THE RELATIONS BETWEEN SCIENCE AND ETHICS

Abstract

I JOIN issue with Dr. Waddington on two points. First, when he offers, as a typical example of a judgment that is at once ethical and scientific, the statement “You are an animal of such a kind that you must consume 7 mgm. of vitamin C per diem, and should consume 10 mgm.”. I see nothing ethical here at all. The rules acquire ethical significance only when in a given case I judge the effort after survival, to which it prescribes the means, to be morally right or wrong. If I am the father of a family and there is only a limited supply of vitamin C available, it may be my moral duty to throw the rule to the winds and forego the means to my survival. The ‘must’ of the rule is not the unconditional ‘ought’ of morality, but the condition of attaining an end, as to the morality of which the rule says nothing. The ‘should’ in the last clause is ambiguous; it may mean either ‘you ought to’ or merely ‘you will have a better chance of surviving if you do’. The former meaning alone is ethical, but I fancy that Dr. Waddington intends the latter. He may reply that he sees no difference between the two, any more than when on a later page he identifies what is pleasurable or what leads to pleasurable results (two different matters, by the way) with what is good. We seem to be back in the dear old days of Herbert Spencer. Do fallacies never die, however often they are confuted ? If ‘you ought’ is identical with ‘you'd jolly well better’, and if ‘this is good’ is only another way of saying ‘I find this pleasant’, then the moral consciousness is an illusion and a cheat, and the sooner we stop talking about it the better.

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DE BURGH, W. THE RELATIONS BETWEEN SCIENCE AND ETHICS. Nature 148, 275–276 (1941) doi:10.1038/148275a0

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