T Nation

Science and Morality

While in the middle of a thread debating on the ethics of stem-cell research on another site, I stumbled upon this interesting post, and found myself nodding in agreement as I read.

I tend to agree with the main idea, which, as I read it, is that science can supply facts, but the factors that lead to prioritization and decisions on laws are inherently not scientific, but rather moral – or at least based on some sort of value system apart from the science.

Of course, I have an strong distaste for anything that allows politicians to escape decision-making responsibility (read the end of the post), so I could be reading my preferences into the whole thing.

I’m interested in everyone else’s take.


SCIENCE AND MORALITY

… I do think I ought to say something on what seems to be the premise of the good Professor’s proposal, that science can give us ready-made answers to difficult moral or political questions. I don’t think it can, and it’s a really slippery slope to suggest it can.

For example, if science tells us that greenhouse gases are warming the atmosphere, then many scientists would argue that science demands that we reduce the amount of such gases in the atmosphere. Yet this simple linear thinking ignores so many other factors it’s difficult to know where to start. What would be the cost of such an action? Would the benefits outweigh the cost? Are the benefits and costs unevenly spread such that some people will suffer from one course of action and others from the other? To come to an equitable solution to the problem scientists have alerted us to involves not just the scientific judgment of the problem, but a whole host of economic, political and, yes, moral judgments that are independent of the science. Science can help by providing a range of practicable options that we may or may not choose to implement, but it cannot pull the definitive answer out of a scientific hat.

I think the same applies here. Science has alerted us to a problem it cannot solve. In days past the question was simple. As Blackstone wrote, “Life is the immediate gift of God, a right inherent by nature in every individual; and it begins in contemplation of law as soon as an infant is able to stir in the mother’s womb.” The quickening was the point at which we could ascribe rights to the nascent individual. Thanks to modern science, however, we are faced with the question of what to do about a child before the mother is really aware of it. Science certainly tells us that the zygote, blastocyst and embryo are potential human beings. It also tells us that, unless I am very much mistaken, actually a majority of zygotes will not become human beings (and so one might suggest, if one took a probabilistic approach, that the science tells us, on balance, we should not treat them as such). Yet science cannot tell us that a human being comes with certain rights. That is a moral, philosophical and legal judgment. If we choose to ascribe rights to a being that has only a 33% chance of ever developing a head, that is a moral judgment call. Equally, if we decide we can kill living human beings to harvest their cells so that rich people can live a few years longer, that is a moral judgment call. Neither is dictated by the science.

There is rightly concern about the politicization of science. As I mention in my recent paper ( http://www.cei.org/gencon/004,04696.cfm ) on the threat of nationalization of basic science, I think we also have to be worried about the “scientization” of politics. When people appeal to science in political arguments it is generally either out of an attempt to steal lightning for their preferred policy position (the “science says we must” argument) or in an attempt to introduce uncertainty where ever increasing numbers of scientists will argue over ever more complicated issues that fail to provide the certainty politicians say they need (the precautionary argument). In either case, politicians have abdicated their responsibility to debate the moral and political aspects of the issue, which may well come up with a solution that doesn’t need science. And the logical outcome of the scientization of politics is handing over much of policy to technocrats. We’ve seen this in the UK, where expert panels are the solution to just about any complicated question. The result, of course, is that bodies like the Human Embryology and Fertilization Authority decide the answers to things like the very question we’re debating here with only minimal reference to the general public. I don’t think that’s a road I’d like to travel down here.

So let’s debate the ethics of human life and other “scientific” questions robustly, and keep the scientists out of the solution business as much as we can…

I am very pro-science, but obviously science alone cannot replace morality.

People used science to make a pretty strong case for eugenics. We see how well that turned out.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m very pro science too. I just think science and values are two totally different things – both provide aspects that help us make our decisions, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

I think you’re going to get a lot of folks agreeing with you here, BB. Knowledge is power. How one uses that power is not a characteristic of the power, but a characteristic of the user.

If I have a firearm, I can use it to do great good or great evil. We cannot blame (or applaud) the gun for my actions.

