There is a form of critical thinking that includes moral and scientific thought. Children of school age are capable of this thought, and curriculi should be constructed to encourage it. To do this, science teachers must include ethical issues in their lessons.
Many of the ideas that follow are based on work I am currently undertaking with environmental chemist Theodore Goldfarb (SUNY at Stony Brook). With support from the National Science Foundation, we have prepared an instructional guide for middle and high school science teachers on how they can prepare themselves to include ethics in their classes. This is based on a series of summer workshops for Long Island science teachers directed by Theodore Goldfarb, supported by the National Science Foundation. [Workshops For High School Science Teachers: Ethics in the Classroom, NSF Grant No. SBR-932 0255.] I served as project consultant. This text is available at
Western Michigan University.
In Reasonable Children I argued that the schools can and should promote the reasonableness of students. Following the lead of the Philosophy for Children movement, I supported the notion that a classroom can form a community of inquiry that fosters reasonableness. In developing these themes I drew on my experiences with children and teachers in exploring philosophical ideas. Much of my effort was to render plausible the idea that the introduction of philosophy, as a subject in its own right, need not wait until college, or even high school. However, introducing yet another subject in the schools, and perhaps most especially a subject like philosophy, faces formidable obstacles ranging from teacher preparation to social and political opposition. In this paper I will shift my focus to a specific area of the curriculum that already exists, the natural sciences. I will argue that natural science classes can play a significant role in fostering the reasonableness of children, and I will offer several reasons for concluding that this is an appropriate objective of science education in the schools, even in the middle and elementary schools. Thus, I will be trying to make a case for science teachers seeing themselves as moral educators.
If we think of teaching science as basically conveying bodies of organized factual knowledge to students, it may be difficult to see how science classes can contribute to the moral education of students. Science, it may be thought, is restricted to facts; morality has to do with values. Facts are discovered through empirical observation and logical inference, making them objective; values are matters of opinion and are inherently subjective. Whether or not teachers intend to convey this message, many students very early on pick up the idea that there is a fundamental fact/value distinction, with science cast as factual but value neutral.
This sort of view of the sciences, particularly the natural sciences, needs to be challenged in order to make my case. There is not space here to develop in detail the alternative view I have in mind. However, in brief, science needs to be viewed, not merely as a body of organized factual knowledge (for students to commit to memory), but as a human activity. Science does not create itself; it requires the careful work of scientists.
When we look closely at how scientific understanding is acquired, shared, and used, it becomes clear that this activity is anything but value neutral. First, the advancement of science depends on the integrity and cooperation of scientists as they share their results with each another and build on one another's work. Second, departures from this not only can cause serious problems within the scientific community, it can also cause serious public harms--harms to public health and safety, economic harms (e.g., if studies have to be repeated, or if large sums of money have been unwisely invested in certain lines of research), and the erosion of trust and confidence in the work of scientists. Third, various uses of science raise ethical questions (e.g., whether cloning humans is acceptable, whether nuclear waste is being properly handled, whether certain environmental risks are reasonable). Fourth, the very selection of areas in which research will be done (supported by either public or private funds) may reflect value choices that may raise ethical questions (military research being an obvious example, but by no means the only one). Fifth, scientific and technological developments often give rise to ethical issues (e.g., about the extent to which technology should be used to sustain life, about the just distribution of scarce resources). Finally, there are concepts embedded in the sciences themselves that seem to be value-laden (e.g., health, disease, pollution, waste).
In short, when we look at science as a human activity and in regard to the impact it has on society, thoughtful persons are bound to raise ethical questions. This has been most conspicuously the case in biomedicine in recent years, with its rapid development of medical treatment, procedures, and technology. But, a great deal of attention has also been focused on various uses of chemistry (e.g., industrial waste, workplace safety), biochemistry (e.g., pesticides, biochemical weapons), and physics (e.g., nuclear energy). The media has been quick to pick up on all of this, both in the news presentations and in fictionalized drama in the movies and on TV. This is part of the out-of-class world of students. What relevance, if any, should this have to the teaching of science? Assuming that a major role of the schools is to help prepare students to become thoughtful citizens in a democratic society, it should have a great deal of relevance.
