Science, Respect for Nature, and Human Well-Being: Democratic Values and the Responsibilities of Scientists Today


The central question addressed is: How should scientific research be conducted so as to ensure that nature is respected and the well being of everyone everywhere enhanced? After pointing to the importance of methodological pluralism for an acceptable answer and to obstacles posed by characterizing scientific methodology too narrowly, which are reinforced by the ‘commercial-scientific ethos’, two additional questions are considered: How might research, conducted in this way, have impact on—and depend on—strengthening democratic values and practices? And: What is thereby implied for the responsibilities of scientists today?

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  1. 1.

    For elaborations, nuances, qualifications, and competing formulations of the summary statements of the ideals introduced here, see Lacey (1999, 2005).

  2. 2.

    The analysis, briefly summarized here,—and the notions of ‘strategy’, ‘DSs’, methodological pluralism, etc—are elaborated in detail in Lacey (1999, 2005).

  3. 3.

    Theoretical categories, utilized within DSs, include no value categories, and so theoretical results can have no value judgments among their logical implications. This does not ensure neutrality (Sect. 1), however, for such a logical result implies nothing about the empirical claim that, on application, scientific knowledge serves viable value outlooks evenhandedly.

  4. 4.

    This view (a version of traditional materialist metaphysics) is itself neither a result nor a presupposition of scientific investigation. It is a presupposition of the adequacy of DSs for scientific investigation.

  5. 5.

    Under DSs, the objects of investigation are dissociated from their social, etc contexts. When adopting DSs is itself the object of investigation, appropriate CSs need to be deployed—adopting DSs virtually exclusively is explained in part by the historical-social context in which they are adopted.

  6. 6.

    On whether or not technoscience represents a sharp rupture in the scientific tradition, see Nordmann et al. (2011).

  7. 7.

    Technoscientific research aiming to have immediate practical payoff typically cannot be conducted without being informed by well confirmed basic theory, and/or by the availability of suitable instruments for manipulating materials. The research that produced transgenics, e.g., depended upon prior knowledge having been gained about the molecular structures of genomes; cures promised to follow stem-cell research depend upon fundamental understanding of cell development; nanotechnology became possible following the construction of instruments that enabled the manipulation of individual molecules. Technoscience does not eliminate basic science, but the priorities of research in basic science tend to be set with an eye on long-term practical payoff, or on practical spinoff from the developments of instruments, etc, that need to be developed to make the research possible (Lacey 2012).

  8. 8.

    For elaboration and documentation of claims made here about transgenics and agricultural alternatives, see Lacey (2005: Part 2, forthcoming b). About agroecology, including about who engages in it, the evidence for its productive potential, and its special suitability for farming in poor regions, see Altieri (1995); for recent assessments of its potential, see Lacey (forthcoming b) and especially De Schutter (2010). See also Notes 18, 19.

  9. 9.

    My use of ‘ethos’ and many elements of my analysis derive from Ziman (2000) and Krimsky (2003).

    Versions of the six proposals (all readily intelligible in view of the previous discussion) pervade the discourse of legitimation of using transgenics (Sect. 4.1; for documentation see Lacey 2005: Part 2, forthcoming b) and, more generally, of technoscientific innovation produced by private interest science—how generally needs to be tested by detailed empirical studies of the discourse and practice of private interest science.

  10. 10.

    Renewed attention to the traditional scientific ethos might help, provided that it were supplemented by the virtues of tolerance for the play of a multiplicity of values, including solidarity with the poor and marginalized.

  11. 11.

    This kind of inclusiveness, although it involves coexisting with ‘unacceptable values’, produces conditions for the dialectical unfolding of scientific knowledge and viable values—since it produces conditions and identifies strategies under which the presuppositions of holding values can be submitted to scientific investigation (held to accord with impartiality), thereby leading to possible challenges to the viability of the values (Lacey, forthcoming a).

  12. 12.

    A value outlook is viable provided that the presuppositions of holding it are consistent with impartially established scientific knowledge (Lacey 1999, Ch. 2). The proposed rehabilitated neutrality involves (in principle) inclusiveness of all value outlooks that are actually held in a democratic society, and putting their presuppositions on the agenda (usually requiring the adoption of some CSs) of scientific investigation. (See Note 12.) When, in practice, priorities have to be set among value outlooks, they should be the outcome of inclusive democratic deliberations, which might perhaps be structured in the light of Kitcher’s notion of ‘well-ordered science’ (Kitcher 2001), or Elliott’s notion of ‘deliberative processes’ (Elliott 2011)—provided that they are expanded to recognize the role of CSs in investigations pertaining to the legitimacy of implementing applications. Some philosophers of science reject altogether the idea of rehabilitating neutrality; Kourany (2010), e.g., proposes to subordinate scientific practices to the furtherance of ‘morally justified values (I discuss this in Lacey 2013).

  13. 13.

    Of course, those who hold the values of capital and the market may reject my proposal for rehabilitating neutrality, and hence my account of the responsibilities of scientists, and be comfortable with science being at the service of special interests. Any argument made for this needs to be attended to. There are others who think that there is nothing that can be done (without having the material conditions of their lives threatened) to counter the dominance of capital and market forces today, or that the responsibility of scientists, qua scientists, is to behave according to the norms prevailing in contemporary scientific institutions.

  14. 14.

    There are roles for philosophy of science to play in connection with all seven points.

  15. 15.

    Agroecology is an example. (Other examples need to be identified: in medicine, energy, computers/information, communication, biotechnology, etc, and long-term research on environmental problems, global warming, etc).

  16. 16.

    How ‘basic’ science fits into this picture is an important topic for another paper.

  17. 17.

    I have in mind organizations such as the following: in USA, The Union of Concerned Scientists,—a reliable source of information about (e.g.) the risks of using transgenics on a large scale and of global warming; in Canada, ETC Group,—excellent source on risks (considered in the light of the Precautionary Principle) of new kinds of technoscientific innovations (nanotechnology, synthetic chemistry, geotechnologies); in UK, Scientists for Global Responsibility,—questioning the current role of corporations connected with science; in India, All India Peoples Science Network,’s_Science_Network—sponsors many projects aiming to make science relevant to improving the lives of poor communities; in France, Fondation Sciences Citoyennes,—organizes programs for citizen participation in science policy matters; in Brazil, AS-PTA (Provider of resources for alternative agriculture),—organizes interactions between popular organizations and scientific research, and is a source of policy proposals for research and development of agricultural alternatives.

  18. 18.

    This article is a revised version of Lacey (2008). I thank an anonymous referee for providing helpful criticisms, suggestions, and references.



Context-sensitive strategies: strategies that are not reducible to DSs.


Decontextualizing strategies: under which, admissible theories are constrained so that they can represent phenomena and encapsulate their possibilities in terms of how they are related to underlying structures and their components, process and interactions, and the laws that govern them; and empirical data are selected, and reported using descriptive categories that are generally quantitative, and applicable in virtue of measurement, instrumental and experimental operations. Representing phenomena in this way dissociates them from their context.


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Lacey, H. Science, Respect for Nature, and Human Well-Being: Democratic Values and the Responsibilities of Scientists Today. Found Sci 21, 51–67 (2016).

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  • Sustainability
  • Human well-being
  • Neutrality
  • Impartiality
  • Commercial-scientific ethos
  • Responsibilities of scientists