The Ethics of Science/The Science of Ethics: Moving beyond the dichotomy towards a Lutheran approach



[1] Over the past two centuries within the Western intellectual tradition, considerations of the relationship between science and ethics have moved in two distinct and largely opposite directions. This paper examines these two directions and poses ideas and questions in order to move Lutheran thinkers towards a new way of thinking about the intersection of science and ethics.


[2] On the one hand, accounts of moral sensibility and judgment in human communities are often examined from within the domain of scientific inquiry, most often within the discipline of evolutionary psychology and related fields. This way of explaining ethics as a natural phenomenon subject to scientific explanation is a relatively recent development in Western history. The treatment of ethics from this perspective tends to focus on the possible origins and subsequent emergence of moral impulses in human beings as the result of adaptive pressures arising within the environment. In this understanding, ethics is regarded as a category of scientific inquiry and is subject to various modes of scientific scrutiny that define and evaluate the role of ethics within human experience. In short, ethics has been “naturalized”; that is, how and why morality works the way it does can be fully explained by science.


[3] The other direction in which this discussion has moved is a strengthening of the traditional view that ethics is an autonomous and transcendent structure of reality, and as such has dominion over all human activity, including science. There are multiple versions of this traditional picture of morality: ethics is comprised of commands issued by God; ethics is the result of the exercise of right reason; ethics is the highest motivation of a good will; ethics is the lifelong cultivation of a balanced and generous individual character; ethics is the act of crafting just and compassionate structures for society; ethics is the proper ordering of human relationships by love; and so forth.  In all these versions, ethics is primary, and all human endeavors, including scientific inquiry, are subject to the imperatives and prohibitions of traditional morality. In this sense, science does not does frame the appropriate account of ethics; ethics frames the appropriate account of science.


The Scientific Captivity of Ethics


[4] Science, of course, focuses on the natural. However, the term “natural” is ambiguous, embracing everything from a traditional concept that what is “natural” is fundamentally what defines the essential characteristics of a species (as in, “human nature”); to that which may be carefully observed and which furnishes the possibility of recording patterns (i.e., laws) that obtain within the dynamics of matter and motion; to those features of reality that are amenable to a mathematical reduction of those dynamics of matter and motion; to colloquial notions of “the great outdoors.”


[5] Consider the fate of the concept of altruism. The term, and the corresponding concept, was first formulated by August Comte in the early 1850s, and originally referred to social behavior that was motivated by a primary concern for the well-being of others, and not by self-interest.  Altruism was posited by Comte as fundamentally opposed to both egoism and benevolence, a pair of seventeenth century moral theories Comte believed were rooted in a sentimental and idealistic psychology of the subjective individual. Comte’s complaint was that these theories of human motivation were lacking in objectivity, an objectivity derived from scientific observations of behavior within a social context. Thus, altruism was defined as public behavior that suppresses egoistic self-interest in favor of acting to promote and realize the interests of others; that such public behavior can best be regarded as a natural phenomenon; and further, that analysis and evaluation of this altruistic public behavior is a scientific endeavor. This naturalizes altruism, and then turns it into a proper object of scientific scrutiny.


[6] However, the emergence of evolutionary psychology during the last decade of the twentieth century resulted in a description of altruism very different from the earlier one. Evolutionary psychology treats the altruistic ethical impulse as having developed from a primal instinct initially related to survival, both of the individual organism and of the species. Through a highly specific evolutionary history, that primal instinct then broadens and matures into a network of authoritative commands for the ordering of a particular society. These authoritative commands are eventually rationalized as a set of universal principles governing human conduct, and are finally recognized over time by psychological science as a strategy for problem-solving in congested affective situations. But when used to provide an account of altruism, this evolutionary model no longer defines altruistic behavior as devoid of egoistic self-interest.  Indeed, egoistic self-interest is in most accounts the essential motivating force that generates cooperative and socially effective problem-solving behaviors among members of a designated community.[1] So we end up with two contrary “naturalized” accounts of altruism. The only thing they genuinely share is that both treat morality, and the distinctive characteristics of a moral life, as requiring a scientific explanation.