Apparently students think so, too. Reports from the 75 teachers who have attended Theodore Goldfarb's Workshops for High School Science Teachers: Ethics in the Classroom indicate that bringing science-related ethics issues into the classroom has been quite meaningful and exciting. Students seem genuinely interested in the ethical issues and are eager to discuss them. At the same time, they also realize that in order to address these questions thoughtfully, they need to learn something about the relevant science. So, a pleasant bonus for those teachers who want to bring ethics into science classes is that it may actually increase the motivation students have to study science.
Actually, this should not be surprising, for it is the expected consequence of humanizing science, a subject that for many students seems distant, dry, and designed more for memorization than active engagement. However, the point of bringing ethics into science classes is not simply to liven them up. It is that the ethical issues associated with science are a part of science itself, and they are left out of science studies at the expense of a fuller understanding of science as an activity, not just a (albeit, changing) body of knowledge. Once this fuller picture of science is introduced, the study of science will perforce become enlivened for students.
What I have stressed so far is that there are good reasons for including some ethics in science classes. The basic argument is that this is necessary if we are to do full justice to the role that science plays both in the lives of scientists and in society in general. This seems to say something about what ethics has to offer to science. Insofar as ethics and science are joined in the classroom, this promises to enhance the moral education of students to at least some extent. However, at the outset of this paper I identified a more specific benefit that could come from this joining--viz., promoting the reasonableness of students. I need now to turn specifically to that topic.
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I need to explain what I mean by reasonableness. I offer no definition, but I will describe two of its features: one social, the other having to do with uncertainty. At the outset it is important to distinguish reasonableness from those forms of rationality that are highly individualistic and self-centered. An individual might regularly attempt to impose his or her way of thinking on others and simply ignore what others have to say. In some circumstances this might be regarded as irrational behavior, but in general it is not. It may be egocentric, or self-centered; it may often be selfish, domineering, or boorish. Still, as a strategy for getting what one wants, it may often work. So, in this respect, at least in the short run, it may be rational behavior--or, in any case, not irrational behavior. However, it is unreasonable behavior. Its demands are excessive, unfair, and skewed in ways that others find unacceptable--and in ways the person behaving in this way would probably find unacceptable if he or she were on the receiving end of someone else acting in this way.
In contrast, reasonableness is a social disposition. As Lawrence Splitter and Ann Margaret Sharp put it. 1[T]he reasonable person respects others and is prepared to take into account their views and their feelings, to the extent of changing her own mind about issues of significance, and consciously allowing her own perspective to be changed by others. She is, in other words, willing to be reasoned with.
This does not mean that a reasonable person simply gives in to the views of others. It does mean that one accepts a court of reason that insists that one be prepared to give reasons for one's beliefs that can be subjected to public scrutiny, not simply private confirmation.
A second feature of reasonableness is its acceptance of some degree of uncertainty. This may be uncertainty about whether one's own views are necessarily right, or even uncertainty that anyone's views are. This is not to be confused with skepticism. As Max Black says, although we may be able to show that some actions or judgments are more reasonable than others, we are very seldom able to choose a single action as uniquely reasonable.2 What this means is that it is quite possible for two people to come to different judgments on some matters, without either being unreasonable. Further discussion might reasonably convince one or the other to modify or abandon a previously held position, but it might not--the final verdict may still be out. The arena of reasonableness is that of what Black calls dianoetic appraisals, which he sees as comparative but typically less than conclusive.
