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Can all moral claims be translated into material terms?

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Around here, we haven’t been nice to First Things, but in fairness, they started it. (If you don’t want a fight, don’t start one.)

However, they recently published an interesting essay by Australian Helen Rittelmaeer on the hooey that is social science today. Good reading for anyone here:

The moral vocabulary that now prevails in the United States is less Marxist but no less vulgar, for it is just as adamant that all moral claims be translated into material terms. The only difference is that material self-interest is now permitted to coexist with material altruism. Bad behavior can be condemned only if it is shown to correlate with some quantifiable negative outcome like a greater likelihood of receiving a free or reduced-price lunch among grade-schoolers, a higher incidence of antidepressant use among adults, or a measurable decline in the national GDP. Moral questions are treated as if they were, at the end of the day, merely empirical. We are hesitant, almost to the point of paralysis, about making moral claims on moral grounds.

This error is not the same thing as scientism, that ripe intellectual leftover of the Progressive Era. In fact, it is almost the reverse. Scientism was an error of extravagant overconfidence, an optimistic faith that experimentation could lead us to grand truths formerly unknown. Nowadays, we suffer more from timidity than arrogance. Rather than expecting science to solve all our hitherto insolubles, we lean on science when making even the most modest claims. The arrogance has not entirely abated–especially not among economists–but still: It is one kind of madness to expect science to put a permanent end to war abroad and inequality at home, as the Progressives did, and another kind of madness to hope that science will someday find evidence suggesting that adultery is in fact wrong or drug addiction in fact undesirable.More.

Note: Most of it is behind a paywall.


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