In my book, people who argue for gun restrictions are not very different than people who want to hold back the progress of science (like stem cell research, for example). Both are afraid of or against the idea of personal responsibility/liability.

Boston,

Good post.

I agree in the sense that science offers one basic answer to one basic question: “How does it work?”

Our values answer a very different question: “What are we going to do about it?”

Two very different questions, and I think many mistakenly think that science is designed to answer both of the aforementioned questions.

Just like Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park astutely observed: “Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

For all of its greatness, science is no panacea. Science can help inform our values, but it cannot replace them.

[quote]thunderbolt23 wrote:
Just like Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park astutely observed: “Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

For all of its greatness, science is no panacea. Science can help inform our values, but it cannot replace them.[/quote]

I agree that the fundamental problem with science is that it can give you a lot of rope to hang yourself with, however “values” don’t really help.

Why?

“Values” are extremely subjective and prone to corruption – even these days I can easily find a large percentage of people that think the use of the two A-bombs in Japan wasn’t fundamentally inexcusable. However those same people say they have “values”.

Also, rarely people let “science inform their values”, because these tend to be dogmas – the “values” that are driving some people to object to stem-cell research are completely absurd. Even the most die-hard religious people I know have problems explaining to me where the heck are they coming from with their objections. Most – if not all – of them don’t even know what they’re objecting to exactly.

These are the same people that do the “Democrats kill babies” ads in Texas…

It’s just too easy to mix values with religious dogma. This whole country is a prime example of that, but there are many more out there, as you know.

Also, comparing science with guns is, well, absurd. Guns have one, very clear, objective: hurt – and, in many cases, kill – living beings, in one of the cruelest ways possible. There’s nothing positive or constructive or “good” about guns, especially today, where there are many other more “elegant” ways of stopping a criminal, for example.

If our values are so useful, why are guns so prevalent in this country, more than in any developed country in the World?

Science, however, was, is and will always be used also for constructive purposes. Basically, whenever it’s not being used to build guns and other weapons – and guess who usually corrupts science by asking scientists to build weapons? Usually the same people that will then say stem-cell research on embryos is wrong…

I also have yet to find a single problem that cannot be resolved using pure, unadulterated, unbiased, non-partisan, intelligently planned, and carefully executed, science. If that doesn’t make science a panacea, I don’t know what will.

hspder,

You are extremely good at bullshit generalizations.

Eugenics was based on science.

What may pass for science today may be quackery tomorrow.

I am not a scientist, just a lowly engineer, so I would rather not cede my moral authority to scientists, as much as I appreciate the scientific method.

[quote]Zap Branigan wrote:
I am very pro-science, but obviously science alone cannot replace morality.

People used science to make a pretty strong case for eugenics. We see how well that turned out.[/quote]

It is still going on, and I’m all for it if done responsibly.

I?m one of them. I think from a moral perspective it was the right thing to do because it saved lives, human suffering and probably prevented a nuclear war.

I know that there are people that think that, while it was politically necessary or understandable, at the same time believe that it was moraly wrong. I believe that that is moral cowardice and that one has to make a real effort of bullshitting oneself to come to such an opinion.

hspder,

It was excusable if you were a soldier training for the invasion of Japan. 700,000 were ready to go. You are quoting revisionist history as if it were an indisputable fact. Nothing more. It’s very disputable.

Guns are actually a very efficient way to kill people. People need killing sometime. All kind of evil people exist who would drop you in the blink of an eye. They have no interest in rationalizing their intent.

As always, very interesting. And as usual, I need to beg to differ on some examples (hopefully not enough to turn the thread into a debate on stem cells or guns, but we’ll see).

[quote]hspder wrote:

I agree that the fundamental problem with science is that it can give you a lot of rope to hang yourself with, however “values” don’t really help.

Why?

“Values” are extremely subjective and prone to corruption – even these days I can easily find a large percentage of people that think the use of the two A-bombs in Japan wasn’t fundamentally inexcusable. However those same people say they have “values”.[/quote]

I don’t think you’ve shown they don’t have values, only that you disagree with the values they have.

