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Friday, September 21, 2012

Why Science Requires Consistent and Absolute Morality (Why Secular Ethics Aren't)

A common fantasy I see virtually everywhere today is that there is no need for moral behavior: no absolute right or wrong.  Everything is "relative" in the character and morality department.

So can this actually be true?

Well, lets explore this a bit.

A common argument is that religion, a common "carrier" of morality, is unnecessary in today's world of advanced science, engineering and evolution.

After all, man evolved from "scratch" through whatever means and was not created, right?  Therefore any religion man may have is simply some sort of "artifact" of that process.

While one can claim a position like this unfortunately it is, by definition, simply fantasy.

And here's why...

Science is a human process created by man to extract information from the world at large.  To separate fact from fiction.  To create repeatable examples of processes, study and activities that illuminate the actual processes we see in the world for what they are.

In order to do this, i.e., in order to have a repeatable experiment, moral and ethical integrity is required.

Without it you would see what you see today: "US Scientific Medical Studies: A 1 in 20 Accuracy Rate?"

Very simply if someone is the slightest bit dishonest in their scientific research the research is flawed and unusable.

The process of science is not about having to tease shreds of truth from a melange of hocus pocus, ranting, falsified data, and politically or ideologically motivated thinking.

The idea of science is about simplicity and honesty: I did X, I collected X' in terms of data, I concluded X''.

So what is science with morality and ethics?

Basically nothing but noise. 

Noise that distracts those attempting to produce honest results from their efforts.

Noise that distracts society from other, more important matters.

So can ethics and morality exist alone outside of some other, divine or otherwise, context?

Well, human secularism accepts as a basic idea that you must "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" or "Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live."

So, underlying an human secular (non-religious) morality and ethics is this basic concept.

Upon this concept humans have built a variety of complex areligious sets of secular ethics (see this for an example).

Unfortunately there is a very simple problem with this model.

It relies on "consensus" to determine its moral basis.   A society may, as a group, chose to treat a subset of its members in a particular way.  The problem is that in this context a majority (in terms of wealth, vocal ability, power, etc.) always enforces its will upon the minority.

A very simple example of how this can "go wrong" would be this:  A terrible disease is rapidly overtaking a population.  It is determined that a few experiments, possibly with fatal outcomes, on small children will yield results that could save the entire population.

So the "do unto others" clause becomes problematic.  Who is doing what to whom?  Is the obligation of science to the society as a whole or to the individuals which may die during the scientific process?

Its easy to see how this makes science a squishy, amorphous humanist endeavor.

As a scientist I am certain that such and such will do good for society but my data does not quite show what it needs to in order for this to be true.  So I falsify some to ensure it does.  Or perhaps my politically correct associates pass my research on because they have a similar belief.

In the end the such and such does only a mediocre job of helping anyone - perhaps causing more harm than good.

Was society helped by this?

I argue that very simply the answer is no, and not just no for this case but no in any case where there is not an absolute morality dictating behavior.

A notion of absolute right and wrong.

Without it ambiguity is always possible - and even with it.

However, a consistent overall absolute model of right and wrong ensures that all societal decisions regarding a given matter will be based on consistent terms.  Without it there is always the danger that a majority motivated by their own ideals will sway the outcome in their favor.

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