[7] Here is another example of morality considered simply as a subject to be described and explained by science. Most recently, the “science of ethics” has received a significant boost from the work of moral philosophers, such as Mark Johnson, who have sought to integrate aspects of human cognitive functioning, including moral functioning, with theoretical advances in neuroscience.  From Metaphors We Live By[2], to Moral Imagination[3], to Morality for Humans[4], Johnson has sought to dispel the notion that morality is anything other than a neurologically based, pragmatic response on the part of human organisms to particular situations that arise within our complex environments. This means that ethics may be both defined, and explained, by neuroscience. Johnson regards human persons as embodied creatures, and concludes that neuroscience is the key to discovering how our brains are wired to provide us with models for metaphorically understanding reality and generating meaning for us, including the ethical meaning of good and bad, right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate. In this way, Johnson (and some other moral philosophers) “naturalizes” ethics by making ethics available for scientific analysis.


[8] Johnson is particularly eager to displace traditional Western notions of ethics that he calls “moral fundamentalism,” which he describes as “belief in unmediated access to universal foundational moral truths.” He writes:


The idea of moral absolutes, whether in the form of universal moral laws or foundational moral facts, is challenged by cognitive science research into the nature of human conceptualization, understanding, appraisal, and reasoning.  Moral fundamentalism, besides being scientifically suspect, is also morally suspect, insofar as it silences the ongoing moral inquiry we need most if we are to have any hope of dealing intelligently with our problems.[5] 


The Ethical Captivity of Science


[9] As mentioned above, the other trajectory of thought that has emphatically re-emerged during the past few centuries is what Johnson calls “moral fundamentalism.” This approach treats ethics as an independent realm, established prior to, and standing above, all scientific inquiry. According to this understanding, ethics is comprised of fundamental principles, commands, rules and systems that exist outside of and stand in judgment over all human activity, including science. Again, the origin and elaboration of ethics is a transcendent given, the sources of which are above the confines of human experience. In this way, science, like all human enterprises, is regarded as a collective pursuit subject to various modes of ethical scrutiny that define and evaluate the practices of science and their subsequent technological innovations.


[10] One current example of this commitment to ethical autonomy is political philosopher Michael Sandel, who, in his long essay The Case Against Perfection, argues that scientific advances in biotechnology create deeply problematic opportunities for human enhancement.[6] He cites instances of parents who believe they are entitled to choose the qualities they prefer in a potential child, and then seek to create optimum genetic platforms for their children, through the use of various reproductive technologies. Sandel believes this represents a violation of fundamental moral constraints. He invokes the concept of “giftedness,” in which a human person is a gift to be accepted and affirmed, in whatever condition she shows up in the world. A human person is not a commodity to be manufactured, according to Sandel; such a practice is a transgression of prior, and proper, ethical boundaries.[7] Those boundaries are established by a moral framework whose origins and structure are not discerned by the enquiries of science, but by antecedent rational and religious reflection on the human condition. Science does not discover that moral framework. It is independent of science, and scientific endeavors must operate within that framework.


[11] Another author who echoes the same sort of concern is the ethicist and political theorist Yuval Levin.  In a seminal article, “The Moral Challenge of Modern Science,” published in The New Atlantis in 2006, Levin charges that “science is far from morally neutral”; that is, Levin rejects the position that science is a purely descriptive enterprise, collecting facts and offering an unbiased account of how things work in the natural world.[8]  Levin insists that “we are in greater need than ever of the very moral powers that the success of science has made weaker,” and that there will be “cases when scientific freedom and even scientific progress must be superseded by higher moral goods.” Those “higher moral goods” cannot be generated by science itself; they must come from outside the domain of science, and science must conduct itself in accord with those “higher moral goods.” Levin concludes by summing up the necessary relation between science and ethics. “This, in the deepest sense, is the moral challenge presented to us by modern science: to advance the great moral good of relieving man’s estate while remaining ever mindful of other, and perhaps greater, moral goods.”[9] Such greater moral goods do not originate with science. They belong to right reason, to religion, to culture.


