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The limits of science and the freedom to make moral choices

If scientists should tread carefully making definitive claims in the metaphysical sphere, they should be even more cautious where moral judgements are drawn.

(Image: Vlad Tchompalov/Unsplash.com)

If there is one thing that is omnipresent in empirical research, it is doubt.

This line has always stuck with me, from a methodology textbook I studied years ago. We may rephrase this in a more theological way:

There are no dogmas in science. 

This is not to say there can’t be certainty. ‘Science’ in its original, we might say classical, sense – scientia – simply meant knowledge in general. Science adopted its modern, and more limited, meaning with Galileo, Francis Bacon, amongst others, which may be described as the investigation of natural phenomenon by quantitative measurement. Through statistical analysis, we connect – more properly, correlate – two or more events in space and time. If these events occur together often enough, we say that one is the cause of the other.

Yet, as soon as we make that inference – into the whole realm of causality and connecting the dots -we are leaving behind science strictly speaking, and entering the realm of meta-science, meta-physics, or, if you will, philosophy.

Saint Thomas Aquinas sums this up with his four questions of scientific investigation of a phenomenon: 1) Is it? 2) What is it? 3) What properties does it have? 4) Why does it have those properties?

Measurement and Metaphysics

Science – quantitative measurement – may tell us that objects fall at 32.2 feet per second squared, and we call that ‘gravity’. But what actually causes the ball to drop is a deeper question, and one rather fraught at that. Do objects always fall at the same rate, and, if not, what causes the difference?

When Newton calculated the mathematics of gravity, people found the implication of invisible forces rather weird, not least Newton himself, who claimed ‘non fingo hypotheses‘ – ‘I fix no hypothesis’, and he stuck to the math. Hidden forces acting instantaneously across a vacuum at seemingly infinite speed may seem a bit unsettling, and it was not until Einstein that gravity was explained by a warping of the space-time continuum. But that only raises further questions.

Ponder a more human example: Smoking and cancer. Cigarettes were at first perceived as rather harmless, and you may have seen photographs of physicians puffing away in front of their patients. And it took years to discover the risk. Yet smoking does not cause cancer in the same way that gravity makes an object fall. We infer there is some connection, but we are not certain how much is too much. There are any number of other putative causes: Stress, genetics, diet, or, perhaps, simply the will of God.

And what of the plague of depression and anxiety? To say that they are caused by a ‘lack of serotonin’ or some such is to beg the question. As body-soul composites, each acts upon the other, and as one physician lamented after years of practice, too many of his patients needed a priest far more than a doctor.

Science, at this qualitative and metaphysical level, must be free to ponder and investigate any number of putative causes and effects, especially for the more complex and manifold phenomena. Any number of valuable explanations have come from imagination, from Einstein wondering what it would be like to surf a light wave, le Maitre’s Big Bang, all the way to Hawking’s theoretical black holes.

There should never be any ‘one narrative’ in science, which should be open to many competing hypotheses, jostling and competing for the ever-elusive truth. Otherwise, the planets would be floating through a luminiferous ether; animals would still be spontaneously and abiogenetically forming in rotting meat; a high sugar and carb diet would be good for you; plagues and pestilences caused by a mysterious and malodorous miasma; the universe would be the size of the solar system, or smaller, with the Earth immobile at the centre. We should recall that Galileo was challenging the consensus, against a Church that was ‘following the science’.

We should be open to evidence, which always wins out in the end, at times overwhelmingly, and even tragically. Gum, chocolate and skin cream were once laced with radium to give us all a ‘healthy glow’, and Thalidomide was touted as a perfectly safe cure for morning sickness. Its teratogenic effects are to this day not fully known, nor could they have been predicted.

Need it be repeated: if there is one thing that is omnipresent in empirical research, it is doubt. And it is this doubt which prompts every further inquiry.

Measurement and Morality

If scientists should tread carefully making definitive claims in the metaphysical sphere, they should be even more cautious where moral judgements are drawn.

We may accept that science should help to guide and inform our conduct, keeping in mind we mean mainly those inferences drawn from quantitative measurement. Gravity may make one think twice about free-style rock climbing, or walking between two skyscrapers on a tightrope, and Newton’s inexorable laws should limit our speed in vehicles, and what vehicles we choose. We may also reflect on the risks of cigarettes – even of pipes and cigars! – as well as too much alcohol and junk food.

