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Reviewed by:
  • Science in a Democratic Society by Philip Kitcher
  • Henry S. Richardson
Review: Philip Kitcher, Science in a Democratic Society, Prometheus Books, 2011

In examining the place of science in a democratic society, Philip Kitcher is ultimately asking what standards scientific activity is answerable to. Here, as in Science, Truth, and Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2001), he rejects two extreme possibilities: first, the suggestion that science is autonomous, in the sense that it is answerable only to its own standards; and, second, the suggestion that it is answerable to “vulgar democracy”—that is, to unconstrained majority rule by untutored citizens. In this book, as in the earlier book, he deploys the idea of “well-ordered science,” which he seeks to characterize in part by leaning on the idea of a hypothetical, ideal conversation. Crucially informing this newer book is a much fuller account of nonvulgar democracy. Underlying that account is a much broader picture of “the ethical project”—the title idea of another important Kitcher book from 2011 (Harvard University Press).

In order to motivate the friends of science to turn to these broader ethical ideas, Kitcher persuasively rehearses the case against value neutrality in science. Much current distrust of science and scientists, he argues, derives from scientists falsely pretending—whether deludedly or cynically—that science can proceed in a value-neutral way. It cannot do so in resolving competitions among theories, let alone in setting the research agenda or weighing in on practical problems of public concern. By wearing a false mask of value neutrality, scientists succeed only in convincing the public that they are ideologically driven. This, in turn, gives an opening for dissenters motivated by religion or by their own ideologies to develop supposedly scientific counter-claims of their own, such as those that assert creationism or deny the reality of climate change. Better, then, for science and scientists to be frank about its lack of value neutrality. [End Page E-106]

What values ought to inform science? To answer this question, Kitcher turns to his conception of the ethical project, of which Chapter 2 gives a summary. As he conceives of ethics, it arose pre-historically as a set of mechanisms helping us to deal with deficiencies in altruistic motivation. Although inspired by evolutionary theory, Kitcher spurns the sociobiologist’s identification of the good with the adaptive. Instead, while giving an elaborate reconstruction of how our ethical practices may actually have arisen, he gives pride of place to the idea of conversation. On his reconstruction, the “egalitarian plateau” touted by Will Kymlicka (Contemporary Political Philosophy [Oxford University Press, 1990], p. 5) and others as the great achievement of the Enlightenment was merely a delayed philosophical echo of the ethical project’s initial feature, one that would have been found in the ethical discussions of human hunter-gatherer bands of forty-thousand years ago. Being more focused on how life is lived than on philosophy, Kitcher, fairly enough, is unwilling to see the Enlightenment as an egalitarian age. Rather, most recent incarnations of the ethical project have been distorted by hierarchies and inequalities. Emphasizing the word, Kitcher writes, “I propose . . . that we undo the distortion,” and model the ethical project, going forward, as involving an egalitarian conversation. This frankness disarms any worry about the move from ‘was’ to ‘ought’ that might have arisen in the minds of those already puzzled by the current popularity of the cave-man diet; and in any case, since Kitcher’s account of the ethical project is defended at length in his contemporaneous book of that title, doubts about it would be better addressed in that context. Rhetorically, since the ideal of treating persons fundamentally as equals is even more popular than eating meat, he is on strong ground here.

The book develops this core egalitarian proposal in three distinct ways, thereby gaining a rich evaluative basis for considering the place of science in society. The first is an account of the purposes to which science is answerable. Kitcher dismisses as unrealistically high-minded and ultimately elitist a conception of scientists as driven by a disinterested quest for truth and a simple love of knowledge for its own sake. Rather, his...


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pp. E-106-E-109
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