Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Social Science is not a Moral System

Helen Rittelmeyer has an interesting piece over at First Things (much of it behind a paywall, sadly) which talks about the extent to which data and social science have become so enshrined as the sources of real knowledge and wisdom in our modern society that people often talk in pseudo-sociological or pseudo-economic terms when what they really want to address are moral or philosophical topics.
Dame Rebecca West had a theory that the history of civilization since Christ could be divided into three panels like a triptych. In the first panel, stretching roughly from the Crucifixion to the Middle Ages, the language of theology so dominated learned debate that all complaints were expressed in religious terms, even when the problem at issue was economic or political. The poor and discontented “cried out to society that its structure was wrong . . . and said that they did this because they had had a peculiar revelation concerning the Trinity. The hungry disguised themselves as heretics.” After a few brief centuries of clarity, mankind proceeded to the third panel, in which the opposite problem prevails: “Those suffering from religious distress reverse the process, and complain of it in economic terms. Those who desire salvation pretend that they are seeking a plan to feed the hungry.”
The moral vocabulary that now prevails in the United States is less Marxist but no less vulgar, for it is just as adamant that all moral claims be translated into material terms. The only difference is that material self-interest is now permitted to coexist with material altruism. Bad behavior can be condemned only if it is shown to correlate with some quantifiable negative outcome like a greater likelihood of receiving a free or reduced-price lunch among grade-schoolers, a higher incidence of antidepressant use among adults, or a measurable decline in the national GDP. Moral questions are treated as if they were, at the end of the day, merely empirical. We are hesitant, almost to the point of paralysis, about making moral claims on moral grounds.
When Rep. Herbert Parsons spoke in favor of child-labor laws on the floor of the House in 1909, he quoted Matthew 18: “Our doctrine . . . is that, if possible, ‘not one of these little ones should perish.’” I would guess that Congressman Parsons began with the same starting point a modern politician would have: a vague but definite conviction that the law ought to address child labor. When he proceeded to ask himself what it would sound like to make that assertion in a public forum in a way that would command agreement, the answer came back to him: Scripture. To a modern, it would have been: lifetime earnings differentials.

I do not mean to say that all political arguments should be made more biblical. I only suggest that, when we find ourselves looking for ways to bring some authority to our political convictions (or looking for spokesmen who might carry such authority), we should broaden our search. It may be that integrity, erudition, literary genius, holiness, or wisdom carry as much weight in a democracy as expertise.
The key thing, it seems to me, is to maintain a sense of balance, and to cut through the pseudo-empirical modern approach to recognize: Am I dealing with a practical question or a moral question.

Sometimes I find myself playing the empiricist side. If your objective is a practical one, in a mass society a data analysis approach may be the only way you can go about understanding and trying to solve the problem. So, for instance, if your object is "help relieve the poverty of families with children", and the solution you're considering is a federal program, it would make sense to analyze the effectiveness of that program and potential changes to it in a fairly pragmatic way.

However, many times we see abject confusion as to what the division between a moral and a sociological question is. If my belief is that it is morally wrong to have sex outside of marriage, presenting me with statistics suggesting that people who have sex before marriage do not have significantly higher divorce rate (so long as they don't cohabit) than those who wait to have sex until marriage simply isn't addressing the type of belief that I'm expressing.

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