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The Humanist Institute

Science, Rational Thought, and the Moral Calculus for Humanists.

Andreas Rosenberg

While humanists often claim that science can help in making moral judgments, they and their critics often confuse the nature of science and therefore fail in the task. We must realize that scientific theories and laws work with ideal models. When we turn to the real world, matters are never as precise. Rational thought, however, as the metasystem of science, may be able to derive a moral calculus that operates within actual societies. The U.S. Constitution is analyzed as a test. Humanists, however, have different goals than the material well-being envisioned by that document. This article suggests several such axioms.


Science and rational thought are generally deemed adequate to provide analysis and criticism of human endeavor. They have also been accepted for evaluation of the dogmas of political and religious teachings. However, when discussing the foundations of morality, there is a tendency to downplay the relevance of rational thinking and to deny the usefulness of science. The most clear refutation of science in this context comes, as expected, from dogmatic Christians and dogmatic thinkers in general. They firmly believe that the foundations on which a system of moral norms is built can only be provided by revelation, a process that guarantees the axiomatic nature of the foundation. Most liberal thinkers do not go so far but they too have difficulty in utilizing science and rational thinking in their search for foundations of morality. Any type of moral calculus—a system where statements are logically derived from fixed premises instead of representing a collection of independent rules, each justified by their revelational nature—needs universal axioms to anchor its rules for human behavior. We will otherwise fall into the dreaded abyss of relative morals—a form of morality where any kind of human behavior can be justified by the use of arbitrary concepts introduced as axioms. Thus the principle of martial spirit was used by the Japanese military to justify the massacre of Nankin in the beginning of World War II. The purity of race and the will of the proletariat are axioms that together are responsible for a whole archipelago of mass graves, culminating finally in a situation where the daily axiom for morality could be found changing and appearing redefined on the front page of Pravda each morning.

Apparently so scared of falling into relativism, a terrible place despite recent renovation and change of name to multiculturalism, humanists are trying to find new foundations. What is available if we do not accept revelations and come to suspect scientific laws? The formal humanistic credo tells us to go and figure it out ourselves. Use your ability to think rationally! This brings us back to science. Our suspicions of science and rational thought as being not too stable foundations for a moral calculus are based on historical disappointments. Modernism, the product of early rationalism in the disguise of industrial society, was supposed to be the golden way to the future. The warnings of early social scientists such as Max Weber about the ruthlessness and amoral character of the nascent capitalism when it combined with the Protestant ethic were amply confirmed during the first wholesale slaughter of men by technological warfare in what we now call the First World War, the war that provided huge profits to industrialists on all sides of the conflict. This led to a bizarre version of utilitarianism where production of goods and accumulation of goods had become an end in itself. The cost efficient production of any type of widgets as means for maximizing profit had become a moral axiom on which an everyday Christian-secular morality was built. This chilling history of human exploitation by science and technology produced another scientific axiom-ridden system, Marxism, which, while criticizing exploitation, tacitly accepted widget-producing efficiency as a valid moral axiom with the difference that the profit went into different pockets. Equally disastrous moral consequences followed. In Stakhanovism, Marxism achieved levels of exploitation seldom reached in capitalistic societies. The only competitors in depravity were systems such as National Socialism that elevated the presumed laws of Darwinism into axiom on which social structure and moral was built. No wonder humanists are uncomfortable when talking about science and moral judgment.

When thus feeling abandoned by our intellectual ancestors, we tend to turn to such nebulous concepts as spiritualism or some form of sensual union with nature. Such union, when described in terms of an ecological movement, represents another scientific model and as such brings us back to science made palatable by a green disguise.

Before beginning to deal with difficulties in defining new concepts, we had better look back and see what went wrong with the social models of utilitarian-Protestant-Capitalism/Marxism or social Darwinism. Where do we put the blame for the misapplied scientific principles leading to machine guns, poison gas, sweatshops, creation of a proletariat, and concentration camps? Such a critical look back is necessary if we want to avoid repetition of our sins.

One of the major errors can easily be identified: a misunderstanding of the nature of the scientific laws and theories. Many considered them—when found to be true, in the sense of predicting the outcome of experiments—to be elevatable to axiom, thus providing the absolute certainty we had previously discarded along with revelations. What a terrible but common misconception!

 Scientific laws and theories are all derived for models representing simplified and idealized systems. In Newton's derivation of his laws, planets were represented by homogeneous spheres and the possible influences of fields besides the gravitational could be ignored. The heart of the scientific model-building is that it not only allows simplification of form and structure of objects but it also allows us to restrict the number of variables we consider. We either introduce and name them or declare them as constant and ignorable. The mathematical laws and relationships always refer to the models only. Many times the behavior of real bodies shows concordance with our model system, allowing us to make predictions for the natural world. That we can predict the movement of real planets by using our model does not change the fact that Newton's laws, applied to the real world, are not true in the sense of true or false. New variables may be detected and Newton's laws have to be amended to correspond to the new model. This was precisely what Einstein, Lorentz, and Mach accomplished with the theory of relativity. These kind of changes and amendments are more common for models where the number of variables is much greater. The evolutionary theory of Darwin is a good example. Although it has a better probability of correctly predicting outcomes for biological events than any other competing theory, it is very far from being elevatable to an axiom.

It is this misunderstanding about the nature of scientific theories and laws that hounded and still hounds our thinkers and scientists. The best example of the problem today is the quantum theory. Despite the stern warnings by one of the founders, Niels Bohr, that the theory is there only to predict outcomes of experiments, we are presented today with numerous theories which use quantum theoretical formulations to draw conclusions about the random or non-random properties of the Universe. Be that as it is, the scientific laws clearly refer to and are strictly valid only for idealized models of reality; however, these models frequently show surprising similarity with what our senses tell us about the real world.

