In reviewing the question as to whether or not social science presents any challenge to religious morality, one finds oneself basically rehearsing most of the old familiar arguments. For example: 'Should we do what God says because what he says is good, or is it because God says it, it is therefore good?' If the first is the case then presumably there are criteria apart from God which make it good, and it these are to be found in a social science one is not challenging a religious faith particularly. If the second case holds, then social science Ls hardly in a position to challenge God with respect to an absolute morality.
It is certainly true that some sociologists and philosophers believe they can produce an ethic from social science. However, one can apply most of the 'Naturalistic Fallacy' arguments here one cannot logically derive an 'ought' from a social 'is' any more than from any other kind of 'is'. One can go further and say that in so far as one believes that one knows what is right or wrong by looking at what 'is', one has denied a possibility of choice and therefore abrogated responsibility to a particular interpretation of society. For morality to have any meaning it implies that what is proscribed must be as available as what is prescribed and some criterion has to Ik- found from beyond what 'is' in order to choose between them. In other words, even assuming social science can really tell us what is the case, an 'is' must include the- potentiality of an 'ought' and an 'ought not' if 'ought' is to provide any meaningful constraint, or indeed be a meaningful concept. By putting it this way, it is perhaps possible to see morality as consisting of an emergent property beyond the level of a descriptive (or even explanatory) social science.11
That said, however, morality is concerned with how people live together, and the real challenge to religious people that a social science can offer is to open their eyes to the context within which they try to live their lives and achieve their valued goals (on this earth). There are severe limitations to the realization of Utopia, but these are not perhaps so limiting when we have knowledge of them as when we are in ignorance of their existence. Social science can for example warn us of likely unintended consequences and make us more aware of the structural constraints which impede or could
Barker, E. 'Value Systems Generated by Biologists' Contact Vol. 55, No. 4, 1976.
facilitate - the implementation of chosen ends. An all too obvious example springs 10 mind when one considers the role of legal, |x>lit-ical, religious, scientific and bureaucratic institutions in the implementation of aid to Third World countries. There is, another, related, challenge which is neatly summed up in the opening paragraph of Reinhold Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society \ .. a sharp distinction must lx* drawn between the moral and social behaviour of individuals and of social groups, national, racial and economic; and .. . this distinction justifies and necessitates jx)litical policies which a purely individualistic ethic must always find embarrassing'.1*
What has been suggested is that social science cannot challenge any ontological theological reality. It cannot offer the content of a theology but it can survey the context. It can throw clown a gauntlet to those religions which hold a 'Many-are-the-Keys-to-the-Kingdom-of-Heaven' theology. As for a religious faith which is exclusive in providing its own description of the world, the gauntlet will not lx-picked up, but social science may raise a sceptical eyebrow in its direction.
n Nicbuhr, K. Moral Man and Immoral Swuty: A Stud) at Etfius and Politics (London, 1963).
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