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READINGS

Is technology a threat to
liberal society?
IRVING KRISTOL

about science would


T
be the
O say that I know nothing
understatement
was born and raised in Brooklyn, but unhappily,
of the century.
I didn't go to
I

Brooklyn Poly. I went to City College instead. I don't know


why, just a family tradition. It is true, I did start out as a
physics major, but after one year of studying physics, I discov-
ered that physics was very hard. So I decided to be an intel-
lectual instead. In those days, one could spend four years in
City College becoming an intellectual. It was very pleasant,
because you didn't have to go to class. I suppose my function
here today is to be a kind of kibitzer-intellectual. An intellec-

Editors" note: With this issue, The Public Interest begins an occa-
sional series of "readings'--reprints of articles, essays, and lectures
that we believe are as pertinent today, if not more so, as when they
first appeared. We begin with a talk given by Irving Kristol at the
Polytechnic Institute of New York in 1975. It addresses the problems
technology poses for liberal democracy--a subject that, given current
developments in human genetics, merits serious consideration.

45
46 THE PUBLIC INTEREST / SPRING 2001

tual has been defined as a man with a great many opinions on


a great many subjects about which he knows precious little.
But he nevertheless fulfills a useful function--sometimes.
What I want to talk about today is the question of the
place of science and technology in a liberal democracy in the
decades ahead. I think that is not a matter about which one
can be smug. I think we must anticipate some very serious
problems involving the place of science and technology in our
society. These are problems we are going to have to face up
to, although they may not be problems we like to face.

Progress and perfection

There is a very interesting historical controversy concern-


ing why the Greeks and the Chinese did not develop the
technology that their theoretical science evidently made pos-
sible. There are different hypotheses for why this ocurred.
The major one is the "'institutional" one--namely, that there
was slavery, or that labor was depreciated, not held in high
esteem; and therefore, though pure science developed to a
considerable degree in the ancient world, applied science and
technology did not. There is another theory for why pure
science developed while applied technology did not--namely,
that the ancient Greeks and the Chinese were very wise people.
They knew that although science is beautiful when contem-
plated in its theoretical aspects, when it is transformed into
technology it becomes a form of power. And power is the
power for good and for evil. The theory goes on to say that
the ancients decided that this was not a power they cared to
entrust men with, and therefore deliberately, systematically
discouraged the application of pure theory to the development
of technology.
This notion is preserved for us in our literature, in the
myth of Doctor Faustus, for instance. The idea that there is
something diabolical about science, the idea that the power
that science gives you over the world is a power that comes
not from God but from the devil--this idea was certainly very
strong until around the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
At that point, we saw the emergence of the modern idea of
science and technology, that not only is pure science good but
the development of all the inherent potentialities of science
IS TECHNOLOGY A THREAT TO LIBERAL SOCIETY? 47

and technology is also good.


For this change of perception and this change of perspec-
tive to take place, certain basic assumptions had to be changed
as well. Two new grand intellectual ideas emerged to legiti-
mate the modern scientific enterprise. One was that man could
be trusted with this power, that man was not a creature of
original sin, that man was not a creature of innate perver-
sity-and that he was, if not perfectible in the literal sense,
then perfectible enough to permit one to entrust to humanity
the power that science, when converted into technology, gives
us. The second basic idea that the Greeks did not have was
that history was progressive, consisting of a series of stages
whereby humanity perfected itself. Therefore, since the future
would be better than the past and human beings in the future
would be better than they had been in the past, there really
was no great cause for concern in giving humanity this new
and great power.
These two ideas, when conformed, give us the essence of
what we call in our textbooks the Enlightenment--meaning
that it's a good thing to get as much knowledge as possible
and to make it as widely available as possible. Enlighten ev-
eryone, make knowledge freely available to all who seek it.
This set of beliefs is the basis of our liberal democratic soci-
ety.

