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Teaching the Heart of Science

Is science changing the way we make moral choices?

“One must not be sentimental in these matters”
From cell phones to pacemakers, products of technology have changed our lives. They have not only enhanced the quality of our lives, but they have also contributed to increased life span. There are more people living to 100 than ever before in recorded history. Gadgets entertain us, make chores less laborious, and help us work more efficiently. They also educate us, enable us to communicate virtually instantly around the world, diagnose and help treat our illnesses and injuries, and even help create new life. It is perfectly reasonable that we love the advances achieved by science and technology.

But can the most powerful computer with access to more data than any person has ever been able to master tell us when life support should be removed from a child injured in an accident or help us decide who should be awarded control in a contested child-custody battle? Just as it was long before computers and satellites, happiness often depends upon interactions with others and the decisions that affect our lives and the lives of others. Living with the consequences of our decisions can be much more difficult than would be working harder or longer to complete tasks without the benefit of advanced equipment.

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We know it is essential to increase our investment of time and expertise in science education to keep pace with the accelerated progress of scientific knowledge, skill, discovery, and invention. As the burgeoning wealth of information and skill fills greater portions of the educative day, less time remains for mastering everything else, including how to make decisions for the wise, moral use of new scientific discoveries and inventions. Theorists offer different formal definitions of the word moral, but in basic psychological terms, moral refers to what should be done rather than simply what could be done. But is it necessary or even possible to educate for morality?

Research has shown that education does influence the quality of reasoning about moral dilemmas. Just as education enhances the ability to think logically about math or science problems, it can promote logical thinking about moral choices as well. Logical analysis is inherent in scientific and mathematical thinking, so it is not surprising that in research studies, college seniors who majored in math or science scored higher on the quality of their reasoning about moral dilemmas than those who majored in disciplines such as history or literature. This difference isn't because the science majors were smarter than other students; freshmen science majors didn't display such an advantage in their moral reasoning. Does this mean that studying science can help make someone more moral?

Morality is more complex than logical analysis alone. The senior science majors displayed superior reasoning only for problems that involved a scientific context.  Their thinking was no better than that of the other students for problems that involved non-scientific choices such as child custody decisions. Research has shown that cognitive skills learned in one context don't always transfer to other contexts. In other words, thinking skills develop with practice, but they improve primarily with respect to the material learned. For example, a chess master might not excel in military strategy, and a physician who makes wise medical decisions in the hospital might not make the best personal decisions at home.

The tendency to think in terms of categories is fundamental to cognitive processing. Categories contribute to efficient and meaningful use of information. For example, we don't need to figure out that the apple we just bought is edible; we have learned that apples are part of our set of edible things. Accurate classification can also advance our understanding of events and phenomena. For instance, correctly classifying a set of symptoms as belonging to a disease category of bacterial infections can direct effective medical treatment. Despite their advantages, categories can also interfere with optimal processing. They can inhibit the identification of new categories or the reclassification of instances of existing ones. For example, the acceptance of a bacterial etiology for some cases of stomach ulcers was delayed by the assumption that ulcers are a non-infectious condition.

The categorization of knowledge constitutes the foundation for current practical use as well as for guiding future progress. Considering attention deficit disorder to be a problem in brain function encourages the development and use of pharmaceutical intervention, whereas conceptualizing it as a reaction to stress or the result of maladaptive learning encourages research into behavioral intervention. Applying moral standards to decisions depends upon whether or not the situation is viewed as a morally laden problem. The representation of problems as technical or logistical can hinder the identification of moral issues. Moral questions will not be raised if the design of products or media presentations is focused only on minimizing cost and maximizing performance and consumer or audience appeal. Do you wonder whether the shiny gadgets we love and can't live without, the cosmetics, or the colorful wrinkle-free fashions that beautify us are made in safe and healthy work environments? Would you care if a desirable product were made by children or by workers exposed to toxic chemicals? Would you enjoy chicken wings or veal cutlets if the animals had lived their entire lives in cramped cages?

In many logical problems, the criterion for success is clear (e.g., profit margin, production costs, accuracy of diagnosis, symptom relief). In moral problems, the criterion is not always clear or cannot be measured (e.g., spousal happiness versus child's well-being, security versus freedom). The uncontrovertible achievements of science can convince us that the scientific is the most important approach to problem solving and the most effective way to advance quality of life. As science education encourages logical analysis, it doesn't necessarily strengthen the conviction that moral questions are as important as the material ones. In considering the application of pesticide to kill disease-spreading mosquitoes, an environmental scientist can employ scientific methods to estimate the impact on the ecosystem. But would the scientist be likely or able to judge conflicting rights to protection from the mosquito and from side effects of the pesticide? In research studies, senior science majors considered moral issues to be less important than did students majoring in non-science fields. Freshmen science and non-science majors did not differ in their perceived importance. Formal study in the sciences, then, can enhance the ability to think rationally, but promote the feeling that moral concerns are less important than technical issues.

The emphasis on rational thought in formal education can contribute to an intellectualization of morality for students across majors. Research has suggested that education can shift students' approach to morality away from personal engagement to a rational problem solving mode. When a decision involved an impersonal policy issue such as land use or wage hikes, seniors were more sensitive to moral concerns than freshmen. However, when a dilemma involved interpersonal concerns such as allocation of the family budget or parenting, seniors were less sensitive to moral issues.  Without a calculus for determining the greatest good, happiness, well-being, purpose or meaning, we can feel helpless to search for moral answers. The depersonalization of morality poses the risk of engendering a world in which decisions about people are made in the same way as those about engineering faster computers or taller buildings. At first, the idea of finding one's soul mate in cyberspace with computer software seemed impersonal and inappropriate, but soon was accepted as one more example of the application of science to improve our lives. Now lovers have the option of ending a romantic relationship via text message or by way of an online service that will send the break-up message for them. Where once children were considered the natural creation of a loving relationship, now individuals who want to give birth to and parent a child without the complications of a romantic relationship can rely on an internet service to find a like-minded prospective co-parent.

Unfortunately, history has given us examples of how extreme depersonalization can become. During World War II, Nazi leaders framed problems in sterile terms to remove all humane attention to individuals as people. Referring to the liquidation of the Jewish population, Goebbels instructed, "One must not be sentimental in these matters," and "Pity, to say nothing of sympathy, is entirely inappropriate." Research suggests that we can learn how to educate for moral sensitivity and the determination to use science to maintain the humane in human culture. What will we have gained if we discover more secrets of nature and invent more sophisticated gadgets, but fail to understand the secrets of justice, compassion, caring and meaning? What is living longer worth if our lives lack purpose or meaning that transcends an individual life and encompasses all?

Krystine Batcho, Ph.D., is a professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York.

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