Ethics and the Scientific Worldview

Strictly speaking, the terms “good” and “bad” used to describe ethics are purely subjective and have no place in scientific discourse.  What is good for the fox is bad for the rabbit and vice versa.  Scientists, on the other hand, are often thought to have the highest ethical standards.  Why is that?  Our standards are high for a very practical reason:  our only mistress is truth.  In science, we define truth as the relative agreement with observation and experiment.  Good scientists try to be aware of the truths discovered by their predecessors and followers.  We constantly are looking over our shoulders, making sure that unwarranted subjectivity does not enter our analyses and interpretations.  We are to discover the truth and tell no lies.  Any failure in that department gets around.  Fudging data can result in disbarment from the scientific community.  That gets to the guts of what ethics really are.

Ethics, as I define them, are maps that we use to negotiate the environment.  Ethics tell us what is allowed and what is not allowed—based on historical knowledge.  Most of us could use some help with this.  At the same time, each ethical decision is an experiment performed on an ever-changing environment.  Like all maps, these are humanly derived and not without errors and dead-ends.  Despite the claims of indeterminists, ethics are never absolute, for they are always changing with the changes in the environment.  Thus, under feudalism stoning an adulteress was considered ethical and necessary for enforcing marital loyalty in the community.  Now we do it in more subtle and more complicated ways, although sometimes with a similarly unfortunate result.

Ethics also are used to control human behavior for subjective ends.  In my opinion, those who shout the loudest about ethics should receive the most scrutiny by the rest of us.  Whether scientists, guided by their definition of “truth,” should receive special attention is questionable.  The truth is that ethics are determined by everyone.  Your ethics are as good as mine (unless you have served jail time for actions I deem inappropriate).  Of course, some folks are more influential than others—it is now considered, for instance, to be ethical to lower taxes for the rich and wages for the poor.  Some poor folks may not think that is ethical.  So you see how it works: ethics are purely subjective.  On the other hand, we will see how certain ethical principles work out.  Ethics ultimately involves the age-old political question suited to every economic system: Should we do it together or do it apart?  Every answer to that question amounts to an experiment.  With an environment that increasingly contains more people, what do you think the answer to that question will be in the current period?  You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure that out.

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