Column on Scientists & Morality

Scientists and Morality

Tibor R. Machan

Natural scientists are pretty much committed to understanding the world
without reference to morality since if what happens does so because of
impersonal forces of nature, there would seem to be no room for
consideration of right versus wrong, good versus bad, at least not so far
as human beings could do anything about it. So, for example, human
misbehavior or misconduct doesn’t depend on people but is due to
ineluctable natural determinants. Even the misconduct of scientists, the
few who fake evidence or plagiarize, simply happens the way a disease or
earthquake does. All one can do is lament it, the way one laments a
tsunami or tornado. No one is to blame. Nor, of course, are achievements
anything but welcome but impersonal events. No one is to be praised for
them, no one gains credit.

Yet, while many scientists are committed to expunging morality or ethics
from human life—at most they admit that there are undesirable and
desirable features of it—they also act as if morality or ethics did
matter. As when some of them, say ecologists or climatologists, blame
people for anthropogenic global warming or anything else that many believe
is due to irresponsible human behavior. They chide millions for imprudent
conduct; they denounce people who drive SUVs, fail to recycle, or ignore
the scientists’ warnings about what is or isn’t environmentally proper.
And, of course, medical scientists routinely blame patients for failing to
heed warnings about overeating or smoking or lack of exercise. There is,
also, the ubiquitous internal quarreling among some scientists about who
is right or wrong about various predictions and projections.

In short, even though many scientists are committed to viewing human
conduct as no different from the behavior of the weather or the change of
seasons—these just happen, never mind choice or decision—they also
frequently engage in moral chiding, blaming which assumes we can make
choices, for better or for worse. They talk of what would have happened
had people only done this or not done that, just as if they believed that
it is quite in people’s power to act differently from how they do actually
act, or to have done so in the past.

Yet, this internal inconsistency among many scientists who are also quite
moralistic about human behavior is not at all widely scrutinized. There
is almost a kind of polite silence about it all. When scientists complain
about how little attention people pay to their own warnings about one
thing and another, few if any ever raise the issue of whether people had
any choice about this—maybe they had to pay the little or no attention
they did, maybe that is all a matter of the unfolding of impersonal
evolutionary forces.

When a great many scientists, writing, say, for publications such as
Science or Science News, chide government for not supporting science with
enough funds—something that many of them do routinely vis-à-vis the
administration of George W. Bush and in anticipation of a new
administration—they forget all about their assumption of que sera, sera,
“what will be will be” and no choice exists about these matters, free will
being a pre-scientific illusions according to them—few take up this
paradox in their own stance. If, indeed, there is no choice about any of
this, then does it make any sense to complain that certain politicians
aren’t choosing to do enough about global warming and other environmental
issues? After all, they are powerless to do anything other than what they
do, are they not? But if so, what’s all the fuss about, why complain, why

It seems to be intellectually confused, if not outright dishonest, for
thousands of scientists to avoid this issue. They maintain that they are
the most reliable source of information about how we ought to be going
about many of our concerns in life, yet they are also committed to the
notion that whatever we do must happen and nothing can be altered as a
matter of our decision, our choice.

Perhaps the answer is that scientists, contrary to the conceit of many of
them, are not the only ones who can have something useful to contribute to
the understanding of human affairs. Perhaps they need to consider that
some of what is true about people isn’t informed only by their
relentlessly deterministic outlook. After all, they themselves aren’t able
to explain what they do from that perspective alone.

They should perhaps heed the words of one of their colleagues, the British
psychologist Bannister, who pointed out that a theorist “cannot present a
picture of man which patently contradicts his behavior in presenting that
picture.” (Borger & Cioffi/Bannister, eds., Explanation in the
Behavioural Sciences [Cambridge UP, 1970], p. 417.)

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