Science vs. Ethics

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Science vs. Ethics

by Barbara Chasin & Richard Franke

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 7, No. 4, July 1975, p. 14 – 16

Does an increase in scientific and technological knowledge have to result in the destruction of human lives and seemingly irreparable damage to the environment? The answer given by many seems to be “yes”. We seem to be faced with the dilemma of having but two unpalatable alternatives: either dismantle modern technology or face a likely doomsday. 

But is this dilemma real? In this brief essay we wish to show that the dilemma in question is not caused by anything in the nature of technology. Rather it is the politics of those who control science which creates the dilemma. 

Science in a Liberal Society vs. Science in a Marxist Society

Liberals assume that once science has progressed so that we know how to achieve a given result technically, the problem then becomes one of convincing policymakers that the solution should be put into operation. In recent years the ecological threat has challenged these liberal notions in two ways. First of all, policy-makers seem often to ignore the solutions offered by scientists, as when the government continued to use chemical agents in Vietnam long after there was overwhelming evidence that these chemicals would cause long-term, perhaps irreparable damage to the environment. Secondly, even when policy-makers do agree with the scientists, corporations seem to have an endless capacity to resist the decision when losses of profits are involved. Liberals, however, because their view of society is basically one of accepting the structure of power and privilege, seem to construe the problem as one of the “dangers of technology” and its effects. 

Marxists, on the other hand, take a completely different approach. They start from the premise that modern capitalist societies contain two essential classes: owners of the means of production who run their businesses primarily to make a profit, and workers who sell their labor in order just to make a living. According to the Marxist view, the ethical implications of the uses of new scientific knowledge can only be judged according to which of these two classes will primarily benefit from it. Three simple rule-of-thumb principles guide Marxists in analyzing how science will be utilized in capitalist society:

  1. Advances which improve the lives of workers will only be acceptable to the owners of the means of production if they also happen to serve the interests of the latter. 
  2. When there is an advance beneficial only to workers, the capitalists will make every attempt to evade or prevent its implementation (e.g. mass transit). 
  3. An advance profitable to the capitalists, which happens to bring great harm to workers, will be used by the capitalists as long as they can manage to do so (eg. pesticides, chemicals in foods). 

In Marxist theory, there is no way to resolve the conflict between the two classes except by a seizure of political control of the entire society by the workers — who represent the overwhelming majority of the people — leading eventually to a society without classes altogether. Once the working class holds political power, the apparent science-ethics dilemma will tend to disappear, for any discovery which would harm the majority of people could not be put to use simply because it would bring profits to the few. In this society, science would come under the democratic control of all the people.1

A corollary of this conclusion is that until capitalism is overthrown, scientists must always choose whether they are working for the capitalist class or the working class. Liberal scientists, who think they work for “science” in reality end up working most of the time for the class which holds power — that is, the capitalists. To illustrate how these different approaches work out in a concrete case, let us take a look at one of the ecology movement’s major concerns-overpopulation. 

A Liberal Dilemma—What To Do About Overpopulation 

Probably the most painful dilemma facing liberal ecologists today is “overpopulation.” With global famine on the horizon, with world resources apparently being stretched to their outer limits, people keep producing children at rates that threaten to push population far beyond the capacity of the earth to support it. And liberals ask, “what is it that has brought on this problem? Was it not the rising standard of living which came about as a result of the technological advances of the industrial revolution? Was it not the outcome of the discoveries of medicine which allowed for a lowering of the death rate while bringing no accompanying reductions in the birth rate?” In short, the population problem appears to them to be the direct if unintended result of the advance of scientific knowledge. 

In the face of this crisis liberals have tried to develop solutions. In the 1950’s moderate attempts were made to induce “birth control” by appealing to people’s “better instincts”. These programs, the experts agree, have failed. Confronted thus, with the apparent fact that people, particularly in the poor countries of the world, will not voluntarily reduce their birth rate, increasingly stringent measures have begun to be considered. American foreign aid is now often made contingent upon acceptance by the receiver-nation of a certain dose of birthcontrol technology. Family-planning schemes for poor nations are peddled by scientists working for foundations or government agencies. Paul Ehrlich, the veritable dean of the ecology scientists, has recently written the starkest statement yet. Looking at 30 years of failure to make significant reductions in population growth in India, he advises that “India’s government may well have to resort to some coercive method sooner or later, unless famine, war, or disease take the problem out of its hands”.2 Some scientists, apparently concerned with the failure of their programs to check rapid population growth, now find themselves compelled to consider alternatives — “some coercive method” — in direct violation of their liberal beliefs. One dilemma leads inexorably to the next: technology produces overpopulation, overpopulation threatens the world, the world must consider “coercive methods”

Overpopulation—A Marxist Approach 

To understand the “overpopulation” in the world today, we must look at the class-structure of society as well as the technology being developed by science. Evidence suggests that there is something about the nature of a society itself that helps to determine how many children will be produced. Perhaps the most convincing argument for a social theory of population growth comes from a recent study done in India by the economist Mahmood Mamdani.3 During the years 1953–1959 the Harvard School of Public Health conducted a study of its own pilot program to control population growth in a village in the Punjab. In 1969 they initiated a follow-up study on their attempts to introduce birth-control devices among a group of Indian farmers. Everyone agreed that the program was a failure. But why would the poor farmers of India, among the world’s most impoverished people, refuse birth control when it was offered through the medium of a well organized, well financed, intensive program? The liberal experts were baffled.

