Can you explain to me what Einstein meant in the following context?

Some moral relativists try to say that science can be used to dictate ethics, but even secular scientists admit that science is a descriptive discipline (explanation) and not a prescriptive one (obligation). In addition, its empirical methods are impotent to answer such moral questions such as if the Nazi’s were evil or not, or is murder really morally wrong, or why is rape morally reprehensible? Einstein sums up the correct position in this matter when he said, "You are right in speaking of the moral foundations of science, but you cannot turn round and speak of the scientific foundations of morality."

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    The question seems to be well answered below but I would just note two things. First, what Einstein says applies only to science.where it is restricted to sensory empiricism, Second, the idea that an 'ought' can be derived from an 'is' has not been refuted. It has been refuted only for sensory instances of 'is', ie. for the objects of physical perception. These provisos may be irrelevant here given the specific intention of the question, but they are crucially important in philosophy,. . – user20253 Jan 3 '20 at 13:03
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    "IS-OUGHT" can also be seen as ethically normative versus the factually positive. – J D Aug 30 '20 at 6:16
  • David Hume stated that humanity cannot derive an "ought" from an "is" where morals are concerned. – user47436 Aug 30 '20 at 8:28
  • In moral relativism as Noam Chamsky said any definition for the norm, must have two direction, horizontal, and vertical. So In Moral relativism, there is two directions which we must solve the concept of morality, and as we know the first principle of norm is positivity, hence since there are two directions in Moral relativism, so we must give new definition for positivity of norm in Moral relativism.youtu.be/i63_kAw3WmE – user47436 Aug 30 '20 at 8:36
  • Normative Ethics Does Not Need a Foundation: It Needs More Science. Scientific ethics is best conceived of as an instance of nonfoundational normative ethics; that when scientific ethics is nonfoundational, science is relevant to normative inquiry without committing any fallacy; and that nonfoundational scientific ethics can be preferred over foundational ethics because the former is more successful.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3068523 – user47436 Aug 30 '20 at 8:56

The quoted text puts Einstein's sentence into the context of discussing whether a certain moral can be derived from science. Is science descriptive or prescriptive (= normative)? The text advances the position that science is not normative.

Today this position is shared by all scientists and philosophers of science. Broadly speaking, science investigates what is, but does not prescribe what should be. It was already David Hume who emphasizes that there is no path from facts to norms, see his "is-ought" problem.

Concerning the context of Einstein's quote:

In a discussion on science and religion in Berlin in 1930, he [Einstein] said that our human sense of beauty and our religious instinct are "tributary forms in helping the reasoning faculty towards its highest achievements. You are right in speaking of the moral foundations of science, but you cannot turn round and speak of the scientific foundations of morality." He proceeded to point out that science cannot form a base for morality: "every attempt to reduce ethics to scientific formulae must fail."

see http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/nave-html/faithpathh/einstein.html

The passage

but you cannot turn round and speak of the scientific foundations of morality

expresses the same thought as above: One cannot base ethics on science.


You are right in speaking of the moral foundations of science

Einstein possibly means:

  • Also science has its moral, e.g., to be honest. Do not forge the observed results.

  • The scientist has a certain moral responsibility concerning development and application of scientific results. Note that it was just Einstein who later advocated the development of atomic bombs in USA, see his letter to Roosevelt.

But I consider the context to restricted to derive what really was Einstein's point.


This is basically what's known as the "is-ought" distinction, as formulated by David Hume. The idea is that there are knowable facts about the world, but that no accumulation of facts dictates a resultant moral attitude.

There can be facts about moral decisions, and in the light of preexisting moral commitments, facts can inform your moral decisions, but facts by themselves are morally neutral.

The idea is that science describes the world and how it works at a mechanical level. But it is not suited to telling people what decisions they should make and why.


Others have pointed out Hume's "you can't get an ought from an is." In other words, descriptive facts do not provide prescriptive rules.

However, Kant did set out a response to this with his categorical imperative, and Einsteins' answer, while correct in one sense, may contain seeds of its refutation. The scientific urge to seek causes in nature and the "scientific method" do model a kind of morality.

First, human beings are implicitly unified in contrast to "nature." To cooperatively seek causes in "nature" is to not seek them in nefarious human or divine acts. Science actively directs us away from human guilt, blame, sins, and rivalry. So there is a kind of historical negation of negation.

Second, science is, above all, a method of conditional agreement, so that, as Popper said, "our hypotheses can die for us." Or, he might have added, instead of others.

Finally, in the Kantian CI sense we might follow science to rationally derive the universal rules necessary for deriving universal rules. Habermas has, I believe, attempted to translate this into a concept of language and communication. If we are to communicate as social beings at all, certain rules are necessary.

So, while science cannot "discover" morals out there in nature, it may itself be abstracted into a model of what is required of rational, moral, communicative beings.

While this veers away from Einstein, utilitarians might also argue that sociobiology, cognitive science, game theory, and other areas may offer moral insights once the most basic optimal outcomes are postulated, not that I buy it.

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