The scope of morality

In my last post I wrote:

Only political ideals can be judged morally. The construction of a political system is a matter of science (political, legal etc…), not of morality. For example, whether to have a presidential system, or a parliamentary system; whether the tenure of elected representatives should be 4 years or 10 years; whether copyrights should be granted for 20 years or 50 years; whether the minimum voting age should be 18 years or 21 years; etc.. are not moral questions.

Is such a distinction – moral vs “scientific” (for lack of a better word to describe judgement that is not moral) – valid? What is it that makes a particular question, a moral question? What is the use of making such a distinction?

Consider some examples of what I would regard as moral questions:

  1. Should I have definite goals (short term and/or long term) or just live life as it comes?
  2. Should I choose my own happiness or other people’s happiness as the purpose of my life?
  3. I do not approve of something my friend did. Should I voice my disapproval?
  4. A guest forgot something at my house. Should I return it?

Consider some examples of what I would regard as “scientific” questions:

  1. Should I buy a new computer next week or next year?
  2. Should I use Windows or Linux?
  3. Should I rent an apartment or buy one?
  4. Should I buy a newspaper or use the internet?

There is nothing about the questions themselves to justify a distinction. Both kinds of questions are about choice, both can be answered objectively – with reference to facts as one sees them, both can be easy or difficult to answer, both require the same method to reach an answer – analyze the relevant facts and make a value judgement. And yet it is quite clear to me that there is a distinction. What is it?

The distinction is in my understanding. As I integrate facts, I form certain principles to help me form my value judgements. As I observe newer facts, I validate these principles and identify contexts within which they apply. If a particular question can be answered by the direct application of a principle I have already validated, I regard that question as a moral question. This means that when I classify a particular question as a moral question, I already have an answer to it and I am certain of my answer. However, if the context implied in a particular question is extremely narrow, I will not have any single principle which I can use to answer the question directly (because I only form or retain principles which apply to broad contexts as a matter of economy). I would regard such a question to be a “scientific” question. By analyzing the relevant facts, I might eventually reach an answer to such a question. I might also be certain of my answer. But that certainty is not relevant to the distinction. The question remains a “scientific” question until I formulate the answer directly in the form of a principle.

This distinction applies even if the principles I have accepted are not based on a complete rational understanding, but are accepted unquestioningly from the culture or from faith. As long as I accept a principle, I will regard any question that is directly answered by it as a moral question. As my understanding improves, it is possible that a question that was once a “scientific” question (for me) will become a moral question. Also, should I discover that some principle that I had previously accepted is incorrect, a question that was once a moral question will become a “scientific” question. A moralist (someone who has firm principles about several issues) will regard a lot of questions as moral questions. A pragmatist (who shies away from all principles) will regard most of these questions as “scientific” – to be resolved by trial and error, by an approach of whatever works.

Why is the distinction useful? By considering the questions a particular person regards as moral or scientific, I can understand what principles he accepts or does not accept. If there is a particular question that I regard as moral but he does not, it means that there is some principle which I accept but he doesn’t. If we are to have a constructive debate, the subject of the debate should be the relevant principle and not the particular question. As a case in point, I believe that government bailouts are morally wrong. Someone (and there is no dearth of such people) believes that bailouts are necessary to “save the economy”. Instead of arguing about how a particular bailout will affect the economy, the argument should be about how a bailout is unjust and why injustice can never be practical, with the bailout as a mere example.

This distinction is useful even when I deal with people with whom I share basic principles. When I deal with such a person, I can safely assume that we will agree on moral questions. But we may well disagree on “scientific” questions. The disinction helps me predict where we can expect to agree.


10 Responses

  1. I strongly disagree with the characterisation of the distinction between moral and scientific knowledge put forth by this post. The question: “should government protect rights” is moral, the question “will a 4-year term limit on presidential service lead to increased protection in individual rights?” is a scientific one (particularly a question of political science) and the question “should we implement a 4-year term limit on presidents” is both moral and scientific. To look at another key example: “is reason a valid means of gaining knowledge” is neither moral nor scientific, but epistemological.

    The key difference between these examples is emphatically not whether or not you have principles to help you answer them. The difference is in the category of knowledge to which the principles belong. Knowledge is classified depending on the types of entities, actions, entities, etc. to which it refers. Metaphysics refers to the nature of all entities and actions in the most general terms, epistemology refers to man and his means of gaining knowledge, morality refers to making choices in light of free will and the fact that life offers fundamental alternatives, and politics refers to the nature of social interactions among men in light of morality and the facts of man’s nature. All of these together (along with aesthetics) are classified as being part of the wider class of knowledge, philosophy, which “studies the fundamental nature of existence, of man, and of man’s relationship to existence” according to the Ayn Rand Lexicon.