Until recently, such choices were left up to the individual, as a free moral agent made in God’s image, what risks to take, and even to some extent to which to expose others (e.g., following someone up a mountain; exposing oneself to second-hand smoke; or caring for the infectious). This is especially the case where those risks are uncertain. For if science is doubtful about present things, it is even more so about future contingents, that may, or may not, be.

As Benjamin Franklin quipped, those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

To give up this freedom to make moral decisions – or to have it taken from us – is to sell our birthright at a very cheap price, and instantiate a totalitarianism, one more encompassing with modern means of surveillance than any that came before. As I thought years ago, a state that can force you to wear a bike helmet for a short jaunt to the grocery store has pretty much plenipotentiary power over you. As we have discovered, it is the same authority that can now force an entire populace into house arrest, or mandate an experimental vaccine for every person on the planet, for the sake of their safety.

Of course, this is presuming the powers-that-be even have our safety and best interests at heart, one that appears to be an increasingly doubtful hypothesis.

One way or the other, should our new technocrats try to seize a power and authority that even God does not, they will, like Prometheus and Pharaoh of old, sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind.


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About John Paul Meenan 6 Articles
John Paul Meenan, M.Sc., M.A., teaches theology and science at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom in Ontario, Canada, with a particular interest in the relationship between faith and reason, and how the principles of our faith should impact and shape the human person and modern culture.

24 Comments

  1. e read: “If scientists should tread carefully making definitive claims in the metaphysical sphere, they should be even more cautious where moral judgements are drawn.”

    Never accused of being a religious voice, even Albert Einstein also spoke against bracket creep, whether by the churches OR by scientists. Science often has to do with means of achieving ends; its method is not geared to define values and ends. He added:

    “This is where the struggle of the Church against the doctrines of Galileo and Darwin belongs. On the other hand, representatives of science have often made an attempt to arrive at fundamental judgments with respect to values and ends on the basis of scientific method, and in this way have set themselves in opposition to religion. These conflicts have all sprung from fatal errors.”

    (Albert Einstein, “Science and Religion” (1939), Out of My Later Years (New York: Philosophical Library, 1950).

  2. I will not give details in public. Suffice it to say I have multiple degrees in physics. Even from my first fascinations in self-directed experiments as a child, even through my early adulthood as a non-believer before I eventually found faith, even before I learned who Josef Mengele was, it was always self-evident to me, and it should be self-evident to anyone who is not a profound fool, that science has nothing to do with the making of value judgments.

  3. As Fulton Sheen pointed out nearly a century ago in his doctoral thesis, “God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy” (1925), the biggest mistake in modern thought is to assume not only that you can prove the existence of non-existence, but it has been done, usually to disprove the existence of God but also the natural law, the general code of human behavior based on God’s Nature self-realized in His Intellect. By assuming that knowledge of God’s existence and of the natural law is based on what they think is “faith,” and is therefore opinion, not knowledge (forgetting that religious is also knowledge, albeit proved in a different way), many modern thinkers, even religious ones, take that as proof that God does not exist. They forget that you cannot logically prove a negative, which was Sheen’s point.

    • Yes. Cluny Media has published Abp. Sheen’s book called “The Philosophy of Science.” It surprised me to learn that Sheen was such a deep thinker and so erudite. I had only known and thought of him as a popular preacher appealing to the common sense of the common man.

      From its foreward: “This book aims at rescuing the reader from the childlike simplicity which takes the results of science for what they assuredly are not, namely, a metaphysical view of the universe. It will reveal to him questions which arise and which he may not even suspect…[and show] in what direction the solutions are to be sought; it will not let him believe that these solutions have already been reached and …no longer call for any progress or modification.”

      Amen. Happy reading, everyone!

  4. I found this to be a very strange article indeed (i.e., the connection between the conclusion and what preceded it). I think the author was trying to pick up a large watermelon with a small plastic McDonald’s fork, or direct traffic from the top floor of a skyscraper. It might have been better to write an article on the limits of philosophy, especially with respect to public health decisions re: the pandemic. Everyone develops perceptions based on what they think they know, but if they really knew public health and the specific factors relevant to each specific time for each specific jurisdiction, that is, the many thousands of situation-specific medical, epidemiological, treatment capacity, economic, political, financial, etc., factors that must be considered and balanced in local/regional decision making, hundreds of which change day to day, critics would not do any better. If experts in the field of public health who are no longer in the loop (because of retirement, for example) are not competent (in their own minds) to second guess the decisions of expert consensus bodies who have full visibility of all relevant factors, then much less are amateur armchair critics who have neither the relevant competencies (including most physicians) nor visibility of all relevant factors that must be balanced at specific times in specific jurisdictions. Of course, a philosopher would be free to confidently express dogmatic opinions with great certainty if he knew nothing about the subject. But realistically, a moral philosopher who does not have access to the data (except what he may get from CNN or MSNBC, or the CBC, etc.,), and who operates on a more general level of abstraction, is not going to be much help in these matters. In situations like covid with unavoidable harm and multiple competing interests to protect–some mutually exclusive–, there is no black and white, and no good decisions, just the least bad decisions to try to prevent people from dying with minimum collateral damage, which unavoidably means a balanced restriction of individual freedoms that threaten the lives of others. And I have to be honest, I am getting tired of the suggestion that we are seeing a slow move into a totalitarian form of government. The logic is bad: All T (totalitarianism) is x, y, z (exhibits certain properties); All P (recent public health measures) is x, y, z (exhibits certain properties); Therefore, P is T. A classic non-sequitur.

