Just because you are a scientist doesn’t mean you are morally superior.

Although we sometimes tend to think so – and this isn’t helped by scientists who purport to be morally superior by the fact that they are ‘rational thinkers’

Some scientists like Richard Dawkins appear to think that rational thought (or logical thought and sober discussion) leads to a more moral society – perhaps is does –
is he a Kantian?, does he think there a moral law which only smart people can work out? Do we create our own moral laws? – of course, as do most religions

Even though Dawkins appears to support a fluid morality, unlike Kant, he tends to blame bad things in the world on religion and indeed says to find morality in religion you have to ‘cherry pick’– but this isn’t only true of religion and implies an all or nothing simplistic kind of moral construct…

or more simply put ‘religion is bad’ and ‘science is good’

but great scientists aren’t always ‘good’ themselves

Sometimes, we tend to think that great thinkers are good people and look to them for moral direction…

But some of the greatest scientists might actually be considered ‘immoral’ by many different standards – atheists, religious or otherwise….

Einstein (who Dawkins spends a long time convincing us is an atheist in the God Delusion) was, as we pretty much all might agree a pretty smart guy and he is also often quoted for his ‘moral quips’ :

Try not to become a man of success but rather to become a man of value.

The ideals which have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Kindness, Beauty, and Truth. The trite subjects of human efforts, possessions, outward success, luxury have always seemed to me contemptible.

A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties….

which make him seem not only knowledgeable but a pretty good guy – but maybe not.

In 1919 Einstein divorced Mileva Maric, because he fell in love with his cousin, which happens; but then proceeded by almost every account – some perhaps apocryphal – to treat his ex rather poorly.

Disregarding social ties he left her to raise their children with virtually no financial support (although allegedly he gave her all his 1921 Nobel Prize money), in a what I would consider an unkind act called her uncommonly ugly and effectively robbed her of her scientific career – according to their son Hans-Albert (G.J. Whitrow (ed.)(1967), Einstein: The man and his achievements, p.19), which might be considered somewhat in opposition to being a ‘man of value’.

Some have even alleged that she helped Einstein with his theory of relativity (though there isn’t alot of good evidence for this) as he referred to his theory and work as ‘our work’ and ‘our theory’ in his love letters to Mileva, but then again as Einstein said himself
The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.

Isaac Newton was undoubtedly a great man – scientifically at least – but was not such a great guy to be sharing a pint at the pub with, as the Newton Project says (better than I can):

“Even in his maturity, having become rich, famous, laden with honours and internationally acclaimed as one of the world’s foremost thinkers, he remained deeply insecure, given to fits of depression and outbursts of violent temper, and implacable in pursuit of anyone by whom he felt threatened. The most famous example of this is his carefully-orchestrated campaign to destroy the reputation of Gottfried Leibniz, who he believed (quite unfairly) had stolen the discovery of calculus from him.”

Just because people do one thing well, and indeed with genius, means they are pretty smart about some things but maybe not about others…
Not that all scientists and rational thinkers are ‘bad’ or all religious folk are ‘good’; but being moral and being smart aren’t necessarily correlated,
as sometimes scientists like Richard Dawkins would lead us to believe.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
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5 Responses to Just because you are a scientist doesn’t mean you are morally superior.

  1. Hey girl, great post! Really enjoyable reading.

    I don’t recall scientists saying they are morally superior, esp Richard Dawkins (my hero).

    But if you say so….

    • sylviamclain says:

      I don’t think Dawkins does say he is morally superior – but he implies that we would have better morality through rational thought –
      and he spends alot of time crediting scientists as those who have rational thought….
      so by extension – I think this is what he is implying – …. we have to be careful I think (obviously)

      Glad you liked it !

  2. Akkie Bardoel says:

    Thank you for this interesting post.
    It is a very complicated question. Tolstoy famously said, “It is amazing how universal is the delusion that beauty is goodness.”
    Substitute “high intelligence” for “beauty” and one can say the same. Science results in work of great importance to mankind, and many become well known public figures and yes, then we do correlate intellect with goodness and idolize some of them…
    As you point out in the lives of Einstein and Newton, much occurred that indicates these were very ordinary guys, not sterling characters, aside from their genius in math and physics.
    Einstein even tried to get his cousin’s young daughter, a teenager, to marry him, before agreeing to take the mother!
    I don’t know anyhting about Dawkins. But I have learned that there are many kinds of intelligence and that an awareness of human issues, morality, ethics, concern for the Good, Truth (outside of science) and Beauty are not always closely correlated with an intense dedication to pursuing scientific truth!!
    Did those guys in the desert at La Alamos in 1942, really havethe best interests of mankind at heart, or were they blinded by the passionate pursuit of solving a uniquely devastating science problem?
    Many of them afterwards were deeply troubled by what they had done.

    • sylviamclain says:

      maybe not in LA 1942 – but then again it was a different time…. i think they felt like they were in a race, – also, not that I am condoning weapons of mass destruction, but we have alot of benefits from the Manhattan Projects – the labs, nuclear power, neutron scattering, radiotherapy isotopes, the list goes on. its hard to define these things as ‘bad’ or ‘good’

  3. T Gryder says:

    Hmmm. You have pretty much demonstrated that being brilliant is no guarantee that you won’t be asinine at least a few times in your life. In my tiny life I would say that some of the most moral people I have known have possessed the dullest of intellects.

    I guess I hadn’t been troubled too much with the notion that smarts necessarily leads to morality. I bet if you were to explore the thinking of some notorious bad guys of history you’d find that one can think rationally to a great number of horribly immoral conclusions. The issue of morality hinges not so much on one’s intelligence or ability to be logical as it does on one’s awareness, consciousness, ability to see out of one’s own tiny reality and into the realities of others. People with plenty of functioning brain circuits may have an advantage in being able to conceptualize other ways of being, but that is no guarantee that they will actually do it and respect those other ways of being.

    And then there is the whole question of what is moral. Big question, that. Serving the greater good? Then you end up with quandries like how many people should you kill to stop the killing? It is relatively easy to know what is moral on a small, day to day scale, but it is much difficult to make moral decisions for an organization, a business, a state or a nation. Every decision is a compromise of competing interests, and right and wrong are hard to discern.

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