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E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)
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( 'Nother Solent is this blog's good twin. Same words, searchable archives, RSS feed. Provided by a benefactor, to whom thanks.
I also sometimes write for Samizdata and Biased BBC.)
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Friday, January 27, 2006
"Technology can be the unintentional father of moral events." I had two emails from JEM.
In the first, he says:
"It's great to see you back. I was getting worried...
"It's not quite so great to return to the Science v Religion Debate, "Which Does The Most Harm Or Good?" Section, but still it's great enough to find I'm unable to resist doing a spot of water-muddying.
"Because I think both Professor Grayling and yourself are wrong. The basis of the argument is false.
"Science does neither good nor harm. Science is morally neutral. It tells us how nature works, not why it works or what should be done with it.
"Why nature works the way it does is not the province of science, but religion or philosophy. What to do with scientific knowledge is also not the province of science, but once again the responsibility of religion or, this time, moral philosophy.
"Yet science is the basis upon which technology happens, and technology can be the unintentional father of moral events.
"For instance, I would contend that the true reason for the demise of slavery over the last two hundred years is not because of a renewed or revived religious or moral sense, but the industrial revolution. Steam power and the machinery it drove made slavery economically anachronistic, so it died out through a process economists call creative destruction. All the moral posturing and wars and so forth over this was ultimately moral grandstanding. Slavery was condemned to death by James Watt and his separate condenser, but I bet he never thought that his invention had anything to do with slavery.
"Another example: Zyklon B was developed by the German chemical industry as a rat poison. It just happened to turn out to be rather effective at killing people in gas chambers, but I doubt that idea ever crossed the minds of the scientists who discovered the chemistry that made it possible or the technologists who set out to make a better rat poison. They were not responsible for the wicked use made of their invention by evil men.
"There are numerous others cases like these, but my point is I hope clear by now. There are three powerful forces at work through human history. One is that certain large trends are beyond our control; then, no matter how benevolent our intent the result may be perverted by others; and if we think we can forecast what will happen we are deluding ourselves.
"So questions of good and evil are nothing to do with science, but are for religion and moral philosophy alone. Indeed come to think of it, I'm not sure even religion in the broadest sense qualifies, as many religions are totally uninterested in questions of right and wrong -- Christianity, Judaism and Islam are rather unusual in so far as they are concerned with such matters.
"Is that all muddier now?"
In the second email, JEM replies to ARC. I'll give it a title in bold because titles help keep track of all these emails:
It was the industrial revolution that ended slavery.
An example of the kind of historical achievement of Christianity that I would defend in an argument of this kind is the campaign against slavery in the nineteenth century. An institution that had existed in every culture from time immemorial had a war waged on it. The campaign was led by evangelical Christians who stressed their Christian motivation, and the idea that slavery was wrong all over the world was only able to be propounded because it had already been abolished at home by a long historical process within a Christian culture. Several parts of the campaign - the undeclared war against Brazil in the 1850s for example, or the Royal Navy's countless cutting-out expeditions against slavers off the west African coast - were wholly without ulterior motives; were indeed obviously counter to the purely selfish interests of Great Britain...
... is incorrect. As I said:
"...I would contend that the true reason for the demise of slavery over the last two hundred years is not because of a renewed or revived religious or moral sense, but the industrial revolution. Steam power and the machinery it drove made slavery economically anachronistic, so it died out through the process of creative destruction. All the moral posturing and wars and so forth over this was ultimately moral grandstanding. Slavery was condemned to death by James Watt and his separate condenser, but I bet he never thought that his invention had anything to do with slavery."
"Indeed, when ARC goes on to say:
> After becoming rare as a result of this campaign, mass slavery was reintroduced to the world in the twentieth century by militant atheists - the communists had millions enslaved by the middle thirties; the national socialists started later but soon caught up.
He does not concern himself with two rather clear points. One is that Communism and National Socialism are more in the nature of religions than science, so in so far as that is so it was religion and not science that revived slavery. The second is that in a modern economy, slavery is economically illiterate. In both cases, it is self-evident that slavery was a large part of the reason behind the ultimate economic, social, moral and military failure and final collapse of both 'religions'.