    • And you draw the conclusion that prideful elitist politicians, and public heath professionals cannot be disposed to holding belief systems ideologically biased towards ignoring evidence that counters their collective biases how exactly? Have you ever heard of the pervasive acceptance of the mass crushing of baby skulls by the well-educated? Do you live in a world where certain groups of people are sinless and not in denial of their inclination towards sin?

      • No, I don’t draw any such conclusion. But it appears that you have concluded that they ignore evidence. A friend of mine was the chief medical advisor to the nation just north of us, as well as the chief medical officer of NATO not too long ago, and he is solidly pro-life and Catholic, and he would never assume that his colleagues hold belief systems ideologically biased towards ignoring evidence. The rest of what you wrote is just too nonsensical to waste time on.

        • So it’s “nonsensical” to hold that human beings have a human capacity to delude themselves and that they carry their delusions into their value systems, consiously and unconsciously, just as Catholicism teaches, and just as it actually happens throughout history? And it’s “nonsensical” to expect that your Catholic friend might consider the possibility that what Catholicism teaches about human nature might actually be true and not be “nonsensical?”
          I’m a physicist, and I witness scientific fraud frequently by glory seekers, although not a single culprit would ever admit it, not even to himself.
          And if you’re such an expert on what is nonsense or not nonsense, perhaps you can address the purpose of the article and explain, in any way, what science has to do with the making of value judgments?

          • You wrote: “So it’s “nonsensical” to hold that human beings have a human capacity to delude themselves and that they carry their delusions into their value systems, …”

            No, it isn’t. Who said it was? Self-deception is a very important part of cognitive psychology. I recommend two books on the topic: The Psychology of Closed Mindedness, by Ari Kruglanski, and Self-Deception Unmasked, by Alfred Mele. A point that Kruglanski makes is that everyone employs confidence thresholds and that closed mindedness is not a “conservative” trait as was once thought, but plagues everyone. But to proceed from that premise to “these medical advisors are ignoring evidence” is underdetermined. You are just as much subject to self-deception/closed mindedness as anyone else. That does not mean that you are incapable of looking out for the well-being of your patients.

            You write: “And it’s “nonsensical” to expect that your Catholic friend might consider the possibility that what Catholicism teaches about human nature might actually be true and not be “nonsensical?”

            No one is doubting Catholicism. We are doubting your sloppy inferences.

            You say: “I’m a physicist, and I witness scientific fraud frequently by glory seekers, although not a single culprit would ever admit it, not even to himself.”

            But it does not follow that our medical advisors are fraudulent glory seekers who are ignoring evidence, anymore than it implies that you are a fraud who is ignoring evidence.

            Finally, you write: “And if you’re such an expert on what is nonsense or not nonsense, perhaps you can address the purpose of the article and explain, in any way, what science has to do with the making of value judgments?”

            Well the article was fine up until the ending, which was a bizarre leap. We make value judgments all the time, and the value judgments made by medical experts regarding the pandemic are very general, not much more specific than the value judgment behind my doctor’s decision for me to get some blood work done or for my wife to have her ovarian cyst removed. But decisions on how to manage infectious diseases (re: the pandemic) are ridiculously more complex than the basic moral reasoning behind standard medical practice. Such decisions are not a matter of moral philosophy. And I don’t know anyone in medicine who would argue that value judgments are scientific questions that are to be resolved by science. But decisions regarding this pandemic require far more information than a philosopher would be in possession of. To believe otherwise is just dogmatism at its best.

    • JMJ+

      Peace to you, Mr. James,

      Thank you for your comment, and taking the time to read the essay. As with all such things, I am open to feedback and modifying my views – which was what ‘science’ is all about.

