Section  8. Ethics and Science

The Place of Reason in Ethics
Isn't it obvious that ethics and science are opposites? Isn't it obvious that science is objective while ethics is subjective? Isn't it obvious that science deals with facts, while ethics deals with opinions? Isn't it clear that science relies on evidence, while ethics relies on feelings?

In short, isn't the difference between science and ethics is that science is rational?

It's too simple, that's what. Simplistic, according to many ethicists.
Imagine a conversation between two people about, say, the ethical acceptability of doing research on primates which results in significant suffering of the primates. (Suppose that the research results in the introduction of spinal tumors in the primates.) Joe believes that such research is morally wrong under any circumstance, while Julia believes that such research is morally acceptable under certain circumstances.

Now, perhaps you have been in such an argument. Did you find yourself trying to convince the other person that your perspective was the better one? Were you convinced that your position was correct? Of course you were! How did you try to convince the your opponent? How did s/he try to convince you? Perhaps one of you used statistics -- that over 3 million animals die in the midst of human technological experimentation, or that primates display very complex social behaviors, indicating a level of intelligence that rivals young human children.

If you ever have used statistics in your moral discussions with people, then you have appealed to "facts" to make your case. But wait a minute -- that's what scientists do. Are facts, then, sometimes relevant to establishing moral responsibilities? Are there empirical realities which can provide a sort of evidence for the superiority of one moral position over another? It seems so .... can you think of other cases?

Conceptual Clarity
"Conservatives? These fanatics are not conservatives. Robert Taft was a conservative. These Neanderthals are not Christians. Martin Luther King was a Christian. What we're dealing with here are a bunch of half-baked, hard-core, fire-and-brimstone McCarthyites, racists, sexual hypocrites and assorted flat-earthers and book-burners, and it's time society started labeling them as such. "

"The Democrats are literally bewitched by feminists, whose agenda is simple: teach women to hate their husbands, kill their children, and become lesbians. A vote for the Democrats is a vote against family and for immorality."

Now, hopefully none of you would be persuaded by such "reasoning". You may, in the first case, be a bed-wetting liberal and reject the sort of "rationale" offered here, and you may even, in the second case, be a loyal conservative, and still reject the "ad hominem" offered against the Democrats. If in an argument about the ethical acceptability of research on primates, your opponent accuses people "like you" of ruining what's great about America, then you might point out that that argument employs an invalid form of argument called an "ad hominem." In short, you might suggest that your opponent fails to be rationally persuasive, because s/he fails to use standard logic. His argument might be confused. S/he might use ambiguous language, or be "begging the question", or committing an equivocation.

Well, don't you want your own ethical position to be based on thought which is clear, and logic that is correct? How would you respond to somebody who tries to convince you, against your own considered opinion, that it's wrong to use primates in medical experimentation, and whose logic is riddled with holes?

Perhaps science and ethics are not as opposed to each other as people often think! (None of this is intended to persuade you that they are the same, or that they use identical methods to obtain true beliefs. But it is intended to challenge those who believe that they have almost nothing in common -- that they are just so different as to be incomparable.)


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Copyright Stephen O Sullivan and Philip A. Pecorino  2002. All Rights reserved.

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