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Moral progress harder to come by than scientific progress

Anderson edited "Leveraging: A Political, Economic and Societal Framework" (Springer, 2014), has taught at five universities and ran for the Democratic nomination for a Maryland congressional seat in 2016.


One of the great tests of our time — the scientific discovery of Covid-19 vaccines versus the morally irresponsible conduct of tens of millions of Americans who for many months before we had the vaccines refused to wear masks and maintain social distance — illustrates a basic axiom of human life: Science and technology are always getting better, but moral relations are not.

You need only compare the second half of the 19th century with the first half of the 20th century to prove the point. Is there really a good argument to be made that moral relations in the world improved in the first half of the 20th century when European civilization was the source of two world wars ,which led to the death of more than 100 million people?

There was plenty of good in the first half of the 20th century also — including the Progressive Era in the United States, where Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Congress reined in U.S. industry in order to root out monopolies, created markets that were more fair, and protected consumers from illness and death caused by poor practices in the production of food. But if you add up the good and the harmful in the United States and around the world, it is hard to say with a straight face that moral relations overall improved over the previous half-century.

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Science and technology, on the other hand, are always improving — whether it is the plow becoming the steam engine or the steam engine becoming electricity. Even electricity becoming nuclear power is progress. When nuclear power was used not to power homes and factories but intentionally to harm people in World War II, the quantum mechanics and the technology that were used to build the bombs were not themselves responsible for the weapons of mass destruction that killed close to 200,000 civilians. Moreover, President Harry Truman claimed the atomic bombs would end the war.

Science and technology are value-neutral. Science tells you how the world works — physics, chemistry, biology, all of the natural sciences are not infused with moral values. Science enables you to explain and predict features of reality; technology enables you to harness scientific truths to create products that do things, be they bombs, medicine, MRI machines, cars, ovens, airplanes, laptops, air conditioners, iPhones, tractors, solar panels or electric wheelchairs.

Democracy took off after the end of the Cold War. Yet democracy has been in decline around the world in the last 10 years, in Turkey, in Hungary, in China, in Russia and in the United States of America. Indeed, in the United States the most basic part of our democratic system is under threat, namely elections themselves.

The scorecard of science and technology versus moral relations reminds us that discovery demands less from us than doing what we ought to do from the moral point of view as a body politic and as individuals. A morally callous, even vicious, person can make a scientific discovery, even one that took 20,000 hours of dedication. But a morally callous, certainly vicious, person cannot treat others with respect, cannot promote gender equality, and cannot work to eliminate economic inequality. Likewise, a society that can use science to produce any number of new forms of technology may fail to achieve basic values of freedom, equality and community.

Science and technology are critical to the survival of humanity and the improvement of human life. But only by making sound moral judgments, and only by working cooperatively with other people we respect and treat with dignity, can we use science and technology for the good.

It is not a matter of choosing science and technology or the good and the just. We need both. But it is not a defect of the good and the just that they do not always progress in the same way that it is not a defect of a refrigerator that it does not make toast. Instead, this fact is a reminder that free, conscious human decisions, made alone and together, are necessary for moral relations to improve.

Whether we are trying to eradicate the coronavirus in all of its variants worldwide, confront the climate crisis, achieve racial equity, rebuild our economy or protect our system of elections, it is best to remember that moral progress is harder to come by than scientific progress.

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