Science & Morality

Review of Render Unto Darwin: Philosophical Aspects of the Christian Right’s Crusade against Science, by James H. Fetzer.

THIS BOOK STARTS OUT WELL BUT ENDS BADLY. It is an awkward compilation of three different subjects: evolution science, morality, and politics. The science is well done. Fetzer begins by explaining the difference between science and religion, the difference between testable, modifiable hypotheses and untestable, rigid beliefs. He explains evolution and shows why it is not in conflict with religion but only with limited fundamentalist interpretations of religion. He shows why “intelligent design” is not science. So far, so good.

He is on shakier ground when he gets into morality. He says we are morally entitled to hold a belief only if we’re logically entitled to hold it. I agree, but there are two problems: (1) he simply presents this as a given, without trying to justify it philosophically and (2) different philosophers frequently disagree about what beliefs we are logically entitled to hold. Fetzer seems certain that he is logically entitled to beliefs that support the legalization of a wide variety of practices including abortion, stem-cell research, cloning, prostitution, pot-smoking, and flag-burning. Other philosophers might argue against those practices, thinking they are logically entitled to a different opinion.

He evaluates eight different theories of morality: subjectivism, family values, religious ethics, cultural relativism, ethical egoism, limited utilitarianism, classic utilitarianism, and a deontological theory according to which an action is right when it involves respecting others and treating them as ends, never merely as means. Deontology holds that some acts are intrinsically immoral in themselves, regardless of their consequences. Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative is an example of deontological ethics.

He asks if there are criteria of adequacy that might be employed to evaluate moral theories akin to those of inference to the best explanation for empirical theories. Then he pulls three criteria of adequacy out of his hat. For instance, the first criterion is that an acceptable theory must not reduce to the corrupt principle that might makes right. I agree that might doesn’t make right, but a philosopher should know that he can’t just declare something like this without showing arguments to justify it. This criterion amounts to an assumption that one of the possible theories it is intended to evaluate is a priori wrong.

He concludes that the deontological theory of morality is the only justifiable one. Then he uses that theory to show that the Christian Right’s position on issues like abortion is immoral. His purpose is to criticize one small branch of religion, not to evaluate the moralities of all world religions.

I found Michael Shermer’s scientific approach to morality far more satisfying. In his book The Science of Good and Evil he suggests that an innate moral sense evolved in humans because it offered a survival advantage. We instinctively feel that certain things like murder are wrong; then we try to justify our feelings by reasoning about moral theories. While there is no “absolute morality” there is a transcendent morality, a joint endeavor of humanity that elevates our moral instincts into a greater project. He offers a modified Golden Rule: don’t just do unto others as you would want to be done unto, but do unto others as they would want you to do unto them. He has a pyramid of morality showing that we become more moral as we extend our moral sphere to include larger groups, from individual to family to strangers to society to biosphere.

The last part of Fetzer’s book was a big disappointment to me. He descends into a diatribe against the Bush administration, big corporations, and other alleged demons. He sees an alliance between “the rich” and religious fundamentalism that is turning America into a fascist state with the goal of world domination. What started out as an objective look at science, evolution, and religion is corrupted into a platform to express personal political opinions. I found this an offensive intrusion that I could not have expected from the title and subtitle of the book.

Science can do much to inform political decisions. We should base public policy on scientific knowledge, not on religious beliefs. We should indeed “render unto Darwin” the respect that science deserves. Fetzer might have written a very valuable book to further that goal. He didn’t.

This article was originally published in Skeptic magazine.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine Blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.