Whose Value Is It Anyway?

Nov 2, 2011 by Tim

Forget Kant, forget church, forget what your parents and Sesame Street taught you; do you know what’s right and what’s wrong?  Is there an objective good and evil?  Do we live in a moral universe?  Is morality anything more than another human construct?  If so, is it based on inherent biological principles, like the concepts of Breakfast or Dating, or is it more an invented social construct created from our ancestral social evolution, like the concepts of Racism and Painting?  Is there really such a thing as Good and Evil, or just different degrees of control?

In this class we’ve talked in depth about the illusion of the Value-Free Ideal; no matter what, Science can never be called purely objective so long as it is performed by subjective creatures.  Values play a role from the very beginning, when a hypothesis is chosen, and carried through the methods used to test it and the final interpretation of the results.  Peer review and the like is designed and indeed necessary to ensure that these results are not the biased views of one or a few, but this is merely the subjective judging the subjective in terms as close to objectivity as they deem possible.  Some have said that a plurality of cultural backgrounds is necessary and/or sufficient, others have said a strict adherence to the scientific method and constant review will weed out the “junk” science from the pure, and yet history is littered with the failures of this system from Eugenics to Phrenology.  Did every scientist who engaged in these practices, however, see themselves as villains and ignorant sadists?  Or did they see themselves as struggling for ultimate truth in a field held to no value system, dedicated only to the pursuit of knowledge?  Who determines right and wrong, if the most learned thinkers themselves cannot agree?

In a democratic society, we hold to the belief of plurality: with enough equal voices, the masses will determine the most objective definition of good.  But again, history shows us the failures, whether in our own country where men now equal were once seen as 3/5s a person, or in France where hundreds had to be murdered before “equality” was secured.  And even now there are severe disagreements that nightly tear our country apart, if the news channels are to be believed: ask Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow what constitutes a “good” marriage.

Clearly, this is why the “value-free” nature of science is so appealing: in searching for Objective Truth, or at least a portion of it, humanity can consider itself free to explore the universe unfettered by eons of social see-sawing.  But even a value so basic as the search for knowledge can be subjectively tainted or judged; after all, isn’t the parable of the snake in the garden a warning against this very pursuit?  Is it inherently good to know the world around us, or evil?  Just 1000 years ago the answer would be just as obvious as it seems now, but in the opposite; and who is to say what the values will be in another 1000.

My (overly-delayed and loaded) question is simply this: who do YOU believe should determine the values that science should pursue?  Society? Scientists themselves? An authoritative body? Alternatively, in Science, do the ends always justify the means, or never?  Can the answer REALLY be something in between, as our culture has decided?