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It is generally accepted by both the left and the right that science itself is a morally neutral enterprise, since it merely creates the mechanisms of power that can be used for moral and immoral purposes alike. In a public speech a few years ago, President Bush expressed this commonly-held view, albeit within the context of a sober warning:

“The powers of science are morally neutral—as easily used for bad purposes as good ones. In the excitement of discovery, we must never forget that mankind is defined not by intelligence alone, but by conscience. Even the most noble ends do not justify every means.”

President Bush’s admonitory message overlooks the historical fact that modern science was born of a project with the particular moral end of “the relief of man’s estate,” as Francis Bacon put it. The need for relief is a consequence of the hostility of nature to human existence and the moral imperative for human beings to overcome nature’s tyranny through productive labor. The fundamental objective of modern science is the rational control of nature which necessitates the extension of man’s power for the expansion of his autonomous freedom. To the extent that traditional conceptions of morality require a recognition of some salutary dependence upon nature, or of insuperable limitations on human self-transformation, science must be understood as an outright rejection of them. Further, the narrowly empirical prism through which science views the human condition has a tendency to prioritize the health of the body above all other competing goods. Descartes captures this inclination well when he argues the fundamental aim of science is “the conservation of health, which is without doubt the primary good and the foundation of all other goods in this life.” It is inconceivable to Descartes that the health of the body could be less important than, or even inconsistent with, some other interpretation of human flourishing. Obama’s elevation of bodily suffering above all other considerations, as he articulates it in his remarks to the press following his new executive order on stem cell research, is clearly an expression of this Cartesian legacy, of a modern science pregnant with moral attachments.

The technological reduction of nature from a source of moral guidance to an obstacle to human freedom and mastery is complicated by the more poetic transformation of it into an object of reverential worship. The left’s sometimes ambiguous relationship to science is evidenced by this split—they generally follow the Lockean view that nature merely provides the clay for our refashioning of it into something more hospitable to the satisfaction of our desires. However, they also often follow Rousseau in their more romantic depiction of nature as the centerpiece of a pantheistic spirituality which is especially conspicuous in their aggressive environmentalism. Nature is simultaneously deified and subdued—it is conserved against the threat of capitalistic excess but overcome when the antagonist is a conservative caution regarding its limits.

Al Gore is the personification par excellence of this contradiction: the cerebral technocrat who interprets every human problem as an opportunity for a technical solution and a compassionate Green who extols the beauty of Mother Nature and our obligations to steward her considerable gifts. It is at least paradoxical that Gore consistently recommends technological solutions to what he perceives to be our inadequate respect for nature’s bounty. The left’s ambivalence here, though, is less about science than it is about freedom—they want to liberate man from the twin tutelage of nature and God but not from statist hyper-regulation: a robust capitalism is far too democratic for their technocratic sensibilities. Their view of nature is essentially Lockean but their notion of individual freedom as subordinate to the prerogatives of the state is an inheritance from Rousseau. In fact, one can detect the tension in their view of nature simply on Rousseau’s grounds: nature is the seat of goodness but human beings are not constrained by it, characterized as they are by “infinite perfectibility”, or the capacity for perpetual self-transformation beyond our natural condition. The great historical goal of science is freedom but dominance of science over politics does not result in the general dispensation of freedom—the fruits of the Enlightenment are for all to enjoy but only for some to manage.

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