The BBC TV program 11th Hour, currently being shown in the United States on Monday nights at 9-10:30 EST on BBC America, has an interestingly ambivalent attitude toward science. The four-episode series appeared in the UK early last year and is now in its first run in the United States, according to my calcuations.
To be sure, the program is pro-science, but it’s not at all certain how we as a society ought to decide what is allowed and what isn’t. The protatonist’s investigation of "scientific disasters" suggests that there must be some limits, but what they are is not clear to him or his associates.
In the end, of course, the pilot episode seems to decide that it’s up to the government to figure it out on a case by case basis, and whatever benefits the greatest number without raising too much of an Ick Factor will be allowed.
That is, it comes out in favor of a fairly straight utilitarianism.
The series stars Patrick Stewart as Prof. Ian Hood, a scientist who works for some shadowy department of the British government and investigages criminal activities in the realm of high science. The first episode, which premiered this past Monday night, dealt with the issue of human cloning, and centered on a wealthy man who is financing an effort to clone a child identical to his only son, who died in an accident.
The problem is that the effort has resulted only in the production of mutated, unviable fetuses so far, and all of them have had to be disposed of.
Unfortunately for the rich man and cloning genius "Gepetto" and their associates, the person whom they have engaged to dispose of the bodies—at L20 per—is a Christian . Instead of incinerating them as instructed, he has buried them, including in each grave a rosary, which leads the police right to the graves by use of metal detectors.
Those damn silly Christians!
Hood makes certain to show his knowledge of the Christian’s beliefs and Hood’s certainty that they are in large part antiquated and asinine. And he also makes sure to tell us, very directly, that anyone who opposes the use of embryonic stem cells is a murderer.
It is important to note that this position is entirely false: adult stem cells have done great wonders over the years, whereas the use of embryonic stems cells has accomplished exactly nothing. See my article on the matter here; it is still true though two years old.
In addition, the premiere episode ultimately has to resort to a metaphysical concept in its effort to define the limits of what humans can be allowed to do to one another. Hood tells the wealthy man financing the cloning effort, "the soul is more that its constituent chemical parts."
This ultimately proves ineffectual, as the man is determined to have his way, and is thus very true to life. It also goes to show, however, that legislating morality is sometimes to only way for society to ensure that people’s rights are respected by one another.
One thing is certain, as 11th Hour illustrates: there is no utilitarian argument we can make that can’t be countered by an equally valid argument based on alternative assumptions. That is why there is sometimes no viable alternative to the widely derided idea of legislating morality.
Thanks for your comment, SciCon. Being pro-science is good. The point I made in that paragraph is that the show acknowledges that there are limits to what we should pursue, in science as in any other realm. My criticism here of the BBC version of the show is that the answer they proffer–that government should decide the answers by fiat, and that a simple and indeed ignorant application of utilitariansm should be the method used–is facile, dangerous, and awful. As I point out, any utilitarian argument can be countered by an equally plausible utilitarian counterargument, and thus such a pursuit typically results in the most powerful people winning the argument.
That’s emblematic in the BBC 11th Hour in that the winner of all the arguments is inevitably the government, the most powerful force of all.
These are problems the U.S. version solved by being more willing to consider the full moral complexity of the issues it brings up.
And what, exactly, is so wrong about being pro-science? I’m more worried about the knee-jerk anti-science attitudes which are killing conservatism in the public eye.
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