What is the relationship between science and ethics? At first glance, this seems an easy question to answer – ethics regulates how we do science and what we do with science. But science can and should also inform our ethics in other areas of life.
I recently attended a conference on animal ethics, which was looking at the ethics of meat consumption (I realise that this can be a controversial or provocative issue for some people, so please bear with me). This wasn’t just about warm, fuzzy feelings about cute, cuddly animals. There was some serious science to be taken into consideration. For example, it’s not intuition but science that is allowing us to understand the impact that livestock rearing is having on climate change, on water quality and on soil erosion. Nutritional science has enabled us both to understand the combination of nutrients that our bodies need to function well and in what quantities, and to synthesise those that would otherwise be obtained through the eating of animal products. Together, these facilitate the adoption of an entirely plant-based diet for those who choose to go that route. In other words, science shows us that the developing world needs to drastically reduce its consumption of meat and also gives us the means to do that without endangering our own health. That scientific knowledge can inform the ethics of how we shop and eat.
Christians, of course, also look to the Bible and the traditions of the Church to inform our ethics. Staying with the ethics of meat eating, many would look to the first creation narrative in the book of Genesis to inform their thinking. Here, in Genesis 1.2628, they would find that human beings have been given ‘dominion’ over the earth and all other living creatures. Reading on to the end of the chapter, however, we see that this is not unconstrained. In verses 29 and 30 humans, along with other animals, are restricted to a vegetarian diet. In other words, dominion is to be exercised with restraint. To carry the example further, a person exploring this subject might then turn to Genesis chapter 9, in which God gives permission for the human diet to be extended to eat meat. But this, too, comes with restrictions. There are several other passages that could be brought to bear on this topic, but there isn’t space here to include them all. The point is that, for Christians, the resources of our faith can be, should be and (hopefully) usually are a source for our thinking about ethical issues. These resources can be brought into conversation with other sources of knowledge, such as science, to help us make sense of our world and our place within it.
When we think about the relationship between faith, science and ethics, it’s easy to assume that Christians should be using their faith to contribute to the ethics that help scientists to do their jobs well and for the common good. While true, that’s not the only form this relationship can take. Faith and science can come together, at least on some issues, to help us think about the ethics of our daily lives. I’ve given just one example of that here, based on talks I’ve heard and discussions I’ve had in recent days. There are many more areas of life where science and faith can inform our ethics – on wider environmental issues, how we look after our own physical and mental well-being, and possibly even social and economic issues. If Christians are to make ethical choices in our daily living, then we should be willing to draw on the knowledge and wisdom that comes from science alongside that which comes from faith.