And if you argued the point with them you may or may not be able to show that their positions on two different issues are untenable, but there may be a distinction. One simply can’t tell from this little example.

[quote]hspder wrote:

Also, rarely people let “science inform their values”, because these tend to be dogmas – the “values” that are driving some people to object to stem-cell research are completely absurd. Even the most die-hard religious people I know have problems explaining to me where the heck are they coming from with their objections. Most – if not all – of them don’t even know what they’re objecting to exactly.[/quote]

I don’t think that follows, though I agree with you that most people don’t let science inform their values. Most people who would fall under the original criticism use science to try to argue the values they already hold.

I think your critique of religion can be valid – and probably is with a lot of people. A lot of people don’t really take the time to think about the “why” of their beliefs.

Yet I think that also holds just as true for those who are anti-religious. Ask the average English-major with a Darwin-fish on his car to explain the workings of evolution, and I don’t think you’d get a correct answer.

[quote]hspder wrote:

These are the same people that do the “Democrats kill babies” ads in Texas…[/quote]

Your friends (i.e. the die-hard religious people you know)? Or are you attributing that to all religious people?

[quote]hspder wrote:

It’s just too easy to mix values with religious dogma. This whole country is a prime example of that, but there are many more out there, as you know.[/quote]

And easy to mix scientific (or at least what the person thinks is scientific) reasons with his or her moral dogmas.

I think one key is to get people to understand, or at least to ask the “why” question on why they believe something. I know I’m not perfect in that regard (in many senses, actually) – I’m sure what I consider my values contain a mix of utilitarianism, libertarianism, and probably some dogma.

The other key is to understand that numbers and measures won’t dictate the answer to the “why” question.

[quote]hspder wrote:

Also, comparing science with guns is, well, absurd. Guns have one, very clear, objective: hurt – and, in many cases, kill – living beings, in one of the cruelest ways possible. There’s nothing positive or constructive or “good” about guns, especially today, where there are many other more “elegant” ways of stopping a criminal, for example. [/quote]

Well, from the utilitarian point of view I’m more concerned with effective than elegant, especially when protecting myself or my family, but I don’t want to digress too much.

[quote]hspder wrote:

If our values are so useful, why are guns so prevalent in this country, more than in any developed country in the World?

Science, however, was, is and will always be used also for constructive purposes. Basically, whenever it’s not being used to build guns and other weapons – and guess who usually corrupts science by asking scientists to build weapons? Usually the same people that will then say stem-cell research on embryos is wrong…[/quote]

I don’t know, and it’s obviously science fiction at this point, but what about nano-technology and the “grey goo” hypothesis? This wouldn’t be on purpose, and it would be very destructive.

But I guess that’s applied science.

And that get’s back to the point. The values come in to how you choose to apply the science.

[quote]hspder wrote:

I also have yet to find a single problem that cannot be resolved using pure, unadulterated, unbiased, non-partisan, intelligently planned, and carefully executed, science. If that doesn’t make science a panacea, I don’t know what will.[/quote]

Here’s an example of a problem I think science can’t resolve. A person on life support, in a coma. Little or no brain activity. Is he alive? Science can tell us the brain is not active, but the decision of how we choose to define life is essentially a moral one. If we choose brain death equals death, science did not dictate that answer, no matter how many different measures show no brain activity. We could just as easily choose to say he’s alive, as he’s breathing, even with the aid of a machine. His body still functions – processes nutrients, makes waste products, etc. If you bring in utilitarian concerns on the quality of life, you’re outside the realm of science and into values.

Now, how you come to the answer depends on your values, and the individual quality and consistency of peoples’ values vary widely. But it ain’t science.

I read an article a few years ago and it contained some excerpts from an Einstein interview. I believe the overall point had some bearing on this discussion. “We live in a world of limited humanity which can produce un-limited technology.” The author was refering to the atomic bomb usage and the possibility of a world wide war that could destroy mankind. As far as science and morality the debate is not only un-winable but impossible to avoid. The question of morality in this day and age is passed over too often in a desperate pursuit to be the smartest, biggest, greatest etc… Morality, humanity and doing things for the right reasons, for me are governed by each person individually and can only really be expressed on an individual level. Science is more of a societal view because it will not work to give a human charactaristic to a field of study.