      My point was rather simple: Science is more than collecting data (and even that is rather fraught and controversial, as we have seen, for much depends on what data one collects). For science also includes the interpretation of data, and then drawing behavioural (moral) conclusions from this interpretation. When people say ‘follow the science’, they should be aware of what they are following.

      I did not make any specific policy directives in the article, except a caution against instantiating unbridled socialism and totalitarianism, which are intrinsically evil, which no ‘physical’ evil can justify.

      But since you take issue with the last few paragraphs, implying bad logic, I would reply that although the drift towards such does not necessarily imply we are inevitably on that path, it may also signify that we are. Already, in Canada, the non-vaccinated are forbidden from all indoor public spaces (barring ‘essential’ services), trains, planes, and from various other events; untold thousands are facing the prospect of being expelled from school, college, university, or fired from their jobs – including thousands of physicians and nurses – with economic catastrophe on the horizon, and who knows what societal damage.

      You say in a later comment that ‘decisions on how to manage infectious diseases’ are not moral philosophy. All right – but do not such decisions, admittedly requiring a certain degree of specialized knowledge, also depend upon, and are influenced by, one’s moral principles? Would we not have to take into account the end and purpose of Man, the hierarchy of goods in attaining that end, the subsidiarity of various societies, the role of work, socialization, the necessity of various aspects of life, the principle of proportion and double-effect, balancing risks and benefits, the proper notion of moral autonomy, habeas corpus, the limitations of empirical evidence, and any number of other considerations?

      Is not every voluntary decision we make, for ourselves or for others, a moral decision, affecting not only the world, but, more importantly, ourselves?
      Should there not be some sort of subsidiarity here, and is it even possible for a small group of fallible oligarchic ‘elites’ or experts to make a one-sized-fits-all decision for seven billion people, in such a complex milieu, each one of whom will have different risk-benefits?

      And this only exacerbated by the fact that most, if not all, of those making decisions for the rest of us have themselves dis-ordered moral systems, their intentions obscure. Their ‘hierarchy of values’ are not mine, nor those of the Church, and should not be coerced upon us.

      Saint Thomas says that a trained intellect has the capacity to make the proper distinctions. These must be made, and applied, in any hypothesis, and solution, using the truths given by both faith, reason, along with the ‘best guesses’ of various experts.

      Although it is difficult to read into the thoughts of someone from a few brief comments, the principles you evince signify a tendency towards the hyper-compartmentalization and specialization of our society, and an over-reliance on experts and technology, even unhinged from inviolable moral principles. Unless checked and balanced, this leads to the ‘scientism’ which is wreaking such havoc in our world, warned against by C.S. Lewis in his That Hideous Strength.

      Should we really consider the epidemiological response to this pandemic with no reference to our metaphysical viewpoint, moral philosophy, to say nothing of theology and faith?

      Where is God, and our eternal destiny, in all of this?

      To paraphrase George Orwell, we don’t want to be those who deny totalitarianism until the boot is on our face, driving us into the mire. Best to keep our wits, our souls, and our freedoms, before it’s too late.

      In caritate et veritate +

  5. I hope the American people are sufficiently intelligent to see that the government isn’t interested in anyone’s health; rather, they are interested in controlling everyone. People who choose to be vaccinated without government intrusion are free. People who “choose” to be vaccinated because their livelihoods are threatened are not free. Everyone should be allowed to make this decision without undue influence by the government and with their First Amendment rights front and center.

  6. Unfortunately, science today is less about inquiry and more about furthering the personal (often moral and political) agendas of those claiming to be scientists. It is also less about advancing the welfare of humanity and more about garnering funding and promoting personal recognition. As this article points out, science seems to have most often been about validating personal morals (or lack thereof), promoting personal agendas (often linked to group agendas), and acquiring money and fame. For example, “science” has led to the belief that an unborn baby is just tissue, that being “white” is a privileged condition rather than a skin pigment, that same-sex parents lead to psychologically healthy children, that sexual relations between two men is normal (as long as it consists of safe-sex practices?), etc.

    • Todd: I’m sorry, but this is pure nonsense. How has “science” led to the belief that an unborn baby is just tissue, or that being “white” is a privileged condition? Fetology has not led to such a conclusion, and it isn’t science that brought us critical whiteness theory. You’ll find that in the humanities departments of universities, not science departments. Look more closely at what science is accomplishing today, and you’ll see it is all about advancing the welfare of humanity.