Mamdani, using a Marxist analysis, found something quite different. Relating his study of the project’s failure to caste and class relationships in the village, he discovered that poor villagers consciously view their children as labor assets. Increasing land fragmentation combines with the new opportunities in post-colonial India to provide special incentives to the poor family for the production of many children. If most of the children could work at agriculture and other jobs, the combined efforts of the family might be enough to put one child through school and into a bureaucratic post. Then the family would have some hope of economic security or even advancement. Even if this dream did not come true, the presence of numerous children among the poorest families was viewed as a cost-saving device. One villager explained: “Why pay 2,500 rupees for an extra hand? Why not have a son?”4 The message is clear. For the poor in this village in India, children are not a “population bomb,” but rather a means of survival and even advancement for the entire family. Though society as a whole is threatened by the production of large families, each family, competing with other families, must try to keep its labor costs as low as possible, and one’s own children are the cheapest form of labor that can be found. 

But how does a society get itself into a situation where poor people, in order to survive, must act in ways that are ultimately irrational and highly dangerous for the world as a whole? A recent study by the anthropologist Benjamin White provides further insight. Using a “demand-for labor” analysis, White attempts to account for the rapid population growth of Java, a region similar to India in many ways. Noting the pressures of the Dutch sugar industry in the nineteenth century on land and labor available for Javanese family farms, White concludes that indigenous controls on population growth had to be lifted in order to produce child laborers who could work the family farms while adults went off to work for the sugar factories. As population thus increased, land holdings became even smaller, creating even further pressures for more laborers to work the small rice fields of Java more intensively.5

Putting these two studies together, we can see that while modern technology and modern medicine may have played a role in the development of the population problem of today, the most significant factor, the pressures on individual families to produce large numbers of children, was created by the particular labor needs of the colonial system of profit-making and is perpetuated by the social relationships which that system has produced. It is not technology or medicine which produced the population problem and keep making it worse. It is capitalism. 

With this analysis in hand, the science-ethics dilemma of population disappears. Since populations can be controlled when the social and economic conditions allow, a clear and straightforward solution emerges: If each family in the poorest nations produces large numbers of children to keep itself above water in the competition with other families to keep its farm-labor costs down, then the solution to the population problem lies primarily in reorganizing the production system so that cooperation can replace competition. Under these new conditions, birth control can be used in a positive manner; each family can plan the number of children in terms of the rational needs of the entire community, working together to produce food and other necessities for all. This is the essence of socialism. 

Would such a program really work? Some of the evidence has already emerged. In 1970 the People’s Republic of China, a socialist society, had a birth rate only one-half of that of India’s. Of all the formerly poor countries of the world, socialist China has been able to make the most significant inroads into the birth rate. Could China’s success have anything to do with the fact that labor on the communes is organized not on a single-family basis, but by the entire commune or work brigades, to make the best use of available labor and other productive forces? The answer is perhaps not a definitive yes at this stage, but clearly those who would like to see population brought under control will be betting on the solution most likely to succeed if they cast their lots with the oppressed classes and put their science to work for the world socialist movement. 


The analysis of population developed above can be extended into other areas of the ecology crisis. Would corporations continue to pollute the water and air that workers must drink and breathe if those corporations were directly controlled by the workers? Would there be enough money to overcome existing ecological threats if the profits soaked up by big stockholders were distributed to pay for projects democratically decided upon by communities in which the factories and mines are located? It is not so much an ethics of science that we need—it is a science for the people.6


>> Back to Vol. 7, No. 4 <<



  1. For further discussion of liberalism, and the differences between liberalism and Marxism, see Barbara Chasin and Gerald Chasin, Power and ldeology: A Marxist Approach to Political Sociology, Schenkman Publishing Co., Cambridge, Mass., 1974.
  2. Anne Ehrlich, Paul Ehrlich, and John Hodren, Human Ecology: Problems and Solutions, W.H. Freeman and Co. San Francisco, Ca., 1973, p. 256. See “The Ecology Bomb” by Richard Franke, Reviews in Anthropology, Feb. 1974, pp. 157-166 for a review of this book.
  3. Mahmood Mamdani, The Myth of Population Control: Family, Caste, and Class in an Indian Village, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1972.
  4. Ibid., p. 77.
  5. Benjamin White, “Demand-for-Labor Analysis and Population Theory: Population Growth in Colonial Java”, Journal of Human Ecology, Vol. I pp. 217–236.
  6. SftP China Group, China: Science Walks on Two Legs, Avon Books, New York, 1974. Available from the SftP office.