To make things more complicated, what if science claims that moral is a set of evolutionary psychological adaptations, necessary for a highly social species?

Does that make morals obsolete because they were not given by [insert higher power of your choice here]? Or are they not obsolete because the reasons why they evolved still exist to a large degree? Are they adapted to a much simpler social environment and therefore often misleading in highly complex societies such as ours, i.e. can we still trust our moral instincts?

[quote]BostonBarrister wrote:
Yet I think that also holds just as true for those who are anti-religious. Ask the average English-major with a Darwin-fish on his car to explain the workings of evolution, and I don’t think you’d get a correct answer.[/quote]

If somebody believes in Evolution but doesn’t understand its workings, that is religion. Indeed, atheism can become a religion for many people.

I do not confuse religion with faith in a higher power. One doesn’t imply the other. And lack of faith in a higher power doesn’t mean lack of religion. I actually know some Christians that are less religious than some atheists I know… I’ve seen examples of that (both sides) even on these boards. To use an example we both know, I can easily say that Professor X, for example, is easily one of the least religious people I’ve ever encountered, and he said multiple times he is a faithful Christian…

[quote]BostonBarrister wrote:
hspder wrote:
These are the same people that do the “Democrats kill babies” ads in Texas…

Your friends (i.e. the die-hard religious people you know)? Or are you attributing that to all religious people?[/quote]

Not specifically people I know, but definitely some die-hard religious people. Only religion can prompt somebody to write something like that.

[quote]BostonBarrister wrote:
I think one key is to get people to understand, or at least to ask the “why” question on why they believe something. I know I’m not perfect in that regard (in many senses, actually) – I’m sure what I consider my values contain a mix of utilitarianism, libertarianism, and probably some dogma.

The other key is to understand that numbers and measures won’t dictate the answer to the “why” question.[/quote]

I do agree with the statement that science only responds to the “How” question. That is absolutely true.

Even psychologists don’t really figure out “why” people are like they are or believe what they do – they study how they came to be like they are…

As an Economist, I don’t really study “why” micro-economy works the way it does – I just explain how it works.

I also agree that we should question our beliefs – not by asking “why” we believe something – but by keeping your mind open to new scientific, objective, evidence – or at least to the world that surrounds you (not by what you see on CNN or Fox News).

Fundamentally, I never ask “why”. I don’t really care “why”. I just figure out the how and run with it.

[quote]BostonBarrister wrote:
Well, from the utilitarian point of view I’m more concerned with effective than elegant, especially when protecting myself or my family, but I don’t want to digress too much.[/quote]

See, by doing that you’re using dogma to undermine one fundamental value (“Harm no one”) in benefit of the other (“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”), even though you have the option of keeping both intact – ever heard of tasers?

Heck, I’ll give you a whole site with a myriad of better options than guns:

http://www.tbotech.com/

[quote]BostonBarrister wrote:
I don’t know, and it’s obviously science fiction at this point, but what about nano-technology and the “grey goo” hypothesis? This wouldn’t be on purpose, and it would be very destructive.[/quote]

It wouldn’t be on purpose, but scientists are aware that – even though almost impossible – it can happen. Hence, if they do not do anything to prevent it (it’s trivially easy to prevent a grey-goo scenario – just do something similar to live non-cancerous cells, i.e., limit their ability to multiply) it is indeed on purpose and hence purposively reckless and hence
un-scientific. So the real threat here is not science – it’s politics.

When the A-bomb was being designed, many, many scientists – most, in fact – were against it. Even Oppenheimer, which believed in the project at the beginning, ended up developing conscience problems after he saw the destruction it caused. Why was it done? Because of politics, not because of science. Scientists knew the consequences and tried to prevent it – it was the dogma of politicians that overrode that. When Oppenheimer saw what he had done and refused to participate in the next step – the H-bomb – an inquiry was open to investigate if he had turned into a communist. He lost his security clearance and his job – just because he realized what he had done – or, at least, helped do.