      • Since there is no reply button in your last response to me, I’ll post my response here, where you repeat your stubborn misinformed attitude that scientists never lie and call another contributer who recognizes that they do as “nonsensical.”

        My reponse to your comment of 10/12 2:08pm. :

        Sloppy inferences? Do you mean your incapacity to comprehend the meaning and purpose of an argument, which would include you needing to project an analogy into an inference?

        Previously, YOU characterized my argument about collective self-deception in and of itself as “nonsensical” when I provided the widescale example of moral deception regarding abortion, a depraved practice that is favored by the vast majority of medical professionals and well-educated people in general, especially scientists. I inferred nothing more than to provide this indisputable fact as an obvious illustration to rebuke your original contention inferring our need to assume that consensus among medical professionals establishes their good will.
        Tell us, exactly, with all the blather about the absolute safety of these “vaccines,” a scientifically fraudulent claim in itself, since they haven’t stood the test of time; nonetheless, name one, just one prominent spokesperson at the CDC or one single politician who promotes these “vaccines” who has acknowledged the indisputable connection to the development of all of these “vaccines” to fetal tissue and acknowledged any level of respect for anyone giving resistance having a right to give resistance based on moral values?

        You said, “I don’t know anyone in medicine who would argue that value judgments are scientific questions that are to be resolved by science.” Well, I admire a man who doesn’t watch television, or read the newspapers. I can’t say the same about remaining steadfast in an ignorance of history. Of the thousands of medical professionals who have made value judgments, in the last two years alone, “claiming science as the basis for theif value judgments,” especially the hundreds who have called for “forced vaccinations,” which ones do you need to have quoted to you. Should we start with Anthony Fauci?

        Now you come back and deny what YOU inferred about the collective effects of moral delusions and how it can potentially affect social policy. I gave my EXAMPLE from my working in the very abstract science of physics, that rarely affects life and death issues directly, but where physicists still lie to obtain grant money and to promote their prestige. I did not make a “sloppy inference.” I made the point to illustrate that sinful egos, in the human experience, distort judgment. It is always a potential factor in everything. You don’t have to tell me I can delude myself as well. I’m a Catholic who still goes to confession. And Jesus Christ gives everyone all the insight they need for understanding their potential for delusion and its dire consequences, individually and collectively. No one needs submission to pretentious blow hard psychologists writing books about the obvious fact that self-deception is the most common of human experiences. Would that sanctimonious politicians grasp the reality.

      • Thomas, You say that “science is all about advancing human welfare.” If so, how did the use of science advanced welfare in these examples: the thalidomide tragedy, the Tuskegee experiments, the Fukushima meltdown? Dr. Fauci himself has acknowledged that science is “evolving.”

        Realistically, human welfare can advance by nothing and no one other than our Savior. The sooner we accept the truth of man’s ineptitude and man’s limitations in light of God’s omnipotent perfection, the less we will offer irrational half-baked beliefs as absolute fact. We seem to have forgotten that all creation is His and responds to His Law.

  7. Thanks so much for your reply, JP. I enjoyed it very much. You write: “My point was rather simple: Science is more than collecting data (and even that is rather fraught and controversial, as we have seen, for much depends on what data one collects). For science also includes the interpretation of data, and then drawing behavioural (moral) conclusions from this interpretation”

    Yes, indeed. Just like my Jewish financial advisor. He interprets the data and recommends a certain course of action. He is certainly not recommending fraudulent action–if he were, I’d get rid of him. But he is recommending the best course of action given what he knows about the economy, the stock market, the world of finance, etc. He’s very good at what he does. On a very general level, we share the same moral principles. On a more specific level, we don’t. I’m not sure of his position on abortion, but he sees nothing wrong with contraception, for example, and nothing wrong with divorce and remarriage. But I’m not sure how that affects his competency as a financial advisor.

