A few months ago, I started a discussion in a Care2 group on the need to use scientific methods to test ethical standards. Before you begin reading that, look at this:
Now we will proceed with the discussion itself:
I had to deal with three different opponents in this discussion, as well as several others who did not oppose me outright but merely asked questions or made helpful comments. The first opponent was CheWorks L, who is also known as Ted K. His comments were as follows:
CheWorks: “how can we base ethics on what may be a myth? religion has no place in ethics.”
I saw this and went “HUH???” until I remembered that CheWorks was a Communist, who thus regards all religion as serving the upper classes at the expense of the lower classes and thus unethical. Of course, people like Dr Martin Luther King and Mohandas Ghandi might strongly disagree with that simplistic view. I’m always amazed that Communists regard all religion as irrational, yet they themselves are so dogmatic about what Karl Marx wrote.
Dale Husband: “Religion was the ONLY basis for ethics in most ancient societies because there was no conception of science or scientific methods in them back then. So religion served a good purpose then. My argument is that we need to go beyond that now.”
CherWorks: “Maybe you are mixing up religion with spirituality, Dale. Science proves there are ethical standards such as recycling. Would God tell us to recycle? No. But nature, a spiritualist, would tell us that we need to respect the environment. Nowhere more than in the Judeo-Christian tradition do I see a pathetic God trying to gain respect. This has nothing to do with ethics. Nopwadays religion supports wealth at any cost, which menas enslaving 99% of the human population. This is hardly ethical.” (sic)
Later, CheWorks said: “You seem to be everywhere at the same time and rather confusing. Science cannot dictate ethics, but it can demonstrate that some ethical acts are good for the public. For example, free health care provides for a healthy population. I’m not sure if you’re in agreement.”
Dale Husband: “I’m certainly not asking that anyone dictate ethics dogmatically. That’s what religions do. Scientists should not. What I’m calling for is that any ethical ideas be tested scientifically before they be proclaimed to be valid by anyone. Only fear of their values being discredited would motivate, for example, laws against gay marriage by people who insist that homosexuality is immoral without actually dealing with homosexuals as people. If empirical analysis proves that tolerance of homosexuality leads to social disruption, then the anti-gay bigots would have a case. [And] ethical standards of some kind, such as honesty or open-mindedness, are essential for scientists to do their work. That’s why I trust the findings of the scientific commmunity above any religious dogma, because they tend to go where the evidence leads them and are not afraid to challenge conventional ideas, even among themselves. That’s the opposite of what religious communities are known for. Hope that clears things up!”
CheWorks: “We seem to be on a similar page. Can you please explain how science can help homophobes? Is it by showing that they are of the same chromosomes as heterosexuals?”
Interesting that he accepts my premise as valid and moves the discussion forward by bringing in an issue for which it would be a good demonstration of the truth of my idea.
Dale Husband: “Science is still investigating the causes of homosexuality, but if a physical cause was indeed found, it would blow away forever the notion that gays follow a lifestyle that is their free choice, and then there would be no legal basis for them to be punished for expressing their true nature. Homosexuality could no longer rightfully be called a “sin”. But since so many people do not accept evolution as true for religious reasons, they won’t accept those findings either.”
I guess I shouldn’t have mentioned evolution, because I also had to deal with an anti-evolutionist named Freediver who has been a routine thorn in my side for over two years.
Freediver: “Science has no contribution to make to ethics. Those scientists who belive it does just have delusions of grandeur. Stephen Jay Gould agrees with me on this.”
Right from that opening statement, Freediver had already lost the debate. Quite simply, it is a fallacy to make personal attacks against either your opponent or anyone else instead of really dealing with the issues. And appealing to a supposed authority figure like Dr. Gould is another common fallacy. Plus, didn’t Freediver know that Gould is already DEAD?! Finally, for Freediver to state that Gould agrees with HIM about anything seems to stem from an attitude of extreme egotism. I considered ignoring the idiot, but I decided to engage him for a while instead to give him more rope to hang himself with. And as it turned out, I was not disappointed.
Freediver: “Now you definitely don’t know what you are talking about.” “…appeals to reason tend not to work with Dale, who constantly insists that I provide examples of other people who agree with me, rather than focussing on the merits of the argument. It is kind of ironic (or is that hypocritical?) that he would commit this fallacy repeatedly, in it’s truest form, despite me continuously pointing out his error, then pull me up the first time I come close to using it. It shows that he recognises the error, just not when he commits it.”
