Does science need a moral framework from which it should operate? How would we go about choosing such a framework? There is various religions that can provide such a framework or even secular humanism. I wonder if progress is all that is required of the scientific community that this may lead in the future to weapons of mass destruction that can lead to suffering on such a scale that has never been seen before.

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    For starters, honesty is essential practically by definition in any endeavor of a community to begin consolidating their acquired knowledge. – David H Oct 29 '13 at 12:04
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    Perhaps related: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." – user3164 Oct 29 '13 at 12:17
  • Psychologists and biologists are routinely subject to ethical scrutiny. Physicists are doing less work these days on subjects impinging on morality. And economists aren't scientists, so their lack of ethical oversight is not on-topic. – Niel de Beaudrap Oct 29 '13 at 15:31

Yes, science requires a moral framework. Science is predicated upon:

  1. the ability and willingness to reach intersubjective agreement
  2. sufficient training of enough who are mentally/experientially qualified for research
  3. enough money to fund science
  4. not destroying all of humanity, which would prevent further scientific progress

Here are some ways that the above can be hindered:

    • egocentrism, which gives less value to evidence, hypotheses, and theories of others
    • deception, which falsifies data or dependence on other work to elevate self
    • classism, which will ignore many with innate scientific talents
    • egocentrism, which says 'I am too important to spend time learning to teach well'
    • nearsighted vision, which stunts research which pays in 10+ year timepsans
    • favoritism, which prevents the most promising research from being maximally valued
    • hardball politics, which can stall government-funded research
    • irreparable inequality, which promotes violence above diplomacy
    • megalomania, which makes psychopathic villains

As an example of some of the above, the United States is currently suffering from 'nearsighted vision'; the 2013 budget sequestration greatly harmed e.g. NIH funding. As another, the 2013 government shutdown forced the NIH to shut down (doors to research labs are locked); a PhD biophysicist told me that it can take a month 'spin down' mammalian cell lines; this means the process must be started when government shutdowns are near, and if insufficient warning is given, those cell lines are lost and it can take months to reestablish new ones.

Choosing a moral framework requires:

  1. a shared vision (or telos)
  2. a shared ethic (means)
  3. a good enough model of 'human nature'

I'm definitely channeling Alisdair MacIntyre's 1981 After Virtue, where he contrasts current-day Emotivism with pre-enlightenment meta-ethical moral frameworks. I quote him in several answers; here's the third use of this bit:

Each of the three elements of the scheme—the conception of untutored human nature, the conception of the precepts of rational ethics and the conception of human-nature-as-it-could-be-if-it-realized-its-telos—requires reference to the other two if its status and function are to be intelligible.

In other words, 3. → 2. → 1. Alternatively, to avoid the is-ought problem, we define the ought as our shared vision, so that we can get: is → means → telos.

  1. Our shared vision includes scientific progress. It will also need to include this progress positively impacting enough people (likely through application). How to define 'enough' is tricky, but we can imagine a world where scientific advancements are withheld from e.g. all of Africa, with the only perceivable solution being the destruction of science (in order to restart the system so it doesn't stick to such a local maximum).
  2. Our ethic must be sufficient to avoid the hindrances mentioned in the beginning. My guess is that it will include issues not mentioned which may not seem to lead directly to science, but are nonetheless required.
  3. Here, science can help us tremendously. We must be careful to make fewer mistakes, like the one in the Milgram experiment, where fourth year psychologist students and medical school psychiatrists underestimated human submission to authority by 1.8-2.8 orders of magnitude. The Stanford prison experiment and The Third Wave are also instructive. In my opinion, our current idea of 'human nature' (this is a debated term) is too rosy. Perhaps religious belief could help here? Christianity traditionally has a larger emphasis on 'sin' than contemporary cultures.

A big issue is whether people feel part of the scientific enterprise, or part of the 'society' which hosts it. For example, consider how sports fans often feel part of the sports enterprise. There is a danger in society-building: Social connection enables dehumanization. Beyond the above, I am not sure how to avoid this problem (encouraging 'us vs. them' mentalities) while simultaneously building a society which values scientific progress.

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  • Note that while the end of humanity would inhibit the progress of science, to say the least, there is nothing in the ethics of the scientific mindset in itself that prevents species-destroying risk-taking. The fact that scientists would avoid such risk is probably better pinned to an implicit humanism (to say nothing of self-preservation and a respect for the hard work of others) rather than anything to do with science per se. – Niel de Beaudrap Oct 29 '13 at 19:11
  • @NieldeBeaudrap: "there is nothing in the ethics of the scientific mindset in itself that prevents species-destroying risk-taking" — really? See Studies of deadly H5N1 bird flu mutations test scientific ethics. I don't think the situation is as clear/agreed upon as you intimate. Computer science results which would insanely aid devastating computer viruses have been plausibly described to me (I'm a software engineer with an admiration for theory). Stuxnet-type stuff. – labreuer Oct 29 '13 at 19:38
  • Lots of this is good, but I'm curious: the mention of "current-day emotivism" seems out of left-field. Most ethicists working today reject emotivism (though I'm not suggesting it's wrong!). I'm not sure why you mention it. – ChristopherE Oct 29 '13 at 22:23
  • @ChristopherE, theorists are often far ahead of popular beliefs, and I think this is an instance. – labreuer Oct 29 '13 at 22:25
  • I'm not saying that scientists would happily see the world burn. I work with more than a few. I also don't think that science even inclines one slightly towards world destruction. But I think that any (understandable and frankly good) hesitation comes from values which are independent, or at best have a common cause as, those of their values that one might call "scientific". That is: not all of the values that a scientist may have, is due to their being a scientist. – Niel de Beaudrap Oct 29 '13 at 22:53

We must ask ourselves what qualifies as "progress". For example, in "Industrial Society and its Future", Ted Kaczynski raises some interesting points, basically arguing that “freedom and technological progress are incompatible”. I bet most would agree that freedom is more important than technological progress.

Also, from Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918-1922) and Lothrop Stoddard's The Revolt against Civilization (1922) to this 2015 article by professor emeritus of political economy Robert Skidelsky, ample authorative sources have documented an on-going decline in the civilization of the West, from the American & French revolutions onwards until this very day.

Unfortunately, the decline of the West has largely been ignored during the last couple of decades, mostly because it didn't suit the political agendas of the leaders of the West, which is precisely what allowed the process to accelerate to an almost nauseating pace since especially the second half of the 20th century.

So is there a blind adherence to "progress"? IMO, that couldn't be further from reality. I would even go as far as to say that there appears to be a blind adherence to self-destruction.


So can / should a solid moral framework prevent industrial progress the industrial system's hold on civilization and the corresponding decline of human happiness & freedom? "Industrial Society and its Future" explains why that won't work!

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    How does this relate to the question? You talk about progress but the question is about progress in science. – Eliran May 27 '16 at 10:32
  • @EliranH : I address both progress at the civilizational level (which is more generic) and technological progress specifically (which is very closely and directly related to scientific progress). – John Slegers May 27 '16 at 10:34
  • This does not appear to answer the question... – virmaior May 31 '16 at 9:38
  • @virmaior : As I said in my response to, I address both progress at the civilizational level (which is more generic) and technological progress specifically (which is very closely and directly related to scientific progress). How does this not answer the question? – John Slegers May 31 '16 at 10:06
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    Please stop adding "edit" paragraphs. Rewrite your answer to incorporate new information or additional explanation. – user2953 May 31 '16 at 10:36

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