Science and Ethics

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John Burdon Sanderson Haldane
Professor John Burdon Sanderson Haldane (1892 – 1964)
Frederick James Gould
Frederick James Gould (1855 – 1938)
Conway Memorial Lecture
Moncure Conway photo by Edward Steichen, 1907. Courtesy of Dickinson College.
Moncure Conway photo by Edward Steichen, 1907. Courtesy of Dickinson College.
Delivered at Essex Hall, Essex Street, 18 April 1928. Chaired by F. J. Gould and presented by Professor J.B.S. Haldane.

Science affects ethics in 5 ways: 1. its technical inventions create new ethical situations. In the past, lack of technology made it impossible for some groups to assist others in distress. The growth of technology has changed that. 2. It creates new ethical imperatives by pointing out to people the consequences of their actions: consequences which, in the past, were unpredictable due to lack of scientific knowledge. 3. It affects our ethical outlook by supplanting mythologies and so changing our views about the nature of the world. 4. In the field of anthropology, it provides knowledge of different ethical systems, and so obliges us to look critically at our own. 5. It may, by its principle of the disinterested pursuit of truth, profoundly alter ethical approaches by making them more rigorous, intellectually and logically.

Point no.2 indicates where science can be most beneficial to ethics. We always need to know the consequences of our actions. As regards helping one’s neighbour, it is best to confine our aid to material benefits, especially ones connected with hygiene. Good hygiene is to everyone’s advantage. Also, science can offer guidance on eugenics, and genuinely scientific eugenics is humanitarian in character. Further, science supports the view that human behaviour can be improved by moral education.

In calculating the consequences of our actions, we need to be as objective and dispassionate as possible. Our calculations depend on a knowledge of statistics. While this knowledge cannot tell us what we ought to do, it provides the context for considering the latter.

The essence of mortality is self-transcendence, but this does not necessarily mean denial. In a rational ethics contextualised by scientific knowledge, self-denial becomes co-operation with others i.e. individuals contributing to a supra-individual reality. What is in the interests of the whole is also in the interests of the parts.

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