Morality and science: are they incompatible?

Ok, we’re all Spitzered out. I had many reactions to a piece I wrote about the affair(s). Some were baffling — apparently I am anti-Semitic for implying that a man who breaks the very laws he makes might be one sandwich short of a picnic, for instance. Which at least alerted me to the fact that Spitzer is Jewish. Many more were interesting and thought-provoking. This comment. by e-mail from Steve:

You talk about how morality is not a good basis for policy but science is. Yet science doesn’t say what we should do, just what will happen. We need a moral system to make normative statements–science is completely positive (economists go to great lengths to make this distinction in econ 101)–which is what you make clear implicitly when you note how immoral it is for a policy “based on morality” to fail to educate girls and 1/4th of them end up with should-have-been-preventable STDs.

I think its important to speak clearly on this issue and not let the religious right claim morality as its province and relegate the rest of us to acknowledging we are the “against morality” side.

It doesn’t make for good rhetoric, but honestly, we are exactly like them–we want to impose our policies on other people based on our worldview whether we call it religion or “science.” The difference is that our policies aren’t counter-productive by our own
measures–in short, our policies aren’t stupid. And your article never stated that directly.

This comment takes me back to a debate that I became aware of way back when, when the editors of the Journal “Epidemiology” said that scientists shouldn’t mess with policy. I’ve returned to the theme more recently at The Inverse Square and elsewhere: are science and moral outrage incompatible? Is it wrong for scientists to be politically engaged? My own feeling is that scientists have a duty to use data to guide policies in ways which will maximise well-being and minimise harm, especially for those least able to protect or provide for themselves. In other words, we should use science to promote outcomes that are moral. So I agree with Steve’s thoughtful position.

I did, however, have reactions that cast a different light on morality. This one, also by e-mail, from Diana Mohyi:

I would like to ask you why you have not chosen to become a prostitute? What is the core reason for which you have chosen not to be involved in this “profession”? Is it perhaps, your code of morality? I am very sure that these prostitutes would much rather be in your position than in theirs. What is the difference between animals and human beings? Morality. Morality is what keeps us from deteriorating into an animal state. Morality is reality. No politician is perfect. And in the end it is the reality of morality which has consistently revealed this reality.

Proverbs 1:7 “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”

(James 1:5): “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally, and without reproach; and it will be given to him.”

Psalms 14:1 “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.”

Psalms 53:1 “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. Corrupt are they, and have done abominable iniquity: there is none that doeth good.”

I hope that you will consider using the Bible as your source of Wisdom and instruction as I’m positive that God is the best source of Wisdom because He has never failed me.

That’s empirical, at least, though some would argue Diana’s sample size is rather small.

This post was published on 15/03/08 in Ideology and HIV, Science.

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  1. Comment by Willie, 15/03/08, 09:51:

    “…..we are exactly like them…….we want to impose our policies on other people based on our worldview whether we call it religion or “science.” ” says your emailer Steve.

    This is a common assertion made by the religious against secularists. It has an element of truth but I don’t believe it has much validity in the area of personal morality.

    To take the example of homosexuality, the position of many religions is that it is proscribed in their holy book and therefore they wish to proscribe it not just for members of their religion but for the entire society through state laws.
    The position of the liberal secularist is that science shows homosexuality to be a naturallly occurring phenomenon, that it causes no harm either to homosexuals themselves nor to the wider society and so, whatever one’s personal feelings about it, there is no reason to proscribe it by law. Moreover, to do so would cause unneccessary suffering to homosexuals.

    I believe that asserting that those two positions are equally dogmatic or fundamentalist or imposing their world view on other people to an equal extent is absurd. So I’d say to Steve: no, we are not exactly like them.

  2. Comment by tom merle, 17/03/08, 04:51:

    This statement by Willie (great name in this context!) is valid as far as it goes, but it fails to deal with the distinction between the reality of behavior and the moral implications of this behavior.

    Few educated people would challenge that homosexuality is part of nature, that some percentage of various species is gay. Fine. But then we have to determine when a natural drive should be channeled as it were.

    Engaging in gay sex is morally neutral until we consider if there are repercusions that adversely affect the participants, and more importantly, the larger society. And here honorable people can disagree.

    Males, gay or straight, are hardwired, as it were, to stick it wherever they can whenever they can. Sometimes this leads to pleasure with no negative implications, sometimes it doesn’t. We know that gay bathhouses are hothouses for the spreading of HIV. So the city of San Francisco moved to close them. They stopped well short of what they do in Texas.

    Gov. Spitzer should have a way to indulge his (natural) desire for some sexual variety, particularly if his wife is in agreement, safe sex notwithstanding. Ditto for Gov. McGreevey. Barney Frank, supported by a liberal constituency, enjoyed fooling around without having to resign. His trangression was putting his boyfriend on the government payroll, a definite no-no.

    Well you see my point

  3. Comment by Willie, 18/03/08, 12:08:

    I don’t entirely see your point, unless it’s the linking of homosexuality with HIV.
    But all sexual promiscuity carries the risk of STDs and measures have to be taken to reduce that risk, irrespective of sexuality.

    You say that all males are hardwired for promiscuity but the fact is that many males make a moral choice to restrain their sexual behaviour and many opt for monogamous relationships. Contrary to stereotypes, that applies to many gay men too!

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