Conflating Sciences and Morality

28 Jun

The conflation of the knowledges of sciences and social sciences with moral and social duties is an inevitability, yet we act and write as if this is not so. We pretend, for all intents and purposes, that a resolution of a science alone justifies a moral imperative. That in a secular world, virtues can be taken from science.

Take, for instance, this article on “fat activism”. The social pressure to maintain a particular body shape is a glorious example of this phenomenon. Medical advice such as being fit, not smoking, or avoiding germs is apt to quickly become a social imperative, as is evidenced by the neurotic disgust at the idea of germs or smoking and the severe social pressure not to be fat in developed societies. The article well demonstrates the social pressures not to be fat, but the most interesting part of the article is that the author herself falls victim to the meddling of scientific claims with moral claims in her defence of the overweight:

 “Overweight” carries an inherent judgement: “over”, above what you should be, thus the implication of a particular normal weight.

“Overweight” indeed carries an inherent judgement: that one’s weight is over that which is healthy. But the author uses the presence of this judgement to decry the social judgement that she perceives to exist in the word, without accepting that it could be possible to have a medically inadvisable weight while having a socially acceptable weight were social attitudes different. Indeed, she goes to preposterous lengths to try to demonstrate that being overweight is not particularly unhealthy in an article intended to address regrettable social attitudes towards being fat. All she really needed to do was show that one’s health is one’s own business and is no more deserving of scorn than not treating ingrown toenails.

She goes on to breathlessly declare that she has witnessed even feminists — of all people — eating healthily! She knows “socialist feminists who don’t shave their legs yet count calories”! This “fat hatred” and “self-loathing” is a “human rights issue”. Did it occur to the author that there might be a difference between not wanting to be overweight for the sake of being healthy and for the sake of conforming to expectations about body shape? No; for in her mind, as in the minds of most people, the two are conflated and cannot be divorced. One of the comments summarises this propensity well: “Fat has become a moral, cultural and aesthetic issue. This is what has become conflated with the health issue.”

But this habit transcends not only obesity or even the natural sciences. Across the social sciences we see a spectrum, with strict econometrics on one side, having the best claim to objectivity, albeit specious, and gender and cultural studies on the other, which makes no such representation. The same spectrum sees inadvertent social judgements arise from the first end, the most right-wing, of the spectrum, and explicitly subjective moral judgements made on the other. For instance, on the economics side, we would once have seen condemnation of excessive spending as lavish fiscal impropriety, while today excessive spending is seen as prudish in light of a focus on the mode of consumption rather than the mode of production. Conversely, the most liberal end of the social sciences unashamedly decries various sorts of prejudice.

Of particular peculiarity is the notion that it is morally reprehensible not to work. Economics, like other old, conservative social sciences and humanities such as history, makes a claim to actually represent the truth of the world. It recognises the negative effects of unfavourable unemployment rates or participation rates. But this is conflated with moral judgements in a logical connexion that is not obvious in the slightest, socially condemning worklessness in the process. This is why it is strategically favourable for Gina Reinhart to “[castigate] her children for not working full time“.

Indeed, the mining rich are prone to such assertions — consider Andrew Forrest’s winging in the infantile rag The Daily Telegraph on 3 May 2012 with the headline “Work is the key to living free of the curse of welfare and shame.” He offers us such gems as “a job…leads to dignity and self-respect” and “to work [is]…their duty”. Exemplifying the way in which he treats an economic issue as a moral one, he proudly declares that “this is the biggest moral issue facing Australia”.

This attitude is a distinctly Protestant, as Max Weber explains in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Australian values, insomuch as they exist in any coherent way, are predicated on Protestantism, which permits the accumulation of wealth (luckily for our friend Twiggy) but condemns idleness and the work shy, and is eager to moralise endlessly on all sorts of economic matters. While the idea of redemption is quite religious, the idea that one can redeem oneself through work is especially Protestant. Compare this to Ancient Greece, where not working was a virtue. Employment — especially when one worked for another — was analogous to slavery; one sees a similarity with Marxism. The Greek philosophers and aristocrats disparaged working and saw work as an interference with one’s duties as a human and a citizen of a democratic polis. Aristotle explained:

A state with an ideal constitution—a state which has for its members men who are absolutely just, and not men who are merely just in relation to some particular standard—cannot have its citizens living the life of mechanics or shopkeepers, which is ignoble and inimical to goodness. Nor can it have them engaged in farming; leisure is a necessity, both for growth in goodness and for the pursuit of political activity.

There was no special moral status to work and the aristoi of those societies, unlike Reinhart and Forrest, would not consider deigning to work.

Such conflations of morality and science are an inevitability; they are a simple but unavoidable association of a descriptive account of the world with a prescriptive account of how the world ought to be. But we would do well to be conscious of this tendency, for prescribing behaviour to others is a very different matter from assessing how people behave.

One Response to “Conflating Sciences and Morality”

  1. Mike June 19, 2013 at 7:09 pm #

    This is tangential to your main point but I’m fascinated by the suggestion that Australian values are predicated on Protestantism. Perhaps this says more about my upbringing than anything else, but given the demographic make up of Australia since European settlement, I would have expected Catholicism to have played a more dominant role.

    I am the first to acknowledge that I say this with very little knowledge and so could easily believe that I’m mistaken. (It would, however, fit the image I have of Australia which is as a country that did not, until very recently, accord work the moral value one associates with Protestantism, see for example the discussion of work in Donald Horne’s ‘The Lucky Country’).

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