Science cannot tell us what is ethical?

I’m in the middle of listening to this, and had to take a break to rant for a minute. They’re currently interviewing Alister McGrath, who has written two books complaining about Dawkins. Here’s a quote (emphasis mine):

Well I think one very important point here is simply that it’s fairly clear that science is limited in terms of what it can tell us. It is marvelous in clarifying the relationship between entities and forces in the material world, but when it comes to questions of value or meaning it isn’t really quite so good. In fact Dawkins and I disagree on many things but on that point I think we are agreed: science cannot tell us what is ethical, but for me and I sure everyone who is listening I’m sure what is ethical is actually enormously important.

And here’s a Dawkins’ quote from the same program, which I’m going to pull out of context:


The idea that “science cannot tell us what is ethical” is either absurd or a meaningless tautology. In the quote he explains that science is great at telling us about the material world (or as I like to call it, the world). What he’s arguing is that science is limited to studying physical properties. This is like saying that biology isn’t a very good way of studying general relativity; if he’s trying to separate science from logic and reason, his statement is a meaningless tautology.

Or not: maybe he’s really saying that logic and reason can’t determine what is ethical. Has he heard of philosophy? What does he think all those famous theologians spend their time doing? They start with some basic premises, and working out most of the rest using reason. Arguing that science has nothing to say about this subject is absurd.

What can science say about the basic premises? An endless amount: since logic and science help us explore the consequences of basic assumptions, they help us judge whether the basic assumptions are reasonable. For example: why is being nice to people more ethical than wandering around killing everyone in sight? Because if you wander around killing everyone in sight, people will be frightened and miserable, and will probably come after you and stop you. It’s just not a sustainable way for the majority of people in a society to behave.

End rant. Back to packing…

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