    It would be interesting to treat this claim regarding “the intrinsic evil” of socialism and what exactly that means. For example, are mixed economies intrinsically evil? But that’s another question for another day. But you really did not need to write an article on the limits of science in order to make the point that we should be careful with socialism and totalitarianism. Those who read Catholic World Report probably understand that. If the goal is to make people aware of the dangers of socialism, then why not write an article on the problems with socialism? But to spend so much time on the distinction between science and moral philosophy, and then conclude with a few remarks on the dangers of totalitarianism as it pertains to the pandemic, doesn’t seem to be as effective. The implication in the article is, it seems to me, that decisions are being made by scientists who believe that, qua scientists, they are qualified to draw “moral conclusions” from the interpretation of the data. My point is that they are qualified to draw “behavioural conclusions” from the interpretation of the data. So, it seems to me that there is a bit of equivocation going on here: you make the point that morality has to do with behaviour, and drawing behavioural conclusions from data is therefore to draw moral conclusions; and they are not moral philosophers, but scientists, etc. But this is not quite right. They are qualified to draw behavioural conclusions. For example, my ophthalmologist tells me not to drive myself home after my visit, but to have someone drive me, because of what he knows about the effects that these tests will have on my eyes and how that will affect my driving. I have no idea about that, but he does. Indeed, he’s not a moral philosopher, but he does not have to be. He needs the fundamentals of morality, to be sure, that is, he needs to understand basic moral precepts, which most people do, at least on a basic level. He’s looking out for my safety, as am I, but he knows something that I don’t, namely, the likelihood that I will get into an accident if I get behind the wheel of a car after all these tests, so he advises me to have someone drive me. You don’t really need a degree in moral philosophy to give such advice, but you do need to know something about ophthalmology.

    You write: “Already, in Canada, the non-vaccinated are forbidden from all indoor public spaces (barring ‘essential’ services), trains, planes, and from various other events; untold thousands are facing the prospect of being expelled from school, college, university, or fired from their jobs – including thousands of physicians and nurses – with economic catastrophe on the horizon, and who knows what societal damage.”

    Yes, that seems problematic on the surface, but many would argue that we do need to get the economy going again. Economic goods have a bearing on basic human goods. I don’t have all the data that led to this decision, but the public health department has always sent home from school kids from foreign countries, for example, who have not had all their required vaccinations yet (diphtheria, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, meningitis, pertussis, and varicella). Such law is not rooted in a creeping totalitarianism, but a concern for the common good. It’s not necessarily any different now with regard to the covid vaccine. If it is a bad decision to require people to be double vaccinated, you will have to show precisely how it is a bad and unnecessary directive. A treatise on the evils of totalitarianism or the nature of science will not cut it, though. It’s too general. You will need to get into the thick of the data, statistical, epidemiological, economic, etc., and articulate the many different trade offs. That will require an awful lot of information that the vast majority of us do not have, do not have time to read, nor the competency to understand. It may turn out to be an over-reaction, but if it is, you will have to show that it is. We may know in a year from now whether it is or not.

    You wrote: “Should there not be some sort of subsidiarity here, and is it even possible for a small group of fallible oligarchic ‘elites’ or experts to make a one-sized-fits-all decision for seven billion people, in such a complex milieu, each one of whom will have different risk-benefits?”
    Of course there should be some sort of subsidiarity here, and there is. There is no one size fits all decision–there never has been. Fauci is not making decisions for Canadians. The chief medical officer of health in Ohio is not making the same decisions as the one in Maine, nor the one in Ontario, Alberta, or BC. What is required is knowledge of the specific factors relevant to each specific time for each specific jurisdiction, that is, knowledge of the many thousands of situation-specific medical, epidemiological, treatment capacity, economic, political, financial, etc., factors that must be considered and balanced in local/regional decision making, hundreds of which change day to day. I think people are assuming that because they don’t see the data, it does not exist, and that these medical officers of health are making armchair decisions with as much data as the rest of us are getting from CNN or the CBC.

    You write: “…the principles you evince signify a tendency towards the hyper-compartmentalization and specialization of our society, and an over-reliance on experts and technology, even unhinged from inviolable moral principles.”

