Morality: the best policy?


Good ethics are at least as important as good science when making good decisions. What is truly ‘good’ is not a matter that science will help much with. In political discussion, science-based policy seems to be all the rage, but good policy must be aimed in the right direction, as well as technically accurate and efficient in achieving its desired results. Science should inform what we choose to do as individuals and societies, but it cannot be the sole foundation. Before a nation invests in, say, the geological and engineering studies required to build large walls, it should consider whether it wants to be a society defined by walls in the first place.

Science is good at helping to reach pre-defined ends. If you know where you want to go, science can help you get there. Whether that’s flying to the moon or launching nuclear weapons, feeding the world or advancing racist ideology, the amoral assistant of science can certainly help out. Whether it should or not is a pretty crucial question. Science can advance both good ends and bad ends, as well as many ends that are neither obviously good nor bad. The science of psychology can be used in developing more effective torture techniques, the science of toxicology in improving the speed and reducing the incidence of ugly side-effects of euthanasia injections, the science of projectile motion in more swiftly killing rare whales, and so on – none of these activities are made ethical simply by the use of science. ‘Just add science’ is potentially a recipe for disaster on an unprecedented scale rather than societal success. Science is excellent and has enabled many developments in technology and human health, but it has also been misused to enable oppression, war, environmental degradation, and death on a scale impossible to comprehend in its absence.

We need to face the fact that science is bad at choosing the right ends to pursue. In fact, not just bad but utterly incapable. The only way it helps is when we use it in conjunction with implicit assumptions about human flourishing or wellbeing, or values more generally. This I think should be uncontroversial, but let’s look at two possible objections – one from brain sciences, the other from evolutionary biology/psychology. It could be suggested that brain sciences can measure happiness, and that since everyone wants to maximise happiness that scientific study of brain states should be the basis for all of our ethical and policy decisions. The ‘new atheist’ writer Sam Harris has advocated something like this as the basis of ethics. The problem is that it simply assumes that everyone is aiming to maximise happiness (or that they should be), and that brain states are a good way to measure happiness. In reality, what counts as happiness is probably a function of various social and psychological conditions, and more importantly, happiness is not always the best thing to aim at. Someone who lives a life of suffering on behalf of the poor has done better in life than a happy socialite. Secondly, evolutionary biology or psychology may give us accounts of what is or has been adaptive in human history. But again, merely being adaptive is not enough to guarantee that something is ethical, let alone worthy of aiming our society towards. It is likely evolutionarily adaptive to have lots of children with lots of different partners (apparently Genghis Khan did well at passing on his genes), but there are probably better things to aim at in life.

‘But ethics is hopelessly subjective’, I hear you say. The idea that the results of science are more ‘real’ than ethics or other beliefs about the world is common-place, but doesn’t diminish the role that ethics plays in political reasoning. I believe ethics is objective, and related to our real nature as human beings – there is a real thing, ‘human flourishing’, which we should aim at. But even if we are reductionists and deny that there is such a human nature, we can see that there are different preferences amongst humans, and politics will differ depending on preferences. If there is an objective morality (e.g. if we think there is such a thing as ‘progress’, and that praise and/or blame of others can be legitimate as more than just an expression of opinion), then we should be aiming towards it in all that we do. If there’s not, then we can still recognise that people want different outcomes, and that different desires will lead to different policies even if we agree fully on the science. Sometimes we hear that, for instance, social conservatives want to push their morality on other people – but let’s not be confused – the results of political actions always impose some people’s morality on others. Environmentalists impose their views on polluting companies, anti-poverty campaigners impose their views on social Darwinists, and civil rights activists impose their views on racists. Even extreme libertarians subject agents of the state to a moral view, namely that the state shouldn’t impose its moral views.

Further, there’s not a simple comparison of ‘science based’ versus ‘anti-science’ policy, as nearly all policy claims are based on some kind of evidence. What is considered to count as ‘good science’ is unfortunately often politically influenced, particularly when brought up as evidence in political debates. In my experience, people care far more about their ethical beliefs than their positions on scientific issues, and this can distort what they see as ‘evidence’, particularly ‘good evidence’. We should be doing good science and trying to weed out dodgy use of data, but being purely data-driven may lead in dangerous directions, or simply mask a more sophisticated kind of abuse. Cherry-picking which ticks a few more scientific boxes can still be cherry-picking, and doesn’t answer the central questions about what we’re aiming at. Data can and should be used to answer incredibly important questions, and once we agree on important outcomes it can arbitrate between conflicting methods. Better education in statistics and understanding data could be incredibly helpful for our future, but it won’t achieve much unless it’s used to promote what is truly worthwhile.

We need a new ethical conversation, unafraid to call it what it is. I write this as a scientist with a deep interest in promoting investment in science and technology. Despite the huge importance of research, the core question for both government, individuals, and other units in society, is “what are we actually aiming at anyway?” This conversation doesn’t even have to be divisive – often people across the spectrum will agree on key intended outcomes (e.g. reducing poverty) but disagree on methods. Before we debate the methods we should be clear on what we want. Is it equality or equity? If equality, then of opportunity or of outcome? Under which circumstances, and why? If equity, then what’s the appropriate standard? Should we consider systemic injustice? Can we ever treat people differently on the basis of race, gender, or other attributes? What is the basis for seeking human flourishing? Does the environment also deserve protection? What about animals? Is maximising GDP something we should aim at? What is ‘quality of life’? These are the important questions glossed over by a nation-wide focus on STEM subjects and thinking. Longevity, wealth, scientific discovery, entertainment technologies, and other ‘practical’ outcomes are all great, but maximising these while people turn further inwards and neglect love of neighbour will not be a success.

The rearrangement of deck-chairs on the Titanic may be facilitated by the best scientific research on the musculoskeletal system or the aesthetics of leisure environments, but where the whole ship is pointed is the key question we as a society should be asking. The age-old question ‘what is the good life?’ is imperative; what better place to ask it than in the universities, considered in New Zealand a ‘critic and conscience of society’? Dare to be an idealist, and dare to question materialist assumptions about wellbeing, for everyone’s sake.

[Published in Craccum this week – this is the unedited form]