Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Science and Morality

In my previous blog I argued that morality requires more than praiseworthy moral intent. You must also must  exert a reasonable effort to figure out how to effectively and efficiently fulfill that goal: call it a plan. One of the hallmarks of recent human history is that fact that we now know more and can do more, and therefore our individual and collective plans are more likely to be fulfilled more effectively and efficiently. But not all of our plans are morally good.

So why can we do so much more than our Pleistocene forbears? In a word: Science. Although there are many different ways to define “Science,” I prefer to boil it down to its essence. To me (and F.A. Hayek) Science is nothing more than extended, systematized “trial and error.” By this definition, hunter and gatherer societies certainly had Science. These small groups no doubt employed trial and error, but it was much less effective and efficient because the number of “trials” employed in solving any given problem was severely limited; and so was their ability to ability to detect variable degrees of "error." So the hallmark of Modern Science is the sheer number scientists, the ability of those scientists to keep track of what works and what doesn’t work, and the ability to communicate these results to large numbers of other scientists. So Science is about creating large networks of cooperative and competitive inquirers. NOTE: cooperation and competition are not polar opposites, but complementary, necessary conditions for Science. The vast networks of scientists today, are, in fact, markets comprised of "buyers" and "sellers" of information (or what works and what doesn't work). These markets exchange not only time, energy, and resources between buyers and sellers, but they also exchange theories, which are the basic units of information. Competing Scientific theories reside in the networked minds (brains) of communities of scientists. The more scientists the merrier! Thus, the sociopolitical rise of modern scientific inquiry corresponds to the expansion of idea markets beyond small groups of hunters and gatherers. Today we can cooperate and compete in the production of ideas based on trust, not only with our close relatives (kin altruism) and friends (reciprocal altruism), but also with strangers. The initial challenge for the rise of Modern Science was extend the benefits of reciprocal altruism to include strangers. So is it that can we trust strangers? For the rise of Modern Science this entailed creation scientific institutions such laboratories, libraries, and colleges and universities. But it also required the discovery of  large-group morality via trial and error. "Hey, wouldn't we all be better off by cooperating and competing with strangers, based on mutually agreed upon rules, than simply going to war with them again?" This moral revolution entailed the cultural acceptance of three abstract rules that constitute large-group morality: don't kill, don't steal, and don't lie. Adherence to those three rules led to the rise of markets, including idea markets.

The rise of these institutions and rules that comprise Modern Science was made possible by the Agricultural Revolution, which marked the decline of small group morality (based on genetic relatedness and friendship) and the rise of large group (modern) morality. Pleistocene scientists expended so much time, effort, and resources hunting and gathering that they were unable to do much science, which explains why human societies remained relatively unchanged for millions of years. In fact, it's hard to deny that conditions of human life has changed more in the last 300 years than the previous 3 million.

Now what about ethics? Ethics is about how benefits and harms are distributed within and between human communities. Obviously, there are more known benefits to be distributed today and more known harms to be avoided. (When I was a kid we used to break thermometers and play with the little balls of mercury!) Unfortunately, Science is amoral in the sense that it is equally proficient in generating harms as it is benefits. Thanks to the rise of Modern Science we can now cure many diseases, build safer buildings, grow more food, travel faster and farther, and communicate more efficiently. But we can also more effectively and efficiently: kill each other (advanced weaponry), steal from one another (identity theft), and disseminate misinformation and disinformation (lie). Scientific lies are especially pernicious. Scientific Fraud is based on lying; that is where scientists falsely report the results of trial and error in order to reap the social and economic benefits that we bestow upon scientists.  So Modern Science, or systematized trial and error, has provided modern humans with the opportunity to execute both morally praiseworthy and morally blameworthy plans. The challenge for us today is how to increase the use of Science in the pursuit of praiseworthy goals and minimize its use in pursuit of blameworthy goals.Thus, Modern Science is not exempt from the dictates of large-group morality: don't kill, don't steal, and don't lie. This raises an extremely thorny political problem. What kind of political strategy should political regimes employ in order to maximize the positive impact of science? A Progressive Strategy: increase the power and influence of "good" leaders and followers and the pursuit of good ends by moral, effective, and efficient means. Or, a Libertarian Strategy; decrease the power and influence of bad leaders and followers and the pursuit of bad ends, by immoral, effective, efficient means? I'll try to tackle this problem in my next blog.