Culture At Large

What science cannot say about morality

Jason E. Summers

Editor's note: Agendas Aside, a Think Christian series on homosexuality and the church, also includes pieces by Neil de Koning, Joshua Walters, Glenn Goodfellow, Josh Larsen and Nathan Albert.TC is a ministry of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. The denomination's position statement on homosexuality can be found here.

“Black people are worth less than white people,” my 11-year-old African-American mentee matter-of-factly informed me as we were working on his science-fair project. As we talked about this it became clear that he had somehow collapsed the value of human beings into a conflation of lifetime income and economic productivity such that he was certain the “worth” of an individual could be determined by imagining the cash ransom they would command if abducted. I was worth more than a black person, he assured me, but - somewhat incongruously - less than a basketball star.

Putting aside the conversation that followed - in which I labored to explain that the value of all human beings comes from their having been created in the image of God - if we were to instead accept my mentee's false definition of human value, we could easily determine that the economic and sociological data broadly confirm his hypothesis. However, in truth, those data do not and cannot reveal anything about the value of human beings.

It's particularly appropriate that my mentee and I had our conversation in the context of completing his science-fair project, because it is science that people most often turn to when attempting to make moral claims based on what is observed in the world. In no case is this truer than when trying to answer questions about the moral status of homosexuality.

It is commonly accepted that the outcome of the debate over the moral status of homosexuality hangs on the scientific question of whether homosexuality is a choice. As such, groups in favor of normalization of homosexuality in society and broader legal recognition of gay and lesbian relationships champion findings that tie homosexuality to genetic factors or neurobiology. In contrast, groups that disapprove of homosexuality and wish to prevent public legal recognition of gay and lesbian relationships dispute such findings. But, as Professor Alice Dreger reviews in her recent article in the Atlantic, the current status of scientific knowledge on the matter outlines a much more complex landscape of questions and does little to deliver a smoking gun that would serve either set of partisan ends.

As a scientist, I'm encouraged to see public interest in scientific findings, but as a Christian with an avocational interest in ethics, I find appeals to science in search of answers to moral questions troubling. Looking for scientific evidence that individuals are (or are not) born with a particular sexual identity does not and cannot address questions about the moral status of a particular sexual identity.

Looking for scientific evidence that individuals are (or are not) born with a particular sexual identity does not and cannot address questions about the moral status of a particular sexual identity.

As moral philosopher David Hume famously observed, what is does not determine what ought to be. And, more than that, Christians - who affirm that the world was created by God and that God has ordained the right ordering of things - know that, despite the ongoing effects of sin that ensure that what we observe is not what ought to be, the deepest truth of things remains not what we observe them to be, but what they are created to be. Though we may not see it now, we believe in hope that all things are being brought to perfection through Christ.

Christian ethics is teleological in this sense: it recognizes as good that which moves the created order closer toward the ends for which it was created. We misrepresent the moral vision of our faith when we reduce it to a question of whether people are free to choose to obey a particular rule - with both sides arguing whether people are “born this way” or not. It is a flawed line of reasoning (due primarily to Kant) that elevates individual choice while diminishing the power of God.

In real life, there is not such a clear distinction between what is determined and what is chosen, just as the findings described by Dreger, writing in the Atlantic, reflect. Choices are never fully free, nor fully constrained; neither purely a matter of our personality (disposition) nor our circumstances (situation). As I have previously written, “Jesus' parable of the talents advocates a richer view: we are accountable for our choices and actions (disposition), but in accordance with what we are given (situation).” What we are accountable for is becoming ever more fully what we are created to be, which is something we can never discern from our status at birth, but only our nature as children of God.

Christians must root their moral questions here, beginning with the understanding that all people are created in the image of God and seeking to understand how all of us are to work, together with Christ, towards the fulfillment and consummation of creation.

What Do You Think?

  • Will scientifically determining whether or not homosexuality is a choice also determine the moral aspect of the debate?
  • What does it mean to become what God created us to be?
  • In what ways has sin led you to fall short of God's original, creative intention?

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