    In contrast to philosophy is science, which studies particular aspects of existence (the physical sciences) and of man and his relationship to existence (the humanities). In the physical sciences, physics studies the fundamental interactions between all forms of matter, chemistry studies the nature of elements, molecules, compounds, etc., mathematics studies the nature of relating physical measurements to one another. In the humanities, history studies the forces underlying the flow of past human events, economics studies the nature of wealth creation, and political science studies the effects of given social systems and, conversely, the social systems that lead to a given effect.

    So with respect to the particular topic put forth in this post, a distinction must be made between politics, which is a subset of morality, and political science, which is not. In essence, politics answers the question: “which social system should man have?” while political science answers the questions: “how do different social systems act and what social measures can lead to a particular goal?”. To put it another way (though this oversimplifies): politics defines the goal, political science defines the means to achieve the goal.

  2. Cogito,
    “I strongly disagree with the characterisation of the distinction between moral and scientific knowledge put forth by this post.”
    Since I mostly agree with what you wrote in your response, I suppose I should clarify what I meant in my post.

    First all the examples I considered in the post were of the form “Should I do …?” By the definition of morality – morality refers to making choices in light of free will and the fact that life offers fundamental alternatives – these are all moral questions.
    The answer to these questions might involve matters of political science or physics or economics. In the example you gave – the question “should we implement a 4-year term limit on presidents” is both moral and scientific – it is political science that is relevant. So yes, it is indeed both moral and scientific.

    As a specific example consider the question “Should I support the government bailouts?” The question is both moral and scientific and comes under politics. What I am claiming is that because I have accepted the principle that theft does not work irrespective of scale or circumstances, the question seems to me to be purely moral. When I first came to know of the proposed bailouts, my rejection of the idea was immediate and purely based on moral grounds. I did not feel the need for a detailed cost-benefit analysis. To a pragmatist however, the answer is not at all obvious and a purely moral argument is insufficient to convince him.
    Now consider some of the questions Monica raises in this comment on patent laws and genetics. To me (no expert in either IPR or genetics), the questions dont seem decidable on moral grounds. To a lawyer who has some experience in the fields however, some of the questions might well have obvious answers. Since he has integrated the relevant principles in his understanding, no scientific evaluation is needed, and the question might seem purely moral.
    This is the distinction that I intended to analyze and to me it seems both valid and useful. Are you saying that it is not?

  3. Cogito,
    Also note that my use of the word “scientific” in my post is not entirely satisfactory. I do not intend to refer to any particular science or even science in general. I only mean the scientific method of considering facts and using logic and reason to reach a conclusion. Is there a single word to convey that better?

  4. There is another distinction – value judgements.

    “Should I buy a red hat or a blue one?”
    “Do I prefer Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky?”

    These are personal (though still objective) – and not universal like scientific data.

  5. ^ Maybe “science” isn’t the word, but “philosophy”.

  6. Describing “science” as involving questions that can be answered pragmatically, or by trial and error, or by empiricism, isn’t really a valid characterization of science. Note that creationists, the most visible anti-science faction in American society, are hostile to the whole concept of “theory,” equating it to vague speculation. This points up the central role of theory in real science . . . and it’s a role far different from speculation. A theory is a broad integration that goes beyond specific observed facts. To a ruthlessly empiricist approach, this would entail that “theory” is unfounded speculation and one is as good as another; but to someone who actually works with theory, it’s obvious that some theories are better than others.

    Without denying there being a legitimate role for philosophy, I think that the prospect of many ostensibly moral issues eventually turning out to be scientific issues makes sense, given a proper understanding of what “science” is. Philosophy might tell us, for example, that the ultimate choice before us is life or death; but science might tell us what means are appropriate to implementing the choice of life, in more more detail and much more conclusively than is possible for an ethics founded on common observations of human life. After all, science has given us much improved prescriptions for medicine, for engineering, and even for economics (though governments are not much inclined to follow them); common sense rules for bringing down a fever or building a bridge that will stand up, which is what the Romans had, were useful, but not as good as twenty-first century methods. And ethics is also an applied branch of knowledge.

  7. Roberto,
    Yes. But I think those sort of questions are a little artificial, i.e, they are not really explicitly analyzed (atleast I do not analyze them at any great depth). They are answered (or rather acted upon) by impulse.

  8. Mark,
    Philosophy seems too broad. Perhaps analytical would be a better word, But anyway I hope the meaning I intended is clear even if I can’t find the exact word.

  9. William,
    I agree that theories play a central role in science. I would say that they are the content of science. Integrating empirical data using reason or logic is the method of science. While particular theories can be validated using the scientific method, the scientific method can only be validated by philosophy.
    Athough I do believe the distinction I drew between moral and “scientific”/analytical questions is valid, ultimately all questions of the form “Should …?” have a moral component. Science, by itself can never answer a “Should …?” question. It can only answer “Is …?” or “Does …?” questions and only some of them at that. For example, “Does God exist?” is a question science cannot answer.

  10. Hello!
    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language 😉
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

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