Many thanks to Joe Carter at Evangelical Outpost for hosting the symposium.

Ethics in our ostensibly pluralistic society have become increasingly dominated by a single voice: science. In the 2004 debate over Proposition 71, the California initiative to fund stem-cell research, proponents of the bill played two cards: sympathy and science. TV ads consisted primarily of testimony from individuals suffering from multiple sclerosis, Parkinsons, etc. as well as leading scientists and doctors. The summary arguments in the ballots pitted “non-profit disease organizations, Nobel Prize scientists, doctors, and nurses” versus “women’s groups, leading doctors, and medical ethicists.”

If nothing else, proponents of the bill portrayed their case effectively. Appeal to people’s sense of sympathy and show the priests in their garments (doctors and scientists in their lab coats) passionately imploring people to fund medical/scientific research. Not surprisingly, the Proposition passed easily.

Standing in direct opposition to this science-dominated policy-making or decision-making is the Judeo-Christian ethical tradition. It is a misnomer, though, to simply call it Judeo-Christian, since the historical Christian tradition has synthesized the teachings of Jesus with those of (primarily!) Plato and Aristotle. Furthermore, the ever-relevant C.S. Lewis argues that the tradition includes cultures and thinkers around the world and throughout history who teach what he calls the Tao, which others have called the “natural law.”

Contemporary expressions of the natural law tradition argue that there are basic human goods that, given the structure of human nature, are ends to be sought for themselves and not for the sake of anything else. Finnis identifies such things as life, health, knowledge, play, etc. as such goods. These basic rights are not in themselves action guiding, but are principles that moral reasoning depends upon. Indeed, they are not even directives like the ‘golden rule,’ but stand behind the ‘golden rule.’ In Aristotle’s expression, they are the “First principles of practical reason,” and upon them the whole chain of moral reasoning hangs. As Lewis states, “If nothing is assumed, nothing can be proved.”

Though these goods are not in themselves action guiding, they are the intrinsic ends upon which decisions are made. It is the task for the moral reasoner to determine when and how these prinicples apply to specific moral situations. However, it is the existence of these first principles that a scientific methodolgy eschews. If they exist, they cannot be known because they are not empirically demonstrable. “Human life is a good” is not a claim subject to the domain of science. If our access to the structure of reality is limited to science, then all other claims become, at best, subjective statements that have no bearing on the way things are. In a recent interview, John Gearhart stated:

When does ‘life’ begin I would contend is not a question that biology can answer. Rather, it deals with philosophy or theology. The egg and sperm are alive. Each of us must decide what we mean by ‘life.’

If there are no first principles of practical reason, no intrinsic ends, then moral reasoning evaporates into the ability to defend claims empirically. Moral dilemmas, which ought to be used as heuristic devices for the budding moral reasoner, are reduced to a single authority (science) and constitute a rejection of moral reasoning–if moral norms do not exist, then nothing can be proved. What this means is a widespread rejection of the virtue of wisdom, the ability to distinguish between competing goods and to make a reasonable and defensible decision. By undercutting the foundation of moral reasoning, scientism creates a people dependant upon the authority of the class of men “in the know,” who become the priests and prophets of our day.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

6 Comments

  1. Where do you demonstrate that science has become an exclusive way of determining ethical conflicts, rather than a way to inform, reshape, or clarify ethical decisions? Your example is obviously going to involve science–it’s a matter of research that has an end in mind, that of reducing death and suffering. Why shouldn’t scientists weigh in on the situation?

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  2. My irritation with the post is that I didn’t technically demonstrate anything. However, there does seem to be a significant difference between science “weighing in” and science being the authority, as proponents of the bill clearly used it. I take it as an example that ethics is no longer a viable form of knowledge–there are no first principles to be known–and so the only appeal is to “science.” The words of Gearhart really indicate this–ethics is a personal, subjective thing (“Each of us must decide what we mean by ‘life'”), rather than a real branch of knowledge. If I’m right, then there’s a good chance this sort of campaign is going to be run again in California around the assisted-suicide bill that is going through the legistlature.

    I have nothing against science per se. I have lots against positing science as the only means of knowledge.

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  3. “Rather, it deals with philosophy or theology. The egg and sperm are alive. Each of us must decide what we mean by ‘life.'”

    1. Simply because a scientist believes that “life” is defined subjectively, why should we assume that “scientism” is inherently subjective when it comes to ethics? If Gearhart were a Christian scientist (small “s” important), he could have as easily said, “Rather, it deals with philosophy and theology. The egg and sperm are alive. God hasn’t really given us a clear way to define ‘life.'” In fact, his frank admission that science isn’t an exhaustive way of understanding the world undercuts your thesis.

    2. Since so many of our most pressing ethical issues have come about due to scientific progress, isn’t it only natural that science would “dominate” modern ethical debate?

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  4. In fact, his frank admission that science isn’t an exhaustive way of understanding the world undercuts your thesis.

    Not necessarily. I think it would depend on the view he has of philosophy and theology. Are these considered domains of objective knowledge in the same realm as science? If so, then perhaps Matt’s thesis is undercut as science is just one of a variety of means to know things about the world. If not, if philosophy and theology are either viewed as entirely subjective or as simply inconclusive, then science ascends to a position of power as the only discipline that can speak truth with authority.

    When Gearheart says, “Each of us must decide what we mean by ‘life’,” it implies something more than saying “God hasn’t given us a clear way to define ‘life’.” It implies that life is something that perhaps can truly have multiple definitions, none of which would be particularly relevant to making a scientific decision.

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  5. Great post Matt! I commented on it…

    Matt’s post is about the fallacy of trying to use science as a basis for ethics, which is what I think he is calling “scientism.” As I have said before, most notably here and here, there is no real debate between science and faith. The debate only arises when one asks too much from either discipline.

    More here

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  6. Thanks for the link, John!

    Jim wrote:
    1. Simply because a scientist believes that “life” is defined subjectively, why should we assume that “scientism” is inherently subjective when it comes to ethics? If Gearhart were a Christian scientist (small “s” important), he could have as easily said, “Rather, it deals with philosophy and theology. The egg and sperm are alive. God hasn’t really given us a clear way to define ‘life.'” In fact, his frank admission that science isn’t an exhaustive way of understanding the world undercuts your thesis.
    See Tex’s response, which I think is right. It’s close, but it seems he’s implying that there’s really nothing there that those disciplines understand–hence we have to decide for ourselves. The only objectivity lies in Science.

    2. Since so many of our most pressing ethical issues have come about due to scientific progress, isn’t it only natural that science would “dominate” modern ethical debate?
    No, because as the Gearhart out, the ethical issues are beyond the realm of the empirical sciences. That’s why his science-only epistemology leads to a relativization and privatization of ethics. What are we debating about if we’re all constructing our own ethical positions? As a matter of principle, science (empirical investigation) should never dominate ethical discussions, otherwise you fall prey to the naturalistic fallacy.

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