1

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."

0

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.

0

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.

Concerning

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.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.