recent presidential election. Here is a brief snippet of the remarks I offered:
For our new President, the “proper place” of science is beyond the murky waters of political compromise–it must be unfettered from old fashioned moral strictures and the bumbling roadblocks to progress that are the consequence of political restraint. Just as he denies in the speech that there are any potential tensions between our ideals and the practical demands of ensuring our security in an often less than ideal world, he simply rejects that there are any moral or political complexities born out of technological innovation that might justify some measure of political prudence, or even the admonishment of science. Obama’s view is not merely an oversimplification of the relation between science and politics, and consequently of science’s “proper place”, but a willful ignorance of the lessons regarding the dangers of a science divorced from prudence the twentieth century has provided. For Obama, scientific and moral progress are so inexorably linked that the success of the former couldn’t possibly obstruct the virtue of the latter—the march towards our scientific liberation from the cumbersome bonds of nature is virtue itself.
Obama’s technocratic leanings have become immediately obvious regarding his revision of Bush’s policy on the federal funding of stem cell research. In neither his new executive order or his memorandum on scientific integrity is there any concession to true moral conflict—while he does reference “delicate” moral issues in his press remarks, he also claims that the answers to these matters are clear, are the subject of both scientific and popular consent, and provide cause for celebration. There is no mention of human dignity in either of his executive orders or the memorandum. By way of contrast, despite being demonized for his heavy handed evangelicism, Bush’s executive orders were remarkably nuanced, carefully presenting the conflicting moral stakes involved, even attempting an operational definition of human life in its embryonic stage. The recrudescence of scientific integrity apparently requires the victory of contrived consensus over genuine public deliberation and debate
Obama’s impressive rhetorical alchemy has consistently presented this new technocratic ideology as a pragmatic rejection of ideology itself—his politics is meant to be shorn of any moral or political commitments that invite controversy or public debate. However, the denial of a guiding worldview is a sleight of hand crafted to furtively import an ideology without the need to publicly articulate it. Political life could never be properly captured by a reduction to its merely rational components—such an abbreviation would inevitably discount the rivalry over the good that makes political commerce necessary in the first place. The technocratic denial of genuine moral ambiguity in political affairs is designed to pacify the competition for honor such ambiguity begets—what remains should be competently managed interests and a lobotomized shadow of real consent. Given the many ways in which the breakneck pace of biotechnological innovation challenges our existing moral and political paradigms, a call to serious civic deliberation on this score has never been more needful. Of course, disputation of this kind can be a tumultuous ride but for those with the heart to brave it there is much honor to be won.