The Contemporary Merging of Science and Ethics


[12] But curious things seem to be occurring within the multiple practices of science at this moment, as the boundaries of science and the boundaries of ethics begin to merge. Consider the advances in nanotechnology, particularly in its application to biomedical research. Currently, there are discussions in scientific journals examining work being done that present the prospect of creating artificial human embryos, employing both nano-techniques and arrangement of molecules from stem cell lines. This work, often referred to as “synthetic embryology,” has already established the platform for producing human embryos artificially, from scratch, molecule by molecule.[10]

[13] How is this being done? To take but one example, look at the research being done at the University of Michigan. A team of mechanical engineers and molecular biologists who have been working with stem cell lines have discovered that they have been replicating the initial stages of cellular development of human embryos. One University of Michigan researcher, Yue Shao, compared his project to images on a website called The Virtual Human Embryo. Shao explains, “When I showed the image to the team, everyone said, ‘Wow, we need to figure out what to do.’” Had they somehow made a real human embryo from stem cells? “At that point, we started to be more cautious.” Since the “embryoids” are realistic enough (i.e., they resemble “real” human embryos), “the lab has been destroying them using a bath of detergent or formaldehyde to make sure they don’t develop any further.”[11]

[14] What is going on here? What made these scientific researchers “more cautious”? Were they getting in touch with some external, transcendent moral template outside of their scientific practice that informed them they were treading on dangerous ethical ground? Or was there something within the vocations of bioengineering and molecular biology in principle that had alerted this team to the possibility that moral boundaries could be broached by their work?


[15] So it appears that, as we move into the third decade of the twenty-first century, the perceived relationship between science and ethics is deeply complicated.


What is the Lutheran Theological Tradition to Make of All This?


[16] These two different and opposed cultural movements within modern Western thought are each an instance of a radical reductionism in which science and ethics are considered as separate intellectual spheres. In the first, ethics is a subsidiary topic within science and is therefore “naturalized” and classified as one more “natural” phenomenon to be studied under the rubrics of science. In the second, science is one of many human projects that is finally answerable to independent moral appraisal. In the one, science defines and delimits ethics; in the other, ethics defines and delimits science.


[17] I submit that for Lutherans, neither of these proposals seems adequate. What I suggest is that the problem originates in isolating “nature” and treating it as an autonomous entity. Lutherans, I will argue, would seek to enrich the modern concept of “nature” by situating it in the context of a pre-modern notion of “creation.” The separation of “nature” and “creation” both diminishes “nature” and renders it a sterile and inert, cold and lifeless, field of inquiry, while at the same time displacing ethics to a transcendent domain above, beyond, and disconnected from “nature.” So allow me briefly to offer four claims as a collective point of departure for further discussion of the intersection of science and ethics.


[18] First, ethical reflection and judgment are embedded within the natural confines of creation.  But wait – isn’t that simply a proposal for “naturalizing” ethics, a proposal that has already been shown to disable ethics by confining it to little more than descriptive scientific accounts of how our moral judgments function and whence they came?  Yes, ethics is situated within the realm of nature. But nature is situated within the realm of creation. That is, the “natural” is an expression of creation; “nature” is in fact “embodied creation.” Lutherans are (and should be) comfortable with the concept of embodiment, since that concept runs in tandem with other basic notions cherished within the Lutheran theological tradition, such as “incarnation” and “sacrament.”  The incarnation of Jesus as the Christ reveals that God does not traffic in abstract ideals when God is engaged in the dynamics of creation and redemption. As far as our human engagement with creation goes, God’s creative acts are always embodied. This is also disclosed in the embodiment of Christ’s own flesh and blood in the elements delivered “for us” through the sacrament of the Eucharist. Lutherans are theologically attuned to embodiment as the mode of God’s creation made manifest; and that embodiment will embrace and articulate the ethical dimensions of God’s creation as well. So in “naturalizing” ethics, we will have placed the moral life, both its criteria and its activity, deeply within creation itself.