Brave new worlds

During the past few decades, however, these assumptions


have become less firmly held. It seems clear to me, at any
rate, that these assumptions have become problematic, and
will probably become more problematic in the years ahead.
I think the first great blow to the Enlightenment's view of
the world, the modern view of the world, was the explosion of
the atom bomb. It suddenly became very clear to us indeed
that the power of science is a power for evil as well as for
good. And not only for evil but for unlimited evil. Suddenly,
humanity had within its grasp the power to destroy itself and
the entire world quickly, without much effort. And the ques-
tion was bound to occur to us: Is it unthinkable that humanity
should do such a thing? Once we really looked at the world
and thought about the matter, we came to the conclusion that
48 THE PUBLIC INTEREST / SPRING 2001

no, it wasn't unthinkable. As a matter of fact, though we may


have been slow in coming to that conclusion, our children
were not. It's clear that the generation that came to maturity
in the 1950s, after the explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
saw the world rather differently from those of us who had the
good luck, as it were, to be born and raised during the De-
pression.
The skepticism that then began to emerge about the neces-
sary benefits of science and technology was reinforced by the
upsurge of concern for ecology, the environmentalist move-
ment. One must understand the environmentalist and the eco-
logical movements in their full seriousness. These are not just
movements for improving the world. These are movements
that, in their full thrust, challenge the basic assumptions upon
which modern civilization--modern, liberal, democratic civili-
zation-was created. They question whether the furthest de-
velopment of science and the richest, most ample application
of technology necessarily are going to lead to a good society
and a good world. And it is quite clear that, among young
people today, there is a great deal of doubt and skepticism
about this.
Oddly enough, throughout the twentieth century, even when
the basic assumptions of our worldview and our society were
not being explicitly challenged, there was one area of our
culture where one could find it under very critical scrutiny. I
trust that many of you read science fiction. One of the fasci-
nating facts of our cultural history of the past 50 years is the
the way in which science fiction, having begun on an optimis-
tic note very early on--long before the hydrogen bomb--be-
came extremely pessimistic. If you look at the worlds that are
described in science-fiction stories of the 1920s, 1930s, and
1940s, you will find they are not usually the kinds of worlds
that most of us would want to live in. They are not, to begin
with, liberal; practically all of them are despotisms. Some are
benevolent despotisms, some malevolent despotisms. But none
of them is a self-governing community, and always for the
same reason: Someone has to keep control of the knowledge
that can destroy the entire civilization. And there is usually
one group that has control of that knowledge: a good group,
or a bad group. But what you do not have is anything like a
IS TECHNOLOGY A THREAT TO LIBERAL SOCIETY? 49

liberal society, a self-governing political community of the kind


that we have grown up in, where knowledge is free, where
knowledge can be published freely, where knowledge can be
circulated widely, and where it is assumed that all this will
somehow lead to a good end result.
Now the premonitions of science fiction over the past 40
years have come home to roost in actuality in our lifetime. It
really is a fact that in 30 or 40 or 50 years, these premoni-
tions will be coping with a reality. It will happen that almost
anyone with a smattering of college chemistry and physics will
be able to create some form of atomic weapon. It's quite clear
that, at the rate things are going, in 40 or 50 years almost
anybody will be able to create explosives of a kind that can
destroy an entire city. And if anyone can, it is possible to
surmise that someone will, the world being what it is and
human beings what they are. It is also quite clear that, given
the tremendous developments in chemistry, some high school
student puttering around in his basement is going to come up
with a nerve gas that could decimate an entire country. Some-
thing like that will happen as science gets more and more
sophisticated, as young people become masters of technologies
that only a genius could dream of 50 years ago.

