UNDER THE MICROSCOPE; One simple rule to a moral approach

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The Independent Culture
Scientists are continually being urged to be more moral and ethical. What this usually means is that someone wants them to adopt their particular moral stance. How we arrive at moral positions is a complex issue in which I am out of my depth. However, I was recently invited, as a scientist, to discuss the story of the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. An odd choice, but it came from my cousin's son's father-in-law, so how could I refuse?

When I read Genesis again I was appalled at how badly everyone had behaved. You will recall that God, without any explanation had told Abraham, who was 75 years old to leave his home and that he would make his descendants into a great nation. God confirmed his covenant with him and also required him, and all his descendants to be circumcised. Abraham willingly, and without question, acceded to this bizarre request. God also promised him a son by his wife Sarah when he was 99 years old and Abraham was commanded to call him Isaac.

When God wanted to sweep away the people of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, because of their evil ways, Abraham objected and asked whether God would spare them for the sake of 50 righteous men? "Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?" God eventually agrees not to destroy the cities even if there are only 10 just men to be found. The cities are destroyed, only some of Lot's family being saved. This same righteous Lot had earlier offered up his two daughters to the local inhabitants in order to save some visitors from a homosexual encounter.

God did keep his word about the birth of Isaac. But then came the test: "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love and go to the the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering..." Not a word of explanation as to why Abraham should commit such a barbarous act. And Abraham, who had pleaded so passionately for the saving of 10 just men agrees to do it without word; no objection or even a little question of why he is being asked to commit this crime. There are no witnesses to this astonishing command and agreement.

The effect on Isaac is widely acknowledged - he never recovered from the trauma. Nowadays he would have had therapy, and would have remained on the analyst's couch to the end of his days. If we accept as an explanation that Abraham knew all along that God would not let him proceed with the sacrifice, then the whole story is nothing more than a public-relations exercise. Whatever the interpretation the command of God and the willingness of Abraham, constitute, in my view, totally immoral and unethical behaviour. The only explanation is that God is not righteous and can behave as badly as any human being.

Fortunately, scientists do not have to make difficult moral judgements with respect to their work. I claim that all reliable knowledge - and science is the source of the most reliable knowledge about how the world works that we have - is intrinsically value-free, and has no moral value. Reliable knowledge is neither good nor bad... Moral and ethical judgements only arise when the ideas are applied. It is not what I think that matters but the actions to which the thoughts lead. That DNA is the genetic material or that the earth is not at the centre of the universe have no moral significance. Science has nothing whatsoever to say about moral and ethical issues.

What then are the moral obligations of scientists due to their having access to reliable knowledge that is not easily accessible to non-scientists? Only one: they have to inform the public as to the implications of any of their findings that could affect our lives. The model for such moral behaviour was that of the atomic physicists that informed the governments of the US and Britain about the possibility of an atom bomb. Scientists should never behave like Abraham and take major decisions that affect the lives of others on the basis of a morality that comes to them alone from outer space. One can only hope that they would be more questioning than Abraham.

! Lewis Wolpert lectures at University College London