It might be thought that reasonableness, as I have characterized it, is more at home in moral, social, and political settings than in science. But I don't believe this is the case. If science is thought of as a settled body of knowledge, it is easy to overlook the role of reasonableness in science. And it must be admitted that science is sometimes portrayed in this way; and it may often be taught in this way, at least at introductory levels. However, if science is thought of as a human activity, marked by considerable uncertainty despite its structured, and often successful, forms of inquiry, reasonableness can be seen to be quite at home. In fact, it is hard to see how science could progress as it has without reasonableness carrying the day over the more self-centered forms of rationality described above.
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Scientific activity embraces reasonableness in at least three fundamental ways. First, it must remain open to new evidence, and even new ways of proceeding, that may either support or work against one's favored views. Second, it insists on meeting standards of good argument, looking for supporting reasons, avoiding unwarranted assumptions, rejecting drawing conclusions too hastily, biased sampling, the suppression of relevant data, and so on. Scientific claims are subjected to public examination through a peer review process that carefully examines arguments put forward, attempts to replicate results, makes comparisons with other, possibly conflicting, observations, and often offers alternative ways of interpreting what has been observed. Third, scientific advancement depends on scientists working together, sharing results, building on one another's work, and observing standards of honesty with each other in the process.
Although good science depends on the sort of reasonableness just described, it does not follow that scientific practice always meets this standard. In fact, it is because of disturbing instances of scientific misconduct that the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health have recently applied considerable pressure on colleges and universities that receive federal funding for research to establish policies on scientific misconduct and to discuss research ethics with students who are engaging in research. Of course, this is a small minority of students in colleges and universities. But even these students, who have taken many science courses, acknowledge that ethics has rarely, if ever, been discussed in their science classes. So, for many, this may be their first serious academic encounter with ethics.
I say academic encounter because, obviously, it is not their first encounter with ethical questions. These questions begin early in life--in the home, in religious institutions, on the playground, in the streets, and in viewing movies, television, and the like. But ethical questions also arise from the moment children enter school, with its rules, requirements, and evaluative standards.
Science studies should take advantage of the natural curiosity of children. My work with the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (IAPC) programs has convinced me that the philosophical wonder of children and their general curiosity about the world around them go hand in hand. It may be noteworthy that prior to the emergence of highly differentiated scientific disciplines in the 20th century (including the social sciences), many texts made a distinction between natural and speculative philosophy. Natural philosophy focused on the most general features (e.g., explanatory laws) of what today we call the natural sciences (e.g., biology, chemistry, physics, and the earth sciences). Speculative philosophy focused on the sorts of general issues that make up what today we call the discipline of philosophy.
Both natural and speculative philosophy seem to have a counterpart in early childhood--viz., the curiosity and wonder that, sadly, often diminishes rather than flourishes as children progress through school. The big 'why' questions young children ask may have scientific answers, philosophical answers, or no answers. We may try to parse them into different kinds. But they seem similarly motivated in the child, regardless of how we (and later, they) might sort them out. It is a curiosity and wonder that is philosophical in spirit. Furthermore, although we adults may feel frustrated because of our inability to answer the large questions children sometimes ask, it seems that children often delight in their indeterminacy.
At the same time, young children are ready to begin structuring their pursuit of answers in ways that good scientists (and philosophers) do. It is the combination of their natural curiosity and this readiness that makes sense of bringing science into the elementary school curriculum. Unfortunately, by the time they reach high school, if not much earlier, many students find themselves agreeing with the sentiments of David Benjamin and Jeremy Scott, then 10th graders. 3
In high school there is a common system of "learning" that goes something like this: listen, take notes, memorize, and regurgitate facts. Each high school subject seems to show the world through a distinct window unconnected to the windows presented by other classes.
They wrote this after reading philosopher Thomas Nagel's What Does It All Mean? 4 What especially delighted them is that Nagel's book 5 made us see that as you obtain more knowledge, you find that there is more knowledge to be obtained. Answering questions brings about more unanswered questions, and thus a point of complete and final knowledge cannot be reached.
