On Training Of Scientists And Moral Responsibility


Dr. Stewart is an Instructor in the Depart­ment of Natural Science, Michigan State Uni­versity, East Lansing, Michigan.

In recent years there has been much soul-searching among sci­ence people over the possible moral consequences of their work. The scientist of today is genuinely con­cerned over the obligations that he—as a scientist—has to his so­ciety, and the effect of his discov­eries on his fellows.

The term " obligations" neces­sarily implies a reference to some moral standard. And, up to now, moral standards, and their neces­sary implications, have not been one of the major concerns of em­pirical scientists.

The status of moral values in the universe has been a central question in the thought of those who are in the main stream of our philosophical tradition from Plato on down. Moral values are non­physical and thus cannot be sub­ject to any quantitative tests, but for the typical scientists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, whatever is not reducible to some physicalistic verification basis is unreal. Re­searchers who adhere to a basi­cally materialistic philosophy are considered "real" scientists; all others are regarded as making weak-kneed concessions to mysti­cism.

Within this frame of reference, what happens to the scientist who feels some sort of obligation to his society? Any consideration of an obligation necessarily im­plies the existence of some moral philosophy. But any view which permits moral propositions is, of necessity, incompatible with ma­terialism.

Plato makes this distinction un­mistakably clear in the dialogue, "The Sophist."¹ The Eleatic Stranger describes the material­ists as "dragging down all things from heaven and from the unseen to earth, and they literally grasp in their hands rocks and oaks; of these they lay hold, and obsti­nately maintain, that the things only which can be touched or handled have being or essence, be­cause they define being and body as one, and if anyone else says that what is not a body exists they altogether despise him, and will hear of nothing but body."

As opposed to this, the idealists are described as "contending that true essence consists of certain in­telligible and incorporeal ideas; the bodies of the materialists" are taken to be "not essence, but gen­eration and motion."

The Scientist’s Dilemma

The dilemma is quite apparent. The young scientist either accepts the materialistic philosophy of his group; or, sensing the inadequacy of materialism to fully explain na­ture, he tries to pick up, in a most unscientific way, what informa­tion he can concerning moral philosophy. But, if the philosophi­cal climate-of-opinion in science is such as to embrace materialism to the exclusion of any philosophy which makes reference to spiritual realities, then what is the prog­nosis for those recalcitrant souls of the scientific brotherhood who dare to deviate from the unwrit­ten code to the point of even being concerned about a scientist’s obli­gations to his society?

Obligations, and the moral prop­ositions which they necessarily en­tail, are defined as meaningless in terms of most present-day philoso­phies of science. It is thought that these propositions have nothing at all to do with genuine science, They belong instead to the realm of traditional philosophy, or worse yet, to religion, and are subject to all the alleged mysticisms of these pursuits.

Thus, it might reasonably be thought that those scientists who accept materialism as the basis for their philosophy of nature would not concern themselves with the sociological implications of their activities. In their system man is just a curious sort of an animal. He has little sense of morality or beauty or justice or goodness. Man, in this sense, is simply the product of his environ­ment. He is but a minute part of a vast physical complex, the forces of which interact upon each other and him, and he upon them.

Holding this view of man, it would clearly be absurd to ask questions regarding good and evil, and we would reasonably conclude that those scientists who accept materialism as the basis for their philosophy of nature could not logically be concerned with such things as obligations, morality, and free will.

But some scientists of this persuasion have overstepped the logic of their position. Certain issues which started out to be merely simple physical accounts of purely biological phenomena, have been extended to cover social and polit­ical situations to which they were never intended to apply. One such example is the concept of popula­tion theory as it applies to living organisms, including man.

This theory boldly assumes that organisms live in groups, they do not live alone. Plants and animals live together in colonies, flocks, and herds, all of which are mu­tually dependent upon each other and their environment, in such a way as to ultimately produce a relatively stable "ecosystem." Man, of course, is one of these animals, even though he might be, as G. G. Simpson concedes, "among the higher animals."

Now, if we consider man as a biological organism, and only that, it seems obvious that he does, for the most part, live with other peo­ple. But this biological concept of population, as applied to humans, is notoriously vague and unscien­tific in that it fails to answer the questions of how many other peo­ple a person has to live with be­fore he will not be living alone, and how much of the time this has to take place?

This group theory concept is one of the basic assumptions of that point of view known as "life adjustment" education. Under magic clichés uttered by the progressive-minded teacher, the stu­dents are well indoctrinated with the slogans of "team efforts," "group projects," or "together­ness." Indeed, this may very well be the starting point for collec­tivist economic and political theory. In any case, the analysis shows the ambiguity in the posi­tion of those scientists who re­gard themselves as "tough-minded" materialists. Traditional values are ostentatiously booted out the front door while the cur­rent shibboleths are illicitly im­ported through a rear window.

The Inadequacy of Materialism

This leads to a brief considera­tion of the second horn of our di­lemma. The concern is now for those young scientists who have arrived at the conclusion that ma­terialism is inadequate to fully ex­plain nature. And it would not be hard to identify these people. With specific reference to the ex­ample above, these would be the John Does who unconsciously feel, or even truly understand, that the concept of "living in a group," when taken in a strictly biologi­cal sense, is contradictory to the concept of the distinctiveness of the individual, his independence, his individual initiative, his moral self. For John Doe may recognize this contradiction to be directly tied up with the freedom of any individual to choose one goal rather than another.