    But this world has become utterly complex, especially the world of science, and it is hyper-compartmentalized. There’s no getting away from that. It is impossible for scientists to keep up with the latest in the sciences outside their specialized field. It is just too vast. You and I rely on the neurologist, we rely on the oncologist, the psychiatrist, the industrial electrician, the mechanic, the experts in counter-terrorism, the experts in computer hardware and software, etc. My sphere of expertise and yours (not to mention every other scientist) is relatively tiny, and it gets tinier every year. We have no choice but to rely on others. Consider this from a theological angle. Imagine someone who chooses to follow his own judgment, refuses to acknowledge the reality and implications of this ‘compartmentalization’ and begins to study theology. He looks into the issue of contraception (reads Humanae Vitae) and after looking at both sides, decides that there is nothing wrong with contraception, as long as it is not an abortifacient. You try to convince him that there is a larger and more complex picture. He can’t see it. And of course he can’t. He’s just begun to look at this issue–the past 2 or 3 years, let’s say. You, on the other hand, have spent the last 40 years studying this issue, delving into the subtle arguments of various great moral thinkers, something our friend just did not have the time to do. It would be prudent for him to listen carefully to you. You know this area. You know there are pitfalls, traps, misinformation, subtle reasoning errors, etc. He can’t see this. He sees nothing wrong with a vasectomy, after having 3 kids. Sometimes it is very difficult to get people to see what you see, after studying for the past four decades. In his mind, he’s thinking: “Why should I put my trust in a bunch of celibates from Rome, who do not have to worry about kids, their education, how they are going to finance it, how they are going to pay the bills. These celibates make these grand and sweeping absolute decisions for all of us, and we are supposed to trust them? Besides, we have a Pope who has just appointed dissenters to the JP Institute, so it looks like things are going to change”, etc. Now, you and I can see the specious reasoning behind all of this, and you and I can see how difficult it would be to educate this person enough for him to see it–it’s probably hopeless, given that most clergy today are silent on the issue and secretly dissent from Church teaching on this. But the fact of the matter is that you have a knowledge that you just cannot deposit in his head. He would have to spend years studying philosophy and theology in order to begin to appreciate how wrong he is, how he is relying on insufficient data (albeit a different kind of data). It’s the same thing with epidemiology, public health, infectious disease management, virology, molecular biology, etc. Armchair medicine, armchair statistics, is as dangerous as intuitive theology/philosophy.

    You also said: “Should we really consider the epidemiological response to this pandemic with no reference to our metaphysical viewpoint, moral philosophy, to say nothing of theology and faith?”

    Well, let’s say I am a devout Catholic who is pro life, and my colleague in medicine is not, at least not to the same degree, but he is a brilliant scientist with a brilliant mind who is really looking out for the common good (i.e., public health…he just has a blind spot with respect to certain issues). He does not believe the same things that I believe about faith and morals, at least not on a more specific level. When it comes to our perspective on the best course of action in order to flatten the curve and keep people from dying, how would my religious faith in the Eucharist, or my philosophy of being, or what have you, lead me to a different conclusion? I had a Jewish accountant once, and at one time an accountant who was Muslim. They both did my taxes. Their goal was to get me the best return possible, without any kind of fraud or lying, of course. They were both very good at their job. That they both came from very different religious backgrounds did not affect their level of competence. They both were dedicated to their work. I had an atheist do my brakes. His atheism did not affect his level of competence as a mechanic. If these chief medical officers of health are devious communists who are secretly trying to destroy the economy or destroy the Church, then yes, you have a point. But I’d argue that this is unlikely. They are, for the most part, bright, dedicated to the health of the nation, want the best for the country as a whole, and they have a great deal of data every day to get through, and there are no black and white, and no good decisions, just the least bad decisions to try to prevent people from dying with minimum collateral damage, which unavoidably means a balanced restriction of individual freedoms that threaten the lives of others. That we disagree on issues of sexual ethics, or some very subtle life issues, or religious issues, doesn’t affect their competency. They are still doing their job and doing it well.

    • TJ, thank you for your kind and clear responses to the issues the author and readers had brought up.

      I am neither highly educated nor particularly eloquent so I will address just one point.

      Mr. Meenan: Comparing a vaccine to a bike helmet is false. A vaccine protects not only the vaccinated but also those with whom the vaccinated come in contact. My body, my choice does not apply, morally, when others’ bodies might get hurt. Requiring the biker to wear prescription eyeglasses or to have accessible, working brakes might be a better idea for you to argue against.

      • JMJ+

        Good morning, Josephine R.,

        Thank you for your readership, and kind comments. My analogy with the bike helmets was not so much with the vaccine itself (bike helmet = vaccine), but rather with the power of the state to tell us what to do to ‘keep us safe’. If the state can throw its full authority – and this means police officers with guns – to ensuring people wear bike helmets, then it can pretty much do what it pleases to ‘keep us safe’.

        Why not helmets in cars, which would certainly reduce injury and death? (see: race car drivers). Why let people do much of anything at all? (which may, alas, be where we’re headed, even if I hope against hope that it not be so…)

        The point is the limit of metastasizing of state power over increasingly minute aspects of our lives, against which de Tocqueville warned. We should in almost all cases be free to decide for ourselves risk and benefits in what endeavours we choose. The land of the free and the brave and all that.

        I hope this helps to clarify.

        Ad caritatem, in veritate! +

        jpm

        • JP: “My analogy with the bike helmets was …with the power of the state to tell us what to do to ‘keep us safe’. If the state can throw its full authority – and this means police officers with guns – to ensuring people wear bike helmets, then it can pretty much do what it pleases to ‘keep us safe’.”

