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Science and Ethics
Science impinges upon ethics in at least five different ways.
In the first place, by its application it creates new ethical situations. Two hundred years ago the
news of a famine in China created no duty for Englishmen. They could take no possible action
against it. Today the telegraph and the steam engine have made such action possible, and it becomes
an ethical problem what action, if any, is right. Two hundred years ago a workman generally owned
his own tools. Now his tool may be a crane or steam hammer, and we all have our own views as to
whether these should belong to shareholders, the State, or guilds representing the workers.
Secondly, it may create new duties by pointing out previously unexpected consequences of our
actions. We are all greed that we should not run the risk of spreading typhoid by polluting the public
water supply. We are probably divided as to the duty of vaccinating our children, and we may not all
be of one mind as to whether a person likely to transmit club foot or cataract to half his or her
children should be compelled to abstain from parenthood.
Thirdly, science affects our whole ethical outlook by influencing our views as to the nature of
the world-in fact, by supplanting mythology. One man may see men and animals as a great
brotherhood of common ancestry and thus feel an enlargement of his obligations. Another will
regard even the noblest aspects of human nature as products of a ruthless struggle for existence and
thus justify a refusal to assist the weak and suffering. A third, impressed with the vanity of human
efforts amid the vast indifference of the universe, will take refuge in a modified epicureanism. In all
these attitudes and in many others there is at least some element of rightness.
Fourthly, in so far as anthropology is becoming scientific, it is bound to have a profound effect
on ethics by showing that any given ethical code is only one of a number practiced with equal
conviction and almost equal success; in fact, by creating comparative ethics. But, of course, any
serious study of the habits of foreigners, whether scientific or not, had this effect, as comes out
plainly enough in the history of ancient Greek ethics. Hence science is not wholly responsible for
the ethical results of anthropology.
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