[19] Second, specific and well-defined vocations are natural expressions of creation. Scriptural accounts of creation make no distinction between “the natural” and “the social.” The Genesis narrative situates Adam and Eve within a garden, and within a relationship. Both contexts are created elements of God’s good work. God also assigns Adam and Eve tasks and gives them responsibilities. It certainly seems plausible to describe the conditions of life in the garden, as related by the Genesis narrative, as marked by vocational mandates, mandates that entail social and environmental obligations. If that is right, it may be reasonable to acknowledge that the establishment of “natural” vocations are implicit elements that result from God’s creative activity. Borrowing from the contemporary work of Pierre Bourdieu[12] and Alasdair MacIntyre,[13] we can regard such vocations as social practices; that is, as practices that themselves embody and convey the specifically natural goodness of God’s creation. These practices are naturally occurring social activities that are organized around the production of goods for the benefit of the community and for creation itself. They are vocations. Vocations are natural dimensions of “embodied creation.”


[20] But there may be an immediate objection at this point. Whatever the “natural” conditions as described in the Genesis narrative may have been in the garden, we are no longer living under those “natural” conditions since the Fall. That which might have been “natural” in the original creation is not “natural” for postlapsarian human beings. At least two things have changed.  First, the contemporary natural world is not the world that human persons or any other creatures were made to live in. Thus, “nature” and “creation” are essentially estranged domains. Second, human cognitive ability to assess and understand the goodness of the creation we no longer live in has been seriously eroded by sin. The result is a profound uncertainty about the reliability of our scientific inquiries into nature. If that is true, how can scientific vocations themselves be the locus for ethical reflection? How can those vocations, limited as they are, contain the adequate internal resources for moral judgment?


[21] Martin Luther had a nascent insight on this question. He was also convinced that the Fall had cognitively crippled human communities and human vocations. But there was a potential remedy: revelation, as directly provided by God. And the initial – and ethically relevant – form of that revelation was the Law. Divine directives and commandments could be the locus of the moral resources for making reliable judgments in ethically congested situations. But Luther also recognized a problem here: if the Fall had decisively damaged human cognitive functioning with respect to interpreting nature, human cognitive functioning was also decisively damaged with respect to interpreting divine commands.[14] As I have argued elsewhere, Luther gradually developed a deeply pragmatic approach to ethics, particularly as it applies to traditional natural law and divine command theories.[15] Luther understood that if the condition of sin following the Fall had fatally occluded our cognitive faculties when applied to interpreting the natural world, that same condition also occluded our faculties when applied to interpreting divine commands.  There is, Luther thought, no reason to believe that our ability to discern the implications of God’s embodied creation in the natural world was distorted, while our ability to discern the implications of God’s moral Law was pristine. Thus, God’s moral Law might provide the motivation for love and service to the neighbor, but it cannot stipulate the immediate content for ethical action in a given circumstance. God’s moral Law orients us toward the neighbor, but it does not inform us precisely on the right behavior to express in some specific state of affairs.


[22] I am convinced that Luther concluded we have no place cognitively to stand outside of the Fall, whether in inspecting the natural world or in navigating the ethical realm. With that sort of severe constraint, how then should we do ethics? What sort of moral posture did Luther himself assume? It seems to me the best way to describe Luther’s approach to ethics, one that gradually matured throughout his public ministry, is that he treated ethics pragmatically.  While Luther never comes close to offering a philosophical profile of pragmatic theory, we can see his pragmatic approach to difficult moral situations on the ground, as with his comments in Admonition to Peace during the 1525 Peasant’s Uprising, or in connection with the marital problems facing Philip of Hesse, when in 1539, Luther pragmatically (and reluctantly) sanctioned Philip’s bigamous marriage. Luther increasingly handles public, ethically congested situations as problem-solving episodes, in which practical reason needs to be deployed within the framework of theological (or, in relevant cases, political or academic or medical) expertise. That expertise is embedded within specific practices (i.e., vocations), and it is within the dynamics of those practices that moral judgments are most appropriately crafted pragmatically, where the resources for solving ethical problems can be found and expressed by those who are mastering the practice.