David Benjamin and Jeremy Scott are concerned about a misunderstanding of the quest for knowledge. They invoke the image of a wise guru sitting on a mountain top in possession of all knowledge and a complete understanding of the world. People, they say, "think that from the guru's mountain-top, with complete knowledge, the world can be simplified and viewed clearly and accurately". We have found that high school reinforces this fantasy.6 They conclude their essay with a plea for philosophy in high school:7Philosophy would help high school students to link and understand their knowledge. The guru may understand his knowledge, and he may in fact be a wise man, but in believing that he knows all, he lacks the open-mindedness and critical questioning we discovered through philosophy.
Now, without conflating science and philosophy, it seems fair to say that part of the problem David
Benjamin and Jeremy Scott faced was a curriculum that did not do justice to the subjects they studied. The sciences should not be presented in such a way that students see an absence of open-mindedness and critical questioning in science.
The introduction of ethics in science classes is not the only way to portray science as receptive to open-mindedness and critical questioning. But it is an effective way, and it places science squarely in the context in which it actually operates in society. In addition, the very methods of inquiry and standards of public reasoning that science advances can make a valuable contribution to the moral education of students, beginning whenever the study of science begins.
Although ethical questions cannot be answered by science alone (there is this much to the fact/value distinction), it seems clear that a reasonable approach to an ethical question requires carefully attending to, and seeking out, all the relevant facts. Screening out information that may make it more difficult to support one's favored position is contrary to reasonable ethical reflection; and it is contrary to good scientific reasoning. The scientific caution against generalizing from an unrepresentative sampling can help explain the shortcomings of stereotyping (common in racist and sexist thinking, e.g.). The scientific importance of looking at things from as many relevant perspectives as possible can help students understand and resist egocentric thinking, one of the most formidable barriers to reasonableness in social relationships. And the power of analogical reasoning in science can enhance ethical reasoning as well.
I would like to dwell on this last point a moment. Some years ago I visited a 4th grade class in the Kalamazoo area. It was my first meeting with this class, and we would have about 30 minutes together. I decided I would talk with the students about what we assume, or take for granted, sometimes without realizing it. I gave the students a few puzzles that can be solved only if we become critically aware of our assumptions. For example, 6 toothpicks can be put end to end to form 4 equilateral triangles--but only if we realize that the configurations do not need to be on a flat, two-dimensional surface. (Answer: form a pyramid with three toothpicks forming the base.) Although none of the puzzles had any social content, one of the students approached me after class with a puzzle of her own. She told me a fictional story about a father and his son being involved in an accident and taken to separate rooms in a hospital. The doctor entered the room of the son and said, "I cannot perform surgery on this child; he is my son." The question is: How is this possible? Having seen this story presented on the old "All in the Family" TV show, I knew the answer: The doctor was the son's mother. However, most viewers had trouble with this question--because they were assuming that the doctor is male.
It was immediately apparent that this student had understood very well the point my puzzles were intended to show. But this is striking in two ways. First, she had applied this point to a social context--something none of my examples had done. This shows the power of the sort of thinking I was encouraging the students to engage in, as well as the ability of this 9 year old to demonstrate this with an example of obvious social and moral importance--but without this being on the agenda. Second, she did not bring up this example until after the class was finished, suggesting that possibly she did not think that the classroom was the place to bring it up. But the example occurred to her anyway, suggesting that perceptive students will not restrict their thinking to the specific topic at hand. So, we might ask, what if such thinking were openly encouraged in the classroom--especially the science classroom, which, as I have suggested, is the natural place to raise ethical questions about science?
