A Short Dialogue on Science, Technology, Cleverness, and Morality

by Dr. Jan Garrett

Last Revised: April 2, 2010


Sally, a student.
John, a pragmatist, named after the great American pragmatist philosopher, John Dewey (1859-1952).
Hedda Eudora, a Utilitarian of the Jeremy Bentham variety.
Werner, named after Werner von Braun, a German rocket scientist who worked for Hitler's regime and then in the post-war period, for the United States to develop its missile program
Eupractes, an Aristotelian (whose name derives from two Greek words meaning "well" and "action")
Ariana, named after Riane Eisler.

Sally. I have an assignment to interview you all about science and moral reasoning. First, I'd like to ask John and Werner about the nature of science. I think of science as a method for solving problems and doing good things for humanity, like develop medical cures and build better buildings and predict the weather so we can avoid hazardous conditions.

John. I generally agree with this perspective. I think that all ideas are tools that human beings have developed to solve problems of one or another kind. Of course, not all our ideas are equally useful tools. What we call science today is an especially refined set of tools. It refinement consists of methods that have been developed to test particular scientific ideas for their usefulness in solving particular problems related to understanding, predicting, and controlling the natural environment.

But I have to qualify what I have said so as to avoid misunderstanding: some of the tools, skills, and methods associated with science can be detached from the goal of solving society's real problems and used intentionally or unintentionally for the most destructive ends.

Werner. Science is about discovering causal laws, which enable those who know them to predict and control what is going to happen in the natural and social world.

In this way, science itself, and the technologies that make use of scientific knowledge, are value-neutral. By themselves scientific theories are neither good nor bad. That's why it's possible for scientists to serve different masters, using the same scientific methods and skills. As scientists we don't tell you what to do; we tell you only If you wish result A, then do X; if you wish result B, then do Y.

Ariana. People who have a Dominator mentality will use their knowledge physics, chemistry, and biology, along with military technology that depends upon scientific knowledge, to conquer or control others more efficiently. That might mean spying on people or carpet bombing whole cities. People who have the Partnership mentality will prefer to use science to cure diseases and figure out how to preserve biological diversity.

I think that in Old Europe, prior to the Bronze Age and the introduction of the horse, people living in Partnership communities developed technologies, such as growing crops, domestication of animals such as sheep and goats, and even the use of copper for ornaments and objects of religious worship. Technology was primarily aimed at the service of human well-being. But when the warlike, male-dominated Kurgans or Indo-Europeans invaded beginning around 3000 B.C., they had domesticated the horse for use in attack and conquest and they began producing lethal weapons in large numbers. This shows quite clearly that knowledge of cause and effect can be used for good or ill.

Werner. I am sure that the Aryans, or Kurgans as you call them, thought that they were using weapons of war for good ends.

Ariana. Well, people who have the Dominator mindset think of conquest as good.

Hedda Eudora. I recognize the value-neutrality of science and technology. That's why we need an ethical system in addition to scientific knowledge. Scientific knowledge describes how nature works, its laws, how from certain initial conditions certain later conditions are produced. These later conditions may be morally desirable or undesirable. Utilitarian ethics is scientific in the sense that it pays attention to such causal relationships. Our choices or actions are causes that have consequences. We can use knowledge of the laws of nature, of cause-effect connections, to predict the consequences of our actions. But knowledge of those consequences by itself cannot tell us what we should do, which of those consequences we should pursue.

Sally. How can we rationally decide that?

Hedda Eudora. The principle of utility tells us exactly what we should do with our knowledge of the predictable consequences of our actions. We should choose the action, or set of actions, out of the available possible actions or sets of actions, that is likely to maximize the positive consequences for all sentient beings affected. Since choices usually have negative as well as positive consequences and they too have to be taken into account, we can reword the principle: we should choose the action, out of the available possible actions, that is likely to maximize the net consequences for all sentient beings affected. By net consequences I mean positive minus negative consequences. As a hedonistic utilitarian, I understand positive consequences as pleasures and negative consequences as pains.

Eupractes. Aristotelians distinguish between practical wisdom and cleverness. A tyrant can be clever. He may know how to choose actions that maximize the staying power of his tyranny, but he aims to stay in power in order to more thoroughly exploit the people under his control. He is not looking out for anyone's interests other than his own. A morally virtuous person who has perfected his virtue, on the other hand, will have the kind of cleverness that is part of practical wisdom, which is the ability to deliberate well about how to promote the common good. The best sort of community leader will be able to choose actions that realize the goals at which he aims, but in this case what he seeks is what is best for the community as a whole. So we agree with utilitarians that cleverness, knowing how to cause the effects a person desires, is not enough. A praiseworthy choice must aim at the proper ends. But we disagree with the hedonism of utilitarians, their view that goodness is defined in terms of pleasure and the absence of pain. There is more than one dimension to the good.

Note: Non-Utilitarian ethical theories will have different definitions of the moral principle or principles we should follow in choosing our actions. For instance, libertarians (if they are being careful and consistent) will hold that we should avoid actions that will have the effect of violating the non-interference rights of others. Liberals or progressives who recognize some positive rights, like rights to education and/or basic health care, in addition to liberty or non-interference rights would say that, in addition to avoiding actions that violate non-interference rights, we should gladly perform actions that are implied by the positive rights of others, for example, we should pay fairly designed taxes to support public education.