[23] In the end, it seems that Luther has learned that Christians can be never be situated outside the confines of the Fall, and that adequate moral discernment always takes place under the fractured conditions of sin.  What is true for scientific inquiry is likewise true for ethics: we stand in no privileged cognitive position.  The best we can do is to recognize the various tasks and responsibilities into which God has placed us – our vocations – and draw on the internal goods of those vocations to instruct us as to the best way pragmatically to resolve the ethical issues that confront us in our private and public lives as Christians.


[24] This brings me to the third claim: the locus of moral knowledge is embodied in the practices of those vocations, and science is one of those vocations established within creation.   Bourdieu and MacIntyre have each demonstrated that social practices – vocations – possess internal goods, which are those virtues which must be acquired by the individual, and the community, for the achievement of moral excellence in the conduct of a specific practice. Morality that is not anchored within a given vocation, that is not located at the heart of a social practice where it can be absorbed by those engaged in the practice, runs the risk of being a disembodied morality, a disincarnate ethic, a normative form of life untethered to creation.


[25] To paraphrase MacIntyre’s definition of a social practice, a vocation is “any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.”[16] By this definition, science, and the projects that revolve around scientific inquiry, qualify as a social practice — as a vocation.


[26] The fourth and final claim is that the first place to seek the moral knowledge that informs and directs ethical deliberation within human communities is embodied in created vocations. As we saw with the researchers at the University of Michigan mentioned above, this leads to the conclusion that the resources for ethical examination of scientific explorations and examinations may lie inside the framework of the vocation of science. This is a type of “naturalized ethics.”  But it is “naturalized” within the structure of creation. In this way, “nature” is understood as one dimension of God’s good creation.


[27] But this raises a further puzzlement, and a vital question:  from where do the ethical resources emerge for providing an accurate and effective external critique of science, a critique that may focus on the larger social and economic impact of scientific and technological advances? If the moral desiderata of science are tied to the internal goods of scientific practice, and therefore primarily available to only those who are participants in that practice, how will critical assessments of scientific endeavors on, say, social and economic justice within the larger community, be performed?


[28] There are two preliminary responses to this question, responses that must be more fully developed and analyzed. First, as noted in the case of the University of Michigan researchers, it is those participants who are fully engaged in the given vocation who often apprehend most quickly the social and economic implications of their practice as defined by the internal goods specific to that practice. In short, the internal goods for each vocation include normative criteria for assessing the moral dimensions of the social and economic impact of the activities of that vocation. Those practitioners who belong to a particular vocation are in the best position to provide an initial judgement on the ethical implications of their work as it may affect the public domain. Second, it is important to recognize that, while the achievement of becoming a moral person within a given vocation depends upon being a participant in that vocation, knowledge of the contours and content of the internal goods of a specific vocation can be, and generally is, a matter of public awareness. Those who are not participants in a given vocation are typically aware of when those who are participants have failed to meet the criteria of the internal goods of that vocation. External critique depends on that knowledge, and such knowledge usually is, and should be, a matter of widespread general cognizance. When a physician, or educator, or scientist, violates an ethical rubric, we often say something like, “That person should have known better.” How could she have “known better”? Because that person had immediate access to the internal goods of the social practice in which she was engaged and because, in the most general sense, knowledge of those goods is a matter of public discernment. This is the case for those immersed in the practice of science no less than for other vocations.