          Of course, it is perfectly reasonable for the state to enforce helmet wearing, and to compel us to wear corrective lenses to use them while driving, and even to wear seatbelts, because there is a social cost (cost to others) to having one’s brains splattered all over the road (i.e., medical costs, at least in countries like Canada that have a nationalized health care system, the cost incurred from having someone to clean up the road, ambulance costs, emotional cost to the kids playing ball who had to see brain splatter, etc). Also, for the safety of others, the state compels me to wear my corrective lenses while driving, because without them, the likelihood of hurting another driver is greater, and the state compels me to wear a seatbelt; with the seatbelt on while in an accident, the cost of treatment will be much less than if I were not wearing it (because I don’t like the feeling of being so restrained). But the state cannot do what it pleases to keep us safe, but it can only do what is reasonable to keep us safe. That’s why we elect our representatives. They’d be replaced quickly if they were so ridiculous as to compel us to wear helmets while driving a car on roads with 100 km or 55 mph speed limits–unless of course the car was reaching very high speeds, as at the raceway, then it would be reasonable, because the risk is increased significantly.

          You wrote: “We should in almost all cases be free to decide for ourselves risk and benefits in what endeavours we choose. The land of the free and the brave and all that.”

          But that freedom has limits imposed by human reason. Unfortunately, most people are not consistently reasonable, but choose on the basis of their emotions. Building codes, especially electrical, are reasonable, even though they increase my workload and overall cost. We live in a democracy, and so when politicians become ridiculous, we vote them out. However, it is the case that a country can become over-regulated, which is what happened under Obama. That’s the problem with big government. Government employees have to justify their existence, and so they create laws that really hamper development. There were 180,000 pages of regulations by the time Obama left office. That’s one of the good things that Trump was doing–deregulating. Most people were unaware of the overregulation. See Philip K. Howard, The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government.

          • JMJ+
            Saint Luke

            Peace to you, Mr. James,

            A blessed feast, and to reply briefly:

            I agree, that where there is obvious danger to others, the law should often intervene to limit our freedom. I am no libertarian, and think that, in general, speed limits and building codes and many safety features in vehicles a good thing, on the whole.

            The problem arises where this goes too far, and constrains by the full force of law our taking of risks which, in the principle of subsidiarity, should be left up to the individual.

            Limiting behaviour based on ‘medical costs’ begs the question of who is meant to pay for health care. For when the state pays for such (which really means us via the state bureaucracy), then the state to some extent ‘owns’ our bodies, and what we do with them.

            You make a vivid example of emotionally-charged accidents and such, but such tragedies may happen with or without helmets, the efficacy of which in preventing them is still debatable. (For they limit vision, and people take more risks with them, and so on). Wearing a helmet in certain cases may well be prudent, but should a police officer enforce that with a gun?

            And helmets in cars would in fact be beneficial, for most of the traumatic injuries and deaths in car accidents are caused by head trauma, even at relatively low velocities. Cars contain a lot of kinetic energy, a lot more than bicycles. We’re simply not willing to go that far as a society, which I consider a good thing.

            But more to the point: If we go down the route of the financial and emotional costs of risk, then we should also outlaw motorcycles, rock climbing, surfing, skydiving, motocross racing – indeed, any extreme or risky sport, none of which are necessary.

            And what of the medical costs of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, caused by bad diets? Or smoking, first-and-second hand, with the plague of lung disease and cancer? By your principles, should not these also be outlawed? They tried with alcohol and prohibition – for booze causes problems galore – but this failed, and rightly so.

            The question before us is how far the state should go in governing, limiting and even coercing what may by some be considered good – that is ‘safe’ – behaviour. Not everything ‘stupid’ – or, more correctly, imprudent – should be made illegal, but only those behaviours that pose a clear and present danger, particularly to others. To try to do such would be impossible (for what is imprudent for one, may not be so for another), and would give the state far too much control and power.

            I will respond to your other post soon, but will say for now that although we may agree in some principles, we seem to differ quite a bit in the application thereof. I’m glad you see the dangers in hyper-regulations, but perhaps I, and others, would place much more emphasis on developing human virtue, custom, subsidiarity, personal choice, freedom. From what I have read from you so far, you tend to minimize these, uploading many such decisions to the law, the state and its apparatchiks.

            But such would, and, has, led to an attenuating of virtue, autonomy, freedom – the bitter fruits of which we are seeing all around us, with even our private behaviour controlled, monitored, curtailed, in ways no previous society could have foreseen nor, dare we say, tolerated.

            In caritate et veritate +

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