Thursday, September 20, 2012

Science And Sentimentalism

Someone linked a paper in a discussion about divorce laws. It was part of a larger discussion on the role of science in moral debates. The paper is a good example of the way science is often used. The study in question looks at the effect of divorce on marriages that end in homicide or suicide and those that involve violence. Those are the only marriages they look at. Guess what? It makes divorce look like a good thing. 

But why look at only those marriages? You can assume someone is designing the study to get the answer they want. That might be the case. It is also possible that the error is more innocent. They might automatically think of these hard cases when they think about divorce law. These cases that involve violence and death are the most emotional. If you think about the issue of divorce in a sentimental way you are going to focus on these cases. 

Sentimentalism is an error in moral philosophy. It resolves moral questions by determining which side has the more emotionally compelling story. It is a common error. What happens here is the error in philosophy gets embedded into the design of the experiment. So we get a scientific result that seems to show that easier divorce laws are a good thing. That gives it credibility. People treat science as infallible at least until the next study comes along.

So why don't we design experiments based on sound moral philosophy? It is not that easy. Virtues are notoriously hard to measure. Science needs to reduce things. It needs to narrow the question down until you can produce a single variable. Morality involves irreducible things, like the sacredness of the marriage covenant. How do you measure that? If divorce is more common and more convenient then marriage will be perceived as less sacred. Fewer couples will grasp the mystery of married love, of what man is meant to be for woman and woman is meant to be for man. But what is meant to be is not something science can investigate.

Will some couples undergo more pain if divorces are harder to get? Sure. But minimizing pain is not the greatest goal in life. Some things are worth suffering for, even worth dying for. Sentimentalism does not see that. The sob story trumps everything. Science is well suited to documenting the precise source of the pain. The great goods in life remain unscientific. So it makes sentimentalism that much more credible.

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