In Russia, something similar, albeit even worse, happened – Stalin and his minions basically kept scientists on a tight leech, going as far as torturing them and their families to make sure they cooperated and built him the bomb(s).

The real threat to our survival is not science – it’s politics.

[quote]orion wrote:
To make things more complicated, what if science claims that moral is a set of evolutionary psychological adaptations, necessary for a highly social species?

Does that make morals obsolete because they were not given by [insert higher power of your choice here]? Or are they not obsolete because the reasons why they evolved still exist to a large degree? Are they adapted to a much simpler social environment and therefore often misleading in highly complex societies such as ours, i.e. can we still trust our moral instincts? [/quote]

That is a very good point you have there, orion. Thanks for bringing that up!

As you might guess, I do believe that many fundamental principles are basically constructs to allow us to survive – and I also believe that some of them are still absolutely necessary today – namely, the Mother of All Principles: “Do no harm”. This is a principle so important, so fundamental, that most living beings on this planet respect it – even the ones that are not self-aware. The irony is that humans are possibly one of the very few species that regularly and sistematically disrespects that principle – sometimes in spectacular scale (how many other species are capable of genocide?).

On the other hand, there are a bunch of “values” we created that serve no other purpose than to exert power and control… benefit some at the expense of others. You can usually recognize those easily, since those are the ones that a) don’t really do anything to help our survival and b) are not prevalent across cultures, races and species.

[quote]hspder wrote:

That is a very good point you have there, orion. Thanks for bringing that up!

As you might guess, I do believe that many fundamental principles are basically constructs to allow us to survive – and I also believe that some of them are still absolutely necessary today – namely, the Mother of All Principles: “Do no harm”. This is a principle so important, so fundamental, that most living beings on this planet respect it – even the ones that are not self-aware. The irony is that humans are possibly one of the very few species that regularly and sistematically disrespects that principle – sometimes in spectacular scale (how many other species are capable of genocide?).[/quote]

I’m sorry, but unless I am misunderstanding this, it’s wrong.

There is almost no species in the animal kingdom that respects such a “do no harm” principle. From the tiny bacteria that absorb other bacteria right on up to killer whales eating baby seals, animals survive by harming other animals or other living vegetation. The fact that their relationships may have evolved to be symbiotic overall for their respective species doesn’t change the fact that killing and eating an animal pretty well does harm to that animal. I even watched a documentary on Discovery that showed a couple zebras executing a baby water buffalo (or whatever the species is in Africa) with a couple well aimed donkey style double kicks to the head – it had been separated from its mother and was lowing for it – thus attracting predators.

But you may be talking about intra-species harm, in which case I’ll talk about crocodiles and sharks and fish eating their own young, or sharks turning on other injured sharks in a feeding frenzy, or wild dogs turning on one another, or great apes inflicting such injuries on each others in territorial fighting that the loser skulks away and dies.

Humans just happen to have developed the capacity to do harm on a greater scale, both among ourselves and to other species – and vis a vis other species, we’ve developed very effective ways to prevent their harming us.

[quote]hspder wrote:
On the other hand, there are a bunch of “values” we created that serve no other purpose than to exert power and control… benefit some at the expense of others. You can usually recognize those easily, since those are the ones that a) don’t really do anything to help our survival and b) are not prevalent across cultures, races and species.
[/quote]

This goes back to your other post to me. There is no universal principle of “do no harm” so the fact that there are some value systems that violate it doesn’t provide evidence to me that such value systems are de facto or de jure

In fact, it seems to me that a “do no harm” principle, taken as literally as you apply it to the gun example, would have actually prevented our survival as a species – application of the minimum force necessary to do the job with a main goal of inflicting as little harm as possible seems to me to be a uniquely human goal – and a uniquely modern one at that. To the extent you see individual animals minimizing harm, you can usually (my knowledge of biology is too limited to make this statement – I should qualify this with: I can’t think of any good counterexamples right now) identify a large benefit to that individual animal for doing so. The idea of treating some other member of the species not related to you as equal in value to yourself is DEFINITELY a human construct – and again, a relatively modern one.

hspder’s posts make me think his philosophy on life is based on things he learned on Sesame Street.