[29] It might be said that the normative ethical criteria pertaining to science – the internal goods — are embodied within the vocation of science itself,  that the vocation of science is embodied within the natural world of social practices, and that the natural world of social practices is an embodiment of God’s good creation. To take an example: when Lutherans are confronted with an urgent practical problem like climate change, Luther would likely advise us to utilize practical reason in a pragmatic way to foster a solution to that problem. But utilizing practical reason in the context of this issue means relying on the wisdom of those immersed in the vocation of climate science, and it means fashioning an ethical response that takes seriously how the internal goods of that vocation can inform our own moral judgments. Since God’s good creation is threatened by the sinful habits of human consumption, then the immediately important ethical response is directed to that threat and to those habits as problems to be pragmatically addressed.  This is not an opportunity to simply invoke God’s moral Law or to endeavor to eradicate the sin (which will fail anyway, according to Luther).  Is this a satisfactory conclusion?  Not completely, not finally, not absolutely. But it may be the best we can do under the conditions of sin and the Fall.


[30] In the end, all of this may turn out to be a very old, and a very new, place to start a conversation on the relationship of science and ethics.







[1] See, for example, Marc D. Hauser, Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong (New York: HarperCollins, 2006); Matt Ridley, The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation (New York: Penguin Books, 1998); Robert Wright, The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are (New York: Vintage Books, 1994).


[2] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, Second Edition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003).


[3] Mark Johnson, Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993).


[4] Mark Johnson, Morality for Humans: Ethical Understanding from the Perspective of Cognitive Science (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015).


[5] Johnson, Morality for Humans, 193.


[6] Michael Sandel, The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007).


[7]Sandel, The Case Against Perfection, 85-100.


[8]Yuval Levin, “The Moral Challenge of Modern Science,” The New Atlantis, Number 14, Fall 2006, 32-46.


[9]Levin, “The Moral Challenge of Modern Science,” 43, 46.


[10] See, for example, MIT Technology Review, “Meet the ‘Artificial Embryos’ Being Called Uncanny and Spectacular.”  (accessed December 31, 2019).  Also,  ScienceDaily, “Scientists generate key life event in artificial mouse ‘embryo’ created from stem cells.”  (accessed December 31, 2019).  Also, Frontiers in Pharmacology (U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health), “The Potential of Nanotechnology in Medically Assisted Reproduction.”  (accessed December 31, 2019).


[11] MIT Technology Review, “Artificial Human Embryos Are Coming, and No One Knows How to Handle Them.”  (accessed December 31, 2019).


[12]Pierre Bourdieu, Practical Reason (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998);  The Logic of Practice (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1990);  Outline of A Theory of Practice (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1977).


[13]Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Third Edition (South Bend, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007).


[14] See, for instance, Luther’s 1517 Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, Thesis 36: “For ignorance of God and oneself and good works is by nature always invincible.”  Martin Luther, “Disputation Against Scholastic Theology,” in Selected Writings of Martin Luther, ed. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967, 1: 35-42, seriatim.  See also Luther’s 1535 Galatians commentary, where he writes, “For albeit that all men have a certain natural knowledge implanted in their minds (Rom. Ii. 14), whereby they naturally perceive that they ought to do unto others as they would have others do unto them. . .yet notwithstanding man’s reason is so corrupt and blind through the malice of the devil, that it understands not this knowledge wherewith it is born; or else, being admonished by the Word of God, it understands it, and yet (such is the power of Satan) knowingly neglects and condemns it.”  (Martin Luther, A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, text prepared by Philip Watson  (Cambridge, UK: James Clarke, 1953, 1978), 66.


[15] Thomas D. Pearson, “Martin Luther’s Pragmatic Revision of Traditional Natural Law Theory,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics, Volume 10, Number 4, April, 2010; and “Luther’s Pragmatic Appropriation of the Natural Law Tradition,” in Natural Law: A Lutheran Reappraisal (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2011), 39-63.


[16]MacIntyre, After Virtue, 178.

Thomas D. Pearson

Thomas D. Pearson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, Texas.