Freediver was lying here. What I have demanded he do is support his claims about evolution not being a scientific theory by showing websites or other references that indicate that most scientists agree with him about how he defines science, to prove he didn’t make his definition all up on his own. He never did, except for a website he created to showcase his own writings on evolution and other subjects. He knows quite well that most of the references he’d have to make otherwise would be Creationist websites. Most scientists do not follow his narrow standard of what science is, of course.
Dale Husband: “Is it possible that you are motivated, in your opposition to me on both evolution and ethical issues, by your extreme religious bias? In any case, I’m not going to waste any more time attempting to explain what should have been obvious. If you choose not to accept it, that’s your business.” “You don’t appeal to reason, really. You appeal only to the prejudices you happen to have and hope that some people in your audience happen to share. In many cases, you fail to make an impression precisely because most people see right through your empty claims for what they really are. I don’t believe you are really stupid, but you seem to think most of us are if you keep putting out arguments like you’ve been doing all these years and expect them to be taken seriously. You overestimate your own powers of reason by blindly assuming whatever you say must be right. You never learn anything from others with that attitude.”
There followed a long period in which Freediver threw out one argument after another in a desperate effort to save his position. Clearly he was growing frustrated.
Freediver: “I use very simple arguments for you because you can’t follow logic.”
Yep, another personal attack.
Dale Husband: “By the way, Freediver, your constant attitude of absolutist dogmatism is the exact opposite of scientific thinking, a contradiction I’ve always noticed.”
Finally, my third opponent arrived. This one was known as Shadow Bear or Silly Old Bear. Unlike the first two, this one was a friend of mine. He is also Jewish.
Silly Old Bear: “This has me a little concerned – because this reduces a person down to what he or she can produce in terms of what is beneficial to Society. It opens a whole lot of cans, I’d rather see kept closed. It raises the question “Who is to decide what is beneficial to Society?” That has been tried – it didn’t work from a Humane point of view – both the Nazis and the Fascists used this “touch stone” in their politics, and it destroyed a lot of knowledge, experience and human history. The idea that what is good for Society is what a human is worth only works if Society’s basic ethical and moral standards are such that they take into account that we do not always know what is good for Society. What then should be the scientific test to determine this? How do you scientifically measure that which cannot be measured?”
Dale Husband: “As I see it, the Nazis and fascists made a point of judging other races of people as inferior without any empirical justification. That was the opposite of scientific thinking and led to their downfall when they were proven wrong. It is true that we do not know the potential value of people and it cannot be measured empirically. But if we do not come up with an empirical reason to prohibit murder, what can we say to a person who rejects all religion and wants a reason to justify whatever he wishes to do, including murder? And keep in mind that many senseless killings have been done in the name of religion. There is the potential for corruption in all things, which is why free inquiry is so important. If we cannot question authority, it can destroy us.”
Silly Old Bear: “That is not quite true – both the Fascists and the Nazis based their ideas about races of people, disabled – both mental and physical , homosexuals, political and religious beliefs on what they considered to be empirical evidence – such as homosexuals not being likely to reproduce, Jews being a genetic contamination, mental and physically disabled not being productive etc. All based on the science they had access to. Those empirical evidence might not be satisfactory to you and me, but that is only because you and I are measuring the evidence using another scale – based in what we consider ethical. Not because of the science as such.” “Religion is not necessary for making sound ethical decisions or f.i not to murder. I have not always been a religious man – still I have always held the opinion that all people are equal with equal rights to life. This can be arrived at by simple logical deduction. Atheists and Secular Humanists are not unethical, murderous or amoral. It doesn’t exclude that there certainly do exist such atheists or secular humanists, just as there are unethical, murderous or amoral religious people. Let’s not make Science another religion, Dale – it is quite defendable without needing all the trimmings of religion. Simple logic is enough.” “Scientifically it cannot be proven that Homosexuality is not a choice, so if all I had to go on was science I might be inclined to agree with the fundamentalists that homosexuality is indeed a sin according to Torah. There would be nothing to tell me otherwise. But because I do indeed choose what dogmas to incorporate in my ethics I have gone out of my way to find other ways to view homosexuality and Torah, so that the two do not contradict each other. Where there are no scientific data, we still have to make a choice as to how to act ethically.”
Because Silly Old Bear didn’t use personal attacks or other stupid fallacies like Freediver had, I was able to end the debate on a civil note with him.