concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2011

Scientific normativity 

Any form of normativity is the "oughtness" according to which we ought to act in one way rather than another. Any set of values implies normativity by judging one action as more worthwhile than another. Scientific normativity is the value that informs scientific discovery, according to which discovery in itself is good and ought to be carried out. Often values are bizarrely seen as not relevant to science (which is very odd, considering that scientists are human beings who can hardly help having values), or alternatively, if scientific normativity is recognised, it is seen as conflicting with moral normativity. However, in Chapter 7 of the thesis, I argue that if scientific normativity is assumed, that normativity implies the moral normativity of the Middle Way. This means that there is no such thing as "pure science" pursued for its own sake, but rather the value of science needs to be integrated with other values.

In order to make discoveries and prove theories, scientists have to develop objectivity and addess conditions. That objectivity may take a socially-organised or more individual form, but it requires habits that balance a confident search for evidence that proves a given theory with a recognition that it may be wrong. Both positive and negative types of metaphysical interpretation are avoided here - the positive involving the adoption of assumptions that lie beyond experience (including certainty about theory) and the negative being denial of the possibility of discovery or the definite wrongness of theory. This Middle Way of avoiding metaphysical positions is exactly the basis of moral objectivity as well: we need to avoid metaphysical assumptions about ourselves, about others, and about our circumstances and thus integrate our responses, in order to develop moral objectivity. Both of these forms of objectivity involve objectivity of values as well as of facts. If both forms of objectivity have the same basis and are simply a matter of emphasis, the same can be said for normativity, because if we ought to discover facts then we ought to be objective, and if we ought to be scientifically objective then this also implies that we ought to be morally objective.

In practical terms, the apparent clash between scientific and moral forms of normativity might occur when, say, a scientist has to decide whether to sacrifice his family relationships for his important research. There is no easy answer to such dilemmas, which can only be judged in the situation. However, it will certain help a scientist to resolve such a dilemma if she thinks of it, not in terms of the value of scientific investigation vs the moral value of family duties, but in terms of either moral values on both sides oir scientific values on both sides. The important research is moral because it addresses conditions, and in the long-term may have practical applications affecting the whole world. The family relationships, however, are also conditions that need to be appreciated, and the scientist may do well to consider the ways that an exclusion of family relationships might involve an ignoring of the facts of human psychology, or a metaphysical assumption of narrow self-interest. If the scientist makes the best justified decision here, it will be best justified both in terms of the values of scientific and moral normativity, not one or the other.

Links to related discussion

Normativity (from thesis, and including scientific normativity at b.ii)

Scientific Issues (from 'A New Buddhist Ethics')

Science (introductory page)

Science (concept page)


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