Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Science and morality

A while back the government fired a scientific advisor. The reason? He was rightly suggesting the governments decision to move cannabis back to class B was ridiculous. Cannabis is a less dangerous drug than alcohol and cigarettes (arguably, this is also true of Ecstasy), and is not chemically addictive. Being at class C has not dramatically altered the usage, or led to a plague of schizophrenia. There is no justification for this other than to look tough. This is a clear case where the politic ans over rode scientific sense to appeal to tabloid sensibilities. There are certain issues that we refuse to look at sanely, and this is one of them.

So, can science inform morality? I believe so, yes. It cannot decide what is or isn't moral necessarily, but if we have a list of things we believe to be moral or moral, science may be able to decide what is. For example, we might consider it to be the governments responsibility to protect citizens, and in that case items which are shown to be dangerous with little benefit might be prohibited. The danger and benefits they present can be measured using science. For example, we know that wearing seat belts dramatically increases ones chance of walking away from a car wreck, and also can prevent you from killing someone else in the car.

A mistake, and one that has been made in this century, is to conflate scientific theories into moral codes. I'm thinking in particular of social Darwinism, which was considered by not only the Nazi party at the start of the century. It was an extension of Darwin's theories, but taken out of context. The fittest, as defined by natural selection, are merely those most fit to survive, but it was decided that humans could judge who this might be. The conclusions of such a program are disturbing, as it places disturbing amounts of power in the hands of the few. The notion that we are able to judge who is worthy of life and death is obviously incorrect.

The primary issue with social Darwinism is it is a strange conflation of ideas. It seems to be making the naturalistic fallacy, in believing that whatever happens in nature is what should happen, and then be happy to alter nature itself. Its such a disturbingly flawed concept, its quite surprising quite how many planned to do it.

We have the ability to perform such social darwinism even more efficiently these days, with the ability to look for genetic flaws, both in potential parents and children. There is a genuine question of whether we should employ this at all- there are congenital genetic defects that can cause massive suffering that it might be better to eliminate, but the question as to where we draw the line is a tough one. Science can help us here,to an extent, by quantifying how long someone with a particular illness might live, and how good their quality of life would be. Ultimately this is a question we do need to answer, although I'm not entirely sure how. I'd be tempted to err in favour of preserving life, because going too far in the other direction would have massive consequences. Once again, of course, once you start trying to eliminate these illneesses, you are leaving the judgment of human life in human hands.



At 6:46 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love your point of view on this issue. This is a hot button topic with me, and your argument is the best I've seen in a long while


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