Saturday, February 27, 2010

Quote of the Day - Living ethically edition

The "Willis and Judy" show on how Climate Science has turned into a mother lode of deep thinking. Commenter Steve J. left a comment that makes me wonder: at which University does he teach? I want him teaching my children:
I wanted to comment on an aspect of all of this that doesn’t seem to be emphasized in these two essays and the responses: the issues of verifiability and scientific ethics that are so disturbing in climate science are really part of a broader social problem, especially in hierarchical structures such as academic science and academe in general, but also in government and corporate life, as the essay comparing climategate to the fall of Enron suggests. We live in an era that has been characterized as “post-modern,” which seems to mean that we can all adopt whatever worldview works for us: in particular, it’s easy to see in many areas of human endeavor that what used to be called ethical behavior has become optional. Corporations, politicians, academics all espouse the highest ethics in public but “everybody” knows they would be fools to actually conduct their lives in this way. This is exactly the dichotomy you see in the climategate emails – public rectitude and private corruption. Postmodernism is the new flavor, but it’s as old as the hills. I’m an academic, and you can see the seem same problems in most academic departments: circling the wagons, cleaving to a politically favored point of view despite the evidence – and as economic factors increase competition for academic and scientific positions, the result under the current system is not greater quality, but more academics and scientists who are willing to shade the result – to advocate – to cheat in one way or another. When the time comes for an investigation, the university or other academic authority acts to favor it’s own best interest – that’s how administrators stay in power. Medical science is so completely infiltrated by the pharmaceuticals that a former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine recently wrote a book about the fact the most medical research, as well as the conclusions of many authorities in medical science, cannot be trusted. In short, we have a serious problem – in our gradual move toward openness and pluralism over the last century, we are in the process of throwing the baby out with the bathwater; pluralism and the rejection of other “isms” such as racism, sexism, and so on, have been a tremendous benefit to society, but the adoption of “situational morality” as a broadly accepted standard is very dangerous. I remember the comment about the Watergate conspirators that the scandal was ultimately quite profitable for many of them because they became widely sought after speakers – nobody seemed too concerned about how they acquired their notoriety. Dishonesty and professional malfeasance have always been with us, but they were once publicly condemned: we had better understand the road we are following – if unethical behavior becomes an acceptable choice in polite society, our civilization will be greatly weakened, and not just by unnecessary economic restrictions.
So let it be written; so let it be done.


bluesun said...

I just read "Small is Beautiful," and, though some of the stuff in it I disagree with, E.F. Schumacher makes a point that all of these new relativistic philosophies were imagined in the 19th century by men who had a good moral base. Now, however, their ideas have become the base for the current generations' morality, and it isn't working out so well. This book was published in 1973, so now we are even further down the road.

It is always kind of funny in ethics classes, because without a good foundation (for example, the teachings of Jesus Christ) that says that there is something higher for us to reach for, ethics really is pointless. It turns into a self serving thing where, as long as you can justify it in your own mind, anything goes.

Borepatch said...

Bluesun, I remember the "Small Is Beautiful" days from the late 1970s and early 1980s. Don't remember this part, but the point is well taken.

Philosophy has wandered into a thicket, and I think that you're right that partly it's because Ethics has become unmoored. I'd go so far as to say that didn't happen by accident - traditional ethics supported what were seen as alternative power structures, which were seen as slowing down the transformative agenda.

I'd also go so far as to say that the Modern University no longer exposes students to the great thinkers of the past, and so many (most?) students graduate without knowing how to think.

The's all been indoctrinated, so they know what to think, but don't know how to think, and especially, to reason.