One of the biggest arguments that I ever had was when I was in college and it centered around the moral responsibility of writers.
I was dating the young man, we had known each other briefly in high school when I had gone to a small town high school just outside of Phoenix. He was smart and had a certain intellectual wit about him that I found very attractive. We had ,what I can know call, a flirtation. There was an attraction but we never acted on it. I left the small town to return to my big city high school. We both went to Arizona State and ran into each other there, a miracle even then as the school had a collective 35,000 students among all its campuses at that time. We met for coffee and the flirtation began again. I was in the midst of studying anthropology and the biological sciences, he was in creative writing.
We would meet for coffee or hang out in his apartment flirting with each other using the guise of intellectual conversation. For the most part it was delightful.
There is a fine line between censorship and good taste and moral responsibility.
~ Steven Spielberg
One night changed all that. We talked about the moral imperative of our potential career choices. I claimed that artists had a oral obligation to their people, their community… he argued that they did not. They, artists, were exempt from those rules. He was so emphatic that this was the important piece of some lofty idea he had of what was an artist. We argued bitterly, it got ugly. I left with tears in my eyes, because we had crossed a line in our friendship that would prove difficult to recover from.
In science there is a built in obligation to try not to mess with certain ideas and themes. For example, one could get a viable fetus from combining gametes from a human with that of a chimpanzee… while potentially scientifically interesting, there are things that must be deeply and carefully considered before one could even begin to engage in this kind of experimentation. Failures to uphold to this standard in the past have led to developing things like Internal Review Boards (IRB) to make sure that people and the community are protected from the mad men who might think that injecting syphilis into black men residing in Tuskegee was a viable means to test a hypothesis. While not a perfect means of protection, it is there and in place.
Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.
~ Marcus Aurelius
What do the arts have? Critics? Audience? I can’t think of anything really that measures the influence of their work on the the people, their listeners, their community.
So, with this imbalance between the arts an science I am pushed to recall Plato’s Republic. Plato called for the absence of rugged individualism and would set up a system of castes and classes to which people worked and lived in to create a better whole. His utopia was in no means the democratic world so many of us aspire to, but one thing that I find interesting is that Plato would have banned the arts from his utopia. I wonder if he would have banned scientists, somehow I think there is a big possibility as they tend towards that “rugged individualism” he so despised in a utopia.
I still believe that artists have a moral imperative, that they can push an envelope but that doing so should reflect some careful thought, discretion and judgement. At least until now we don’t have a thought police to monitor the artists. It is entirely possible that this is something that may come about as our world moves might move to more of a police state.
I read an article today by an ophthalmologist (is that ever so interesting?) about how Quantum physics proves there is no such thing as death. I had a problem with the article, it disturbed me, in part because it was some rather well established yet highly debatable philosophical thoughts disguised as Quantum Physics, except there was no physics (quantum or otherwise) anywhere in the article other than to allude to Richard Feynman’s theory of the double-slit and refraction. What I read in the article was a regurgitation of well established ideas gussied up with pretty words and catchy metaphors and made to sound like there was something exponentially valid… or as I told a friend, (that) article was playing with flourishes in a beastly and irresponsible manner… that makes Blair sad.
I can understand the lure of a free conscience, but if I can’t buy it as acceptable for the scientist, I most certainly can’t buy it for the artist.
The sturdiest pillars of human morality are compassion and a sense of justice.
~ Frans de Waal