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Why the Topic of Bioethics in Science Classes?

A New Look at an Old Debate

by Carolyn Csongradi


How do we acquire knowledge about principles and values and make reasoned choices?

How do we develop the skills to make hard choices, to appreciate how others feel, to shape the kind of world we want to live in, to be moral and live with integrity? The fundamental question of whether virtues are taught, inherited, or passed on by some other mechanism has been attributed to Plato more than 2,000 years ago. One current theory proposes that values and moral knowledge are acquired much in the same manner as other forms of content knowledge, through real world experience.

There are at least four plausible, overlapping hypotheses addressing the question of how the human mind gains knowledge about the world. Each hypothesis, supported by different lines of evidence, states one possible relationship between nature, which is inherited information, and nurture, which represents environmental influences. Spanning several centuries, the pros and cons of these hypotheses have been debated by philosophers, scientists, psychologists and others. An important point of contention woven throughout this long standing debate is whether object reality differs from what our mental image is of those same objects. In otherwords, the map is not all there is to describing the territory! These hypotheses focus on distinctions and relationships between "content" which is sensory information arising from real objects, such as shape or color; and "form" which are thoughts, inferences, about these objects. Cause and effect is an example of a property which cannot be directly observed, but develops from mental constructs based on experience and/or genetic information. Our knowledge of things is intimately tied to what we believe to be an objectively or even subjectively defined reality. Object knowledge is thought to be influenced by experience and moral knowledge, by social practices. And as the last hypothesis will propose, what we know about matter and values is likely relative and contingent on our place in history.


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