Admittedly, this example is only anecdotal. However, there is ample evidence that even elementary age students are capable of quite sophisticated reasoning (much more so than Piaget's stage theory of cognitive development would suggest).8 It should not be assumed that cognitive readiness implies moral readiness. Nevertheless, there is considerable evidence that elementary school age children, and certainly middle school level children, are quite sophisticated within their range of experience. 9
Of course, school science programs need to take carefully into account the readiness students have for particular science content and any related ethical issues. At present, there is very little material explicitly designed to assist K-middle school teachers who wish to integrate ethics into their science teaching. Although there is a growing literature on moral education at these levels, very little addresses the science curriculum. However, the December 1995 report of the Committee on National Standards for Science Education targets objectives that refer to aspects of scientific practice and uses of science that clearly suggest the need to integrate ethics and values issues in science classes.10 Some, for example, concern the ways in which scientists are expected to conduct research--sorting out evidence, testing hypotheses, making reliable inferences, accurately reporting data, working cooperatively with others, and the like. The report also includes suggestions for units on personal and social perspectives on science and on the nature of science and science inquiry. Just how any of these objectives might best be met in various levels of the school curriculum needs to be worked out with considerable care; but recent statements of science education goals and objectives at both the state and national level suggest that this task should be undertaken.
Before closing, I should point out that promoting the reasonableness of children can have two aims:
I support both. We might encourage the empathic responses of infants as a preparation for their early moral education--even though we don't think of these empathic responses themselves as moral; and even though we may think that it will take some time before distinctly moral responses will occur. In science we might think of memorization tasks, keeping neat notebooks, and so on, as important preparation for science, even if we don't think of these as scientific activities in children, per se. But I am as interested in respect for children's capacity to be reasonable as children as in their capacity to become reasonable adults. Respect for children requires both.
While not denying that there may be such preparatory phases, I think it is important to credit even elementary age children with the capability of understanding, and even engaging in, some scientific practice--and in grasping moral dimensions of science (ranging from some appreciation of the importance of honesty in scientific work to understanding why recycling rather than simply discarding waste materials is important). Furthermore, when combined with thoughtful attention to the moral dimensions of science, the kind of reflective inquiry science requires will have a positive spillover effect on their other studies as well as their daily lives. That is, science education will contribute to students's moral education well beyond science.
Michael Martin argues that good science education and moral education are mutually supportive.11 On the one hand, good science education contributes to moral reflection and decision-making by promoting inquiry and discovery skills that enable us to acquire relevant factual information, to test hypotheses, and to weigh the likely consequences of alternative choices. Good science education promotes clarity, thoroughness, perseverance, respect for sound reasoning, impartiality, and open-mindedness--all valuable assets for morality as well.
On the other hand, moral education promotes values essential to good science education. Honesty, fairness, and cooperativeness are all virtues necessary for good scientific practice. Fellow scientists and others depend on the honest reporting of data. It is a matter of fairness (and honesty) to give proper credit to the work of others. Scientists typically work in teams, or at the very least depend on the work of others in furthering their own. Furthermore, questions need to be asked about appropriate or inappropriate scientific research and its resulting technological use. These questions concern biomedical research and treatment, experimentation on humans and animals, military research and the development of weaponry, the use of various forms of energy, environmental quality, and the entire range of scientific activity that can significantly affect public health, safety, and welfare.
Not all of this is appropriate for elementary school level science; but, suitably adjusted for their level of experience, much of it is; and, as Martin points out, the stakes may be high.12Typically, young science students are not made aware by their teachers that there may be moral issues involved in killing or starving members of other species. Indeed, far from science education making young scientists more sensitive to such issues, science courses may kill some children's natural sensitivity to injuring other species because of the callous disregard of the moral issues by the teachers and textbooks.
I began this paper by noting that my book Reasonable Children tries to make that case that philosophy should have a place throughout the K-12 curriculum. Am I arguing here that the sorts of moral reflection that belong in the science classroom are philosophical? This has not been an aim of this paper. Here I am less interested in arguing about whether what I am advocating should be called a kind of philosophical thinking than I am in simply advocating a kind of critical thinking that integrates both scientific and moral reflection. If David Benjamin and Jeremy Scott are close to the mark, there is far too little of this sort of thinking going in the schools; and if this is right, there is much more that can, and should, be done to foster the reasonableness of students.
Michael S. Pritchard