When laws and relationships between variables in more complex fields of science such as psychology, sociology, or economics are elevated to the level of axiomatic truth, disaster is not far behind.

We have in the preceding raised serious questions about the use of scientific laws as moral axioms and rejected revelations as suitable means to define axioms for a moral calculus. We also have reduced some promising new concepts seemingly independent of science and revelations such as ecology to good old science even if appearing in disguise.

At the same time, we have to admit the near impossibility of constructing an internally consistent set of moral guidelines without universally acclaimable and understandable axioms to base it on.

Where does it leave us?

Let us return to the basics of humanism: science and rational thought.

Are these two independent concepts, or is the one the other in disguise. In order to understand the problem, we have to determine the level on which the two concepts, science and rational thought, work in human mind. Using computers as a crude model, we have to assess whether we are dealing with two programs dissimilar in application maybe but representing different versions of the same structure, for example word-processing and spreadsheets. Alternatively one of them may be a higher level structure, an operating system, for example Windows or DOS. With little introspection, we see that the rational thought has a far wider field of action. It encompasses nearly all the activities of human mind. Science, on the other hand, represents a systematic effort to model the world or the universe, thus rendering them predictable. The operations of science—observations, identification of variables, determination of the network of causal relations and, finally, formulating a model allowing predictions through the partial correspondence of the model to reality—provide us with a definition of science. Science appears as a narrow and highly restricted substructure of rational thought.

Such a highly restricted system cannot provide us with axioms in the moral field, the axioms we desire. However, because rational thought allows us to identify the modus operandi of science, the rational thought in this function would be called by professional philosophers a metasystem to science. A metasystem is there to provide the necessary axioms for the lower system, the validity and consistence of which cannot be proven within the lower, in this case the scientific system. What about moral calculus? By using the word calculus instead of system in describing moral structure, we strongly stress the logical derivation of rules and taboos and their derivation from some fixed axiomatic principle. Can we find an operating definition or description of our calculus within the rational thought?

To begin with, let us try to envision the scope of moral calculus in general, analyzing for this purpose the example of Christian morality, a well-established system and a successful one. Let us, to begin with, overlook the fact that the validity of this system is based on revelations, assuming only that they represent arbitrary axioms that have produced quite a successful system.

The Christian moral rules describe the relationship between an individual, his or her God, family, and society. The definition of even such an ephemeral sin as desire for your neighbor's wife presupposes the existence of neighbors. We can conclude that an unobserved hermit has no need of moral calculus except as far as it regulates his relationship to his absent God. The majority of any type of moral laws deal solely with society and the relationship of individuals within the society. If there is no society, a hermit cannot refuse being a member of the society and thus ceases to be a hermit. The sins and the good deeds alike—courage, kindness, greed, avarice—are all defined in context of relations between members of society.

We can conclude that a rational argument shows that the moral code regulates the function of the society and that thus the axioms of the moral system, underpinning its consistency and perceived validity, must be found in context of the goals of the society in question. The moral calculus is the operator defining the history of a society. Or more theoretically, the timeline of happenings in the society is generated by the moral calculus of the society. This conclusion has validity not only for the Christian system but for all societies. We have to find the preamble to the detailed moral rules to discover what the perceived goals of the society are.

The axioms of the moral teachings used by a society are thus closely related to the projections of the future of the society. The logic of such a procedure and definition is visible in the secular teachings embedded in the Constitution of the United States. The preamble to the Constitution clearly outlines for which purpose or with which goal in mind the new state was established.

The axioms formulated in the preamble without any justification are, as they should be, few—but they define the nature of the state envisioned in the spirit of the Enlightenment.

We can paraphrase the axioms presented in the preamble:

States must form a better and better Union.

A system of laws shall govern the Union.

The goal is to live in tranquillity.

The Union must be able to defend itself.

Economic well being is a major goal of the Union.

Independence of the Nation state shall guarantee our liberty.

These principles can be reduced and combined:

The economic well being is our goal, to be achieved in an independent state with laws guaranteeing freedom for individuals.

We see that the practice of moral calculus in the United States has followed these goals quite literally for 200 years. Now we have to ask if we can use the fundamentals of this purely secular axiom system to anchor the moral teachings of humanists. No! Our goals are different and we, at least theoretically, do not accept material well-being (and thus production of goods) as our overriding goal. Also we do interpret the concept of general well being differently.

However, the method of obtaining axioms for our moral calculations from projection of perceived goals of the society is a valid alternative for looking for absolute truth either established by scientific laws or revelations. We can start by looking at some quite general and adequate principles that, if applied, would move our society towards a state we humanists find to be in concordance with our understanding of an ideal state:

1. Survival of the human race and individual in a healthy biosphere.

2. Passage of accumulated knowledge to generations following ours.

3. Exploration of the unknown by individuals.

4 An eternal vigilance in balancing the freedom of the individual with the good of the society.

What we have argued here shows that all the necessary and desirable foundation blocks for a moral calculus can be derived solely by rational thought. This provides us with a moral system admittedly imperfect (as all human endeavors) but open-ended in the sense that it can be changed if the necessity arises.

The logic of the calculus presented can be challenged by claims that it is nothing but resurrection of the failed credo of modernism—ends justify means.

The separation of ends and means is artificial. Ends without means belong to mythology and means without ends to random chaos. We cannot define goals without explicit or implicit acceptance of means to reach them. Goals in our calculus have to be followed by clear restriction on the choice of means. We must remember that the weighing of the appropriateness of our actions, assuming full responsibility for them, is the central dogma of humanism which any form of moral calculus for humanists has to follow.

© 1999 by the North American Committee for Humanism (NACH) All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof in any form, including electronic media, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review.

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