Educating the scientist

All of these things are on the horizon. I don't say this to


scare you; I say this as a matter of fact. It is clear that this is
going to happen. The real question is: How are we going to
cope with it? Humanity has not perfected itself in any great
degree as a result of the progress of science and technology in
these past four centuries. It certainly has not perfected itself
in its basic feelings of benevolence toward other human be-
ings. And it is clear to me, therefore, that the basic premises
of our liberal society are going to be under challenge and
scrutiny. We're going to have to think about what we can do
with the results of scientific enlightenment, with the results of
the spread of scientific and technological knowledge as this
knowledge becomes ever more powerful.
I hope we will approach this problem with the intention of
preserving our liberal democratic society. But that is going to
be extremely difficult. It will involve not the training of better
50 THE PUBLIC INTEREST / SPRING 2001

technologists, but rather the moral education of scientists and


technologists. And this may well turn out to be the biggest
single challenge facing the scientific community--its own moral
education, its own assumption of moral responsibility for the
use and abuse of scientific knowledge. For this, you need an
education not in science but in the humanities, because you
don't get moral education by studying science. You may ac-
quire good moral habits by studying science, but you don't get
a moral education. You don't learn to think about problems of
good and evil by studying science. That's what the humanities
are for. And scientists, I believe, in the decades ahead, are
going to have to become much more attentive than they have
been to the humanities, in their own self-defense.
I think there is some loose thinking about this whole prob-
lem of scientists, engineers, and their social responsibilities.
When scientists say they want to live up to their social re-
sponsibilities, what they usually mean is that they want more
power than they havei it means they want to run things, to
take charge. It's always nicer to run things than to be run by
them. But that's not what moral responsibility really means.
As a matter of fact I am not all that eager to see scientists get
involved in politics per se. I think that with the possible ex-
ception of businessmen, engineers and scientists are the worst
people I've seen working in politics. Businessmen are used to
making decisions. They come to Washington and discover that
you can spend 10 years in Washington and never have the
privilege of making a decision; all you're doing is making
compromises with other people who aren't making decisions
either. It gets terribly frustrating for them, and they go home,
back to a nice easy life where if you say "do something,"
somebody does it.
Scientists and engineers, on the other hand, have the incli-
nation to think that the world is full of "problems" to which
they should seek "solutions." But the world isn't full of prob-
lems; the world is full of other people. That's not a problem,
that's a condition. Politics exist precisely because the world is
full of other people. These other people have ideas, different
ways of life, different preferences, and in the end, there is no
"solution" to the existence of other people. All you can do is
figure out a civilized accommodation with them.
IS TECHNOLOGY A THREAT TO LIBERAL SOCIETY? 51

So I am not all that eager to see scientists become active


in political affairs. I am, however, concerned to see engineers
and scientists become interested in themselves--not in im-
proving the rest of the world, but in facing the tasks of their
own self-improvement, and learning how to think about their
own responsibilities in a more serious and reflective way, rather
than the traditional one: We can solve the problem, just give
us the power to do it.

First things

One can't help but notice that the phrase "long-range plan-
ning" keeps coming up when scientists talk about politics.
Scientists always love planning. The assumption underlying
long-range planning is that people will do what you tell them
to do. But in politics the problem with long-range planning is
that unless you have absolute power over people, they don't
do what you want them to do; they have their own inclina-
tions, So what I think the scientific and engineering commu-
nity has to face up to is its own self-education, its own social
education. It has to start thinking about the problems of po-
litical philosphy--not political science, but political philoso-
phy. Here I mean what is called in the academy "normative"
political philosophy. I happen to think there is no other kind.
It involves such questions as: What is a good society? How do
you go about achieving it? How do you--what do we--learn
from history? What do we learn from political philosophers of
the past? I think that this kind of educational inquiry tends to
be neglected in modern scientific education, as the fields pro-
liferate and there is more and more to know.
I have no reason to doubt that the Polytechnic Institute
will incorporate in its curriculum, and in its intentions, this
humanistic intent. I'm assuming it will. It should. In my view,
there isn't a scientific institution in the United States which is
doing it right as yet, doing it seriously enough with a sense of
the urgency involved. There are enormous decisions that will
have to be made. And scientists, because they are the "ex-
perts," will be called in to say, for instance, do we clone, or
don't we clone? Well, how do you decide whether to clone or
not to clone? You cannot decide on the basis of science. You
decide on the basis of philosophy, and especially on the basis
52 THE PUBLIC INTEREST / SPRING 2001

of moral and political philosophy. Scientists need the whole


area of self-education if they are going to cope with the world
which science has brought about. And they will have a central
role, I hope, in saving that world.