A Less Flammable Formula?

Michael Metzger

When the Pill hit the market in the early 60s, advocates hailed it as solving “the problem that has no name”—the cramped calculus for women forced to choose between family and career. Opponents however believed it created a firestorm, calling it a Faustian bargain. Reproductive technologies are one of America’s most incendiary issues today. Is there a way to make this controversy less combustible? Yes, by making the formula less flammable.

The Pill is perhaps the pinnacle of two movements that were at first disconnected. The women’s rights movement is the first. It took a leap forward with the appearance of “Am I Not a Woman and a Sister?” engravings in abolitionist George Bourne’s Slavery Illustrated in Its Effects upon Women, published in 1837. The medallion highlighted the women’s rights movements and contributed to American women winning the right to vote in 1920.

The second movement would prove to be more problematic. In 1872, when a group including Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and John Dewey introduced a philosophy called positivism, which, according to Harvard historian Louis Menand was an absolute distinction between facts and values. Facts were the province of science while values were the province of what these men called, always a little mockingly, “metaphysics.” Values were preferences relegated to the realm of philosophy and religion. Facts were unfettered scientific propositions. Women’s rights and unfettered reproductive technologies met in the 1960s. It proved to be combustible.

In the 60s, unprecedented prosperity brought about unparalleled opportunities—but not yet for many women. Betty Friedan pinned some of the blame on “the problem that has no name,” which she saw as the culturally confining role of childbearing in the 60s. In her book, The Feminine Mystique, Friedan described women’s “purposelessness, non-existence, non-involvement with the world… or lack of identity.”1 The Pill was seen as the savior. But it was the product of a flammable formula: the fact of freedom as a common good for all, coupled with the values of scientism and individual preferences producing unfettered reproductive technologies.

The firestorm was foreseeable. Opponents of the Pill were incensed because their understanding of marriage was that it was primarily procreative. New reproductive technologies were redrawing the marriage map. The Pill preceded the Petri dish and more means of artificial insemination. This contributes to the shift in public opinion toward same-sex marriage. In 1988, according the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, only 12 percent of the population agreed: “Homosexual couples should have the right to marry one another.” In 2008, responding to Gallup and Newsweek polls, 40 percent said they should have the right. Scott Keeter of the Pew Research Center believes a “generational change in acceptance of homosexuality” is occurring, largely because reproductive technologies allow anyone to have a child.

They say that a problem well-defined is a problem half solved, but this one is so inflammable that it makes intelligent conversation difficult. Setting aside the question of who is right or wrong, is there a way to make the formula less flammable? Perhaps.

Is it worth considering why, in ancient times, technology was a branch of moral philosophy, not of science? Before the 1800s, moral philosophy governed technology, arguing that just because something can be done does not necessarily mean we ought to do it. With positivism, we got scientism, which Webster defines as “the methods of the natural sciences” becoming the only methods that can fruitfully be used in the pursuit of knowledge. Scientism argues that if something can be done it ought to be done. Ancient science and modern scientism are mutually exclusive—which explains the combustibility. It also explains why good people are asking better questions to reduce the flammability.

For example, in the April 2008 issue of Wired magazine, Bill Joy, cofounder and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems raises questions about unfettered technology and calls for attending to the unintended consequences. The same warning was sounded in the New Atlantis article, “The Scientist and the Poet,” by Paul A. Cantor, a professor at the University of Virginia. “Science can tell us how to do something, but it cannot tell us whether we should do it. To explore that question, we must step outside the narrow range of science’s purely technical questions, and look at the full human context and consequences of what we are doing. To fill in our sense of that context and those consequences, literature can come to the aid of science.”2

Should science and technology be unfettered from faith and philosophy? And is faith more a matter of facts and truth rather than simply values and tastes? These are critical questions that call for a broader range of literature, according to Cantor. You might find That Hideous Strength and The Abolition of Man, both by C.S. Lewis, to be rather evocative in his arguments against scientism. Or read Neil Postman’s Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Postman is provocative and says technology “does not invite a close examination of its own consequences.” Finally, I recommend Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The great poet who wrote Faust was also a scientist. “The worthiest professor of physics would be one who could show the inadequacy of his text and diagrams in comparison to nature and the higher demands of the mind,” Goethe wrote. He believed science and technology become a Faustian bargain when they’re no longer governed by moral philosophy.

There is little doubt that one of the most incendiary issues in America today is our view of marriage. Changing the formula doesn’t necessarily answer all the questions. It might also be true that we live in an age when adding faith and philosophy makes the formula even more flammable in the minds of many. If that’s the case, it’s hard to imagine how Americans will learn to live with their deepest differences while individual preferences proliferate. Is there any other formula to make this controversy less combustible?

1 Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2001), p. 181.
2 Paul A. Cantor, “The Scientist and the Poet,” The New Atlantis, Number 4, Winter 2004, pp. 75-85.


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4 thoughts on “A Less Flammable Formula?”

  1. I think the relationship between science, technology, faith, and ethics is a very important one. I also believe that our society is at least 25 years behind on creating a civil public conversation about it. A friend and I have been talking with Christians at a world class technological university. Right now none of us can really articulate a compelling Christian worldview of science and technology.

    My friend is mining Alistair McGrath for some help. I have been reading Willard’s Knowing Chirst Today for his perspective on epistemology.

  2. Trent:

    You are definitely heading in the right direction. If you require further assistance, please contact me directly.


  3. You say: “Is it worth considering why, in ancient times, technology was a branch of moral philosophy, not of science? Before the 1800s, moral philosophy governed technology, arguing that just because something can be done does not necessarily mean we ought to do it.”

    You say that as if it is a “given” – is it really? I’d love a word or two of explanation – or a reference citation, failing that – to support the claim. “Technology” and “ancient times” are not immediately closely associated in my mind, so perhaps that’s why I have not considered which branch of knowledge [ancient] technology was attached to. But neither am I aware of a shift from one branch to another. . . .

    If moral philosophy is to take precedence over technology (and I think it should) we would have to be able to show why. In some ways you seem to be trying to still argue in the last battle. Meaning: you claim that technology was moved from moral philosophy to science, but then you ask whether or not we should really do that.

  4. “If that’s the case, it’s hard to imagine how Americans with learn to live with their deepest differences while individual preferences proliferate.”
    It was this last line that got my attnetion. I met with a political candidate yesterday and asked him “what is the biggest surprise you have gotten since you stepped into this arena?” His answer surprised ME. He said “the number of “one issue” voters.” People who do not follow an idealogy (ie. conservative vs liberal) but just want to know how my friend would vote on a specific issue (presription drugs for he elderly). He said that this was a far cry from a generation that had the overall “good” for the nation as it’s mindset; that todays generation is much more concerned with individual freedoms and preferences. This attitude dovetails with all of what you have written before about people not having a “four fold” framework for the Gospel of for life. This is just another symptom of that missing mindset.

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