Column on Social Scientists and Ethics

Social Scientists and Ethics

Tibor R. Machan

I wish to revisit a topic here I have investigated before, both in books (such as my very first, The Pseudo-Science of B. F. Skinner [1973] and the more recent Initiative–Human Agency and Society [2000]). In my line of work I come across a lot of social scientists–at conferences, my own school and in the pages of the kinds of books, magazines, and journals I read. It is from such social scientists that come many of the studies on which policy makers rely. How should prisons be designed and managed? How should children be treated in their elementary and secondary classrooms? What about the best way to care of the elderly? What should be done about illegal immigrants? What of the homeless, especially those regarded to be mentally unstable? A great number of questions like these are being addressed and answered by social scientists–in political science, sociology, economics, anthropology, and other, even more specialized, disciplines.

A widespread assumption that many such scientists accept is that what people do is explainable by reference to various factors to which they have been exposed or, alternatively, by the composition of their brains. People’s economic background or culture or childhood circumstances or racial/ethnic identity will have a lot to do with how they behave. These factors, and others mostly coming to light in the fields of biology and psychology, make us who we are, period. That, indeed, is the reason billions of dollars are spent on the studies these social scientists carry out. The results are supposed to enable the relevant people to forge successfully policies.

All the while these social scientists are committed to explaining human affairs along lines familiar in the natural or physical sciences–astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology–there are many others close to government, mainly political candidates and elected officials, who view us as if we really had a say in how we behave. Whatever our background or upbringing, it turns out we ought to support higher or lower taxes; we ought to be for or against torture or the war on terrorism; we ought to give more or less to charity than we do or at least support or opposed faith based institutions that help people.

In short, there is a lot of talk about how people ought to act, regardless of what supposedly makes them tick. They ought to be truthful, just, generous, prudent, compassionate, well disciplined and so forth, because, well, it is the right way to be. Never mind your background–as a human being you are supposed to be free to choose what you will or won’t do and there are standards you ought to use to guide your conduct.

Did you notice something curious here? If the social scientists are right and what we do is explainable by reference to all those factors they keep mentioning, then there really is no room for talk about what we ought to do or ought not to do. We will just behave the way we are made to behave by these various factors. There is no choice to be found in this approach to dealing with people, none at all.

The moralists, in turn, seem to think that we are free and responsible to choose the right course. They rarely see any excuse for our misconduct. All those factors are supposed by them to be mere influences, at most, certainly not compulsions. We can be blamed for all the misconduct and praised for all the good conduct because, well, it is we who are in charge of what we do.

These two points of view are both extremely prevalent in our society and have much to do with the laws and public policies that get enacted and implemented everywhere. Yet they are mutually contradictory. It’s either que sera, sera–what will be, will be–or it is free to choose–we are in charge and fully responsible (unless something terribly serious interferes).

How does one resolve this conflict? Is there a way? Well, that’s one of the things people in my discipline, namely, philosophy, worry about a lot. Every generation tackles the issue and most philosophers have some kind of proposal to offer, not excluding me. And there may well be a right answer, although this isn’t the place to try to work that out. (A clue: the social scientists who produce all those studies that explain us often go on to advise policy makers on what they ought to do. So, they turn into moralists themselves, prescribing conduct rather than just sticking to explaining it.)

What is worth noting is that the issue is not generally touched upon in public forums. Indeed, one faces it mostly in novels–say, Mark Salzman’s The Soloist (or, for that matter, LA Times reporter Steve Lopez’s similarly titled more recent work of which a movie has been made–and television drama–for example, Law & Order. But do you hear anything about this on Fox TV’s O’Reilly & Friends, PBS’s Charlie Rose, CNN’s Larry King or…well, you get the point. Sure, some mention is made of the matter in most college philosophy course but after the test is done, it tends to be forgotten. It may come up at a rehab seminar, when clients wonder whether they have the free will to “just say no.” But it is not there on most prominent forums that deal with important matters.

Too bad, for without some idea as to how to deal with it, the problem will confound and lead to much confusion, perhaps disillusionment, and most likely wasted resources.

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