Do no harm? Give me a break, most forms of life harm other forms of life.
The world is a changing, dynamic place.

Regarding the less than lethal self defense items, they do not work very well, in spite of what their salesman try to tell you. I am happy with my 357.

He just keeps rolling on with this fantasyland stuff.

It amazes me that educated, otherwise intelligent people can be so far away from reality on some issues.

[quote]Zap Branigan wrote:

What may pass for science today may be quackery tomorrow.

[/quote]

I have an earache…

2000 B.C. - Here, eat this root.

1000 A.D. - That root is heathen. Here, say this prayer.

1850 A.D. - That prayer is superstition. Here, drink this potion.

1940 A.D. - That potion is snake oil. Here, swallow this pill.

1985 A.D. - That pill is ineffective. Here, take this antibiotic.

2000 A.D. - That antibiotic is artificial. Here, eat this root.

Im sure this has been posted before, I think it just makes sence to what you said.

[quote]thunderbolt23 wrote:
Boston,

Good post.

I agree in the sense that science offers one basic answer to one basic question: “How does it work?”

Our values answer a very different question: “What are we going to do about it?”

Two very different questions, and I think many mistakenly think that science is designed to answer both of the aforementioned questions.

Just like Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park astutely observed: “Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

For all of its greatness, science is no panacea. Science can help inform our values, but it cannot replace them.[/quote]

I was going to write much along the same lines.

The most obvious input of a value-system over science is the very question - what are we going to study now? We are limited by time, money, etc. and therefore it is necessary to choose which direction we put forth our effort.

Should we develop great defense mechanisms to protect the country, or should we work to cure cancer? These questions are very much value-based and not science based. The very concept of what is better is the meaning of value. Science is only the how and the why.

Even with complete accuracy, saying “cure for cancer with 10 years and 1 million dollars - or colonization of mars in same time and money.” That’s a scientific question - can it be done with such resources. But the question of WHICH one to do is morality. We can’t do everything, we are limited.

But a value-system is nothing without facts. Value attainment requires action, and action requires choosing. The simplest one is “to act or not to act”. We need to know things about the world around us (science) in order to make these decisions. You can’t have one without the other. One is always implicit at the least.

[quote]BostonBarrister wrote:
But you may be talking about intra-species harm,[/quote]

Of course I was talking about intra-species harm. It would be completely absurd for anyone alive – even vegetarians – to pretend that it’s possible to survive without harming other species, plants or animals. Heck, the balance of our biospere depends on inter-species killing.

[quote]BostonBarrister wrote:
in which case I’ll talk about crocodiles and sharks and fish eating their own young, or sharks turning on other injured sharks in a feeding frenzy, or wild dogs turning on one another, or great apes inflicting such injuries on each others in territorial fighting that the loser skulks away and dies.[/quote]

Note that I specifically said “most living beings” and that we are one of the “few”. Yes, there are some species out there that are as agressive as we are. I never said there weren’t. However, they are a minority. A very small one in fact, considering there are billions of species on this planet, most of them quite peaceful.

And you also ignored my last point: is there any other species capable of genocide?

[quote]BostonBarrister wrote:
Humans just happen to have developed the capacity to do harm on a greater scale, both among ourselves and to other species – and vis a vis other species, we’ve developed very effective ways to prevent their harming us.[/quote]

If that wasn’t clear before, let me make it clear this time: I’m talking about intra-species harm. The fact that we have actively pursued the capacity to do harm on a greater scale is the scary part.

[quote]BostonBarrister wrote:
The idea of treating some other member of the species not related to you as equal in value to yourself is DEFINITELY a human construct – and again, a relatively modern one.[/quote]

No, it is not a human construct. On the contrary – there is a multitude of species that do the same. I have the sneaky feeling you’ve been watching too many Discovery specials with ultra-agressive species. That doesn’t surprise me – people have always been fascinated by those species, which is even more scary; it’s basically a mechanism to justify our own ultra-agressive nature.