The Missile Gap and the Morality Gap

In my post about the contradiction between the technological sophistication of the Burj Dubai and the primitive superstition on display in the mosque at its pinnacle, I argued that this disparity is another example of the general disparity in progress between science and morality. But what accounts for this gap?

Two reviews in last week’s New York Times Book Review provide a clue.

The first, commenting on the first Soviet test of an atomic bomb in 1949, speaks of the nuclear arms race with the United States that followed:

Those years are some of the most complicated in American history. Great successes, like the Marshall Plan, combined with one monumental failure: the beginning of a catastrophically unwise arms race. Somehow, rational decision was piled upon rational decision to create something utterly irrational. Four decades later, two countries with few disputes over land had lavished trillions of dollars and rubles on world-destroying weapons.

The second, also a story of postwar technological intrigue, comments on how Werner von Braun, onetime architect of the Nazi V-2 program, could have acquired respectability for his work on the U.S. space program:

[In the author’s view,] von Braun escaped from the sphere of moral judgment with the help of the American authorities, who wanted to employ him in the missile and space programs. [The author’s] aim is to make him answerable, if only posthumously, for what he did. And he has a more general point to make, too: scientists and engineers, by claiming to be “apolitical,” often escape being held to account for what they help to produce. In other words, von Braun is an egregious example of a more general phenomenon.

What is the “more general phenomenon” here, and what does it have to do with the passage from the first review?

The first passage characterizes Soviet and American military decisions as equally rational. But why would anyone describe the actions of a brutal totalitarian regime as equal in rationality to those of the government of a free nation? One could portray Soviet decisions as “rational” only by judging their effectiveness as a means to an end, without judging the rationality of the end itself. That is, one could consider the Soviet construction of a bomb to be a “rational” means of defending the regime against foreign threats only by leaving aside the question of whether it is rational for an oppressive regime to maintain its grip on power in the first place.

The view that rationality judges only of means, not of ends, is the “general phenomenon” of which von Braun and too many other scientists are guilty. These scientists assume that they need not evaluate the ends for which their discoveries and creations are used, and that scientific rationality has nothing to contribute to the evaluation of these ends. Science, they think, is “value free,” and the ends of action can only be judged non-scientifically.

This “general phenomemon” is a contemporary version of a view made famous by the British philosopher, David Hume, who wrote in his Treatise of Human Nature, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” But is it not obvious that to enslave a whole society and threaten with death the rest of the world is irrational? By contrast, is it not obvious that some of von Braun’s endeavors—his assistance in the development of the U.S. space program, and the life-giving technology it spawned—were rational while his support of the Nazis was not?

Not according to Hume. Our evaluation that the threat of mass death is evil and the protection of innocent life is good may seem to be a basic, uncontestable value judgment, but Hume claims that only sentiment supports it. This view, that moral value judgments bottom out in subjective preferences, wrought havoc across the landscape of 20th-century value theory, in which a variety of neo-Humeans propounded versions of “non-cognitivism” about ethics, to the point where it became a commonplace among college freshmen that all values are relative.

It is with some relief that non-cognitivism in value theory is sounding a modest retreat in academia. The philosophic vacuum resulting from complete value subjectivism had to be filled, eventually. New theories, some drawing on the wisdom of the ancients, purport that value can be a natural property like any other. Ayn Rand was ahead of her time when she advanced a version of this view in Atlas Shrugged, contending that what is good for a living organism is simply what furthers its distinctive form of life.

But our culture has yet to catch up with any of this philosophic insight. Journalists regard Soviet and American military decisions as equally “rational,” and scientists regard morality as irrelevant to judging the ends of their research. This is why our moral progress has not kept pace with our scientific progress. Few people have come to realize that morality is a science and that the ends of human action can be rationally assessed on the basis of their life-based objective value.

Images: Wikimedia Commons (1, 2)

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