Now this ability to make a choice between two distinct alter­natives is generally spoken of as "free will." Free will is identi­fied as that which provides man with a feeling of freedom, of giv­ing him a sense of authorship and responsibility, a sense of guilt and ethics, and a sense of knowing that there are norms and stand­ards to be maintained in every human endeavor. This means that the notion of "free will" is op­posed to the concept of people ex­isting only as a part of some group. In the collective, the in­dividual no longer counts; his mind must fit in with the group mind; his every thought and ac­tion is determined for him in terms of what the group thinks and does. If he deviates from this, he is made to feel ashamed, selfish, and a misfit. And, if this be the "choice" he has, it is clear that, in practice, it amounts to having no choice at all.

A purely materialistic philoso­phy is, by its very nature, meta­physically contradictory to, and hence unable to cope with, ques­tions regarding the morality of man, and therefore the obligations of scientists to their society. One implication from this fact is that man, the human being, must be considered in terms of his totality. This "totality" we shall call the whole man. The point is that man is more than just a mechanistic, physical-chemical machine. He is more than just a highly complex, integrated glob of protoplasm. Man also has a spiritual self. This consists of a sense of beauty, of goodness, and moral responsi­bility. And it is this whole man that scientists must take into con­sideration on those occasions when they concern themselves with any obligations they might have to their society.

This makes it clear why the first horn of the dilemma—stated at the beginning of this paper—ought to be our primary concern. The young scientist, more often than not, accepts the prevailing materialistic philosophy of his group, and therefore regards moral questions as irrelevant to "real" science. With this we would have little quarrel provided that this sort of philosophy was ex­plicitly restricted to questions re­garding biological phenomena. But, unfortunately, this has not been the case. We have shown, in one instance of several, how this philosophy has been extended to cover social and political phenom­ena to which it was never intended to apply, and cannot, significantly, be applied.

The implication is before us, then, that the nature of life, in all of its various forms and aspects, cannot be adequately explained solely in terms of chemistry and physics. There is, in fact, a cer­tain vital, directive aspect to all forms of living matter—a certain organizational wholeness.

In humans this psychical or spiritual aspect of living sub­stance reaches its highest fruition in what is called mind and per­sonality.

Our suggestion is that, before science is able to consider such things as obligations and other moral problems, a theory of re­ality is needed that will explain both this nonmaterialistic aspect of all living matter as well as those features explicable by chem­istry and physics. And it seems almost anticlimactic to point out that before such a synthesis of the moral and material could be made, it would be necessary to know something about moral phi­losophy. For it may very well be that, in the final analysis, moral philosophy and science are mu­tually implicative endeavors.

What this means, in terms of actual practice, is that the young scientist must conscientiously and critically study that very philoso­phy which he has been indoctri­nated against and to which his group is metaphysically opposed. It goes without saying that these are terrific hurdles. But the fact still remains that knowledge of moral philosophy is a necessary prerequisite to any significant synthesis of purely biological sub­stance with those things that this substance is asserted as having, namely, obligations.

Materialism, alone, has proven to be inadequate—because of its very nature—to handle such ques­tions as morality. But yet, scien­tists are coming more and more to concern themselves with moral consequences of their behavior. The conclusion of our dilemma would seem to be, therefore, for scientists either to restrict their explanations to purely physical­istic phenomena, or to openly and frankly, and even perhaps as a part of their academic training, make room for some preparation in traditional philosophy. For it is among the traditional philoso­phers, such as Plato, Maimonides, Aquinas, and Spinoza, that knowl­edge concerning morality will most likely be learned. And the only suggestion that one might make is that the prospective scientist approach the study of these men with the same intensity for the truth that he exhibits in his anal­ysis of the facts of empirical sci­ence.

Foot Notes

‘Plato, The Dialogues, tr. by B. Jowett. New York: Random House, 1937. Vol. II, pp. 253-254.


November 1959

comments powered by Disqus


* indicates required


December 2014

Unfortunately, educating people about phenomena that are counterintuitive, not-so-easy to remember, and suggest our individual lack of human control (for starters) can seem like an uphill battle in the war of ideas. So we sally forth into a kind of wilderness, an economic fairyland. We are myth busters in a world where people crave myths more than reality. Why do they so readily embrace untruth? Primarily because the immediate costs of doing so are so low and the psychic benefits are so high.
Download Free PDF




Essential Works from FEE

Economics in One Lesson (full text)


The full text of Hazlitt's famed primer on economic principles: read this first!


Frederic Bastiat's timeless defense of liberty for all. Once read and understood, nothing ever looks the same.


There can be little doubt that man owes some of his greatest suc­cesses in the past to the fact that he has not been able to control so­cial life.


Leonard Read took the lessons of entrepreneurship with him when he started his ideological venture.


No one knows how to make a pencil: Leonard Read's classic (Audio, HTML, and PDF)