29 Morality of Knowledge

This brings us to a range of important and difficult questions that connect our interest in knowledge with our interest in morality and social justice. We have seen that it is either impossible or extremely difficult for a society’s knowledge not to reflect the society’s own prejudices. Theories are shaped by a host of factors, and the attitudes and values of the surrounding society are counted among them. So, as a society begins to confront its own moral prejudices or skewed values, what effect should that have on the society’s pursuit of knowledge? Should the pursuit of knowledge be constrained by a society’s moral concerns? Or should knowledge be left to grow without restrictions or limits?


The German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) famously declared that science is itself “value-free,” meaning that science never tells us what should happen but only what happens. A scientist can detail the process of nuclear fission and explain what happens, but it is not the scientist’s job to tell anyone whether they should build nuclear reactors or nuclear weapons. The scientists just tries to determine what is true; it is up to the rest of society, or its leaders, to decide what to do with that knowledge.


We might explore Weber’s claim a bit further by considering the career of the German rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun. Von Braun engineered V-2 rockets, which killed thousands of British civilians, for the Nazis. He was a member of the Nazi party, wore an SS uniform, and was certainly aware that the rockets were being built by slaves in German concentration camps. Yet at the end of World War II, all was apparently forgiven as the US was keen to have him among their scientists.  One might try to exonerate von Braun as a scientist just doing his job. As the songwriter, comedian, and social critic, Tom Lehrer, once sang sarcastically:


Don’t say that he’s hypocritical!

Say, rather, that he’s apolitical.

“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?

That’s not my department!” says Wernher von Braun.


But this works only as sarcasm. Von Braun was not simply doing science under a regime that only happened to be the Nazis. Being a Nazi was interwoven with the research he was doing. Indeed, his job as a scientist was to make deadly rockets to aid a monstrous political engine. This helps to demonstrate the more general point that science does not develop in some sealed environment that is insulated from society at large. Scientists are raised in societies and their attitudes are deeply shaped by those societies. Scientists do not “leave themselves behind” when they walk into the lab but carry with them their own attitudes, beliefs, conceptions, and prejudices.


We know from history that this can lead to very biased and inaccurate science. This means that ways in which a society’s morality can distort our beliefs should not merely concern us for moral reasons but also for epistemological ones. If we are interested in learning what is true, we should be concerned about the ways in which our society’s moral values distort our knowledge. In other words, if Wernher von Braun wanted an undistorted understanding of rocketry, he would  have done well to pay some attention to how the rockets were being built and where they were meant to come down.


Objection: But that’s clearly not true in the case of Wernher von Braun. He was a true expert in rocket science, and while greater moral concern makes anyone a better human being, it is not at all obvious that greater moral concern would have made him or anyone more knowledgeable about rocket science.


This is a good point. Still, one might ask whether the push among all technological nations for more advanced ballistic weapons was informed by moral concerns or by concerns to intimidate other nations and channel public funds into defense industries. Suppose, as a thought experiment, that the push had been to design missiles that could transport food and medical supplies to distant regions, with a possibility of re-using the rockets. If that had been the objective, would rocketry have developed even further than it did when the objective was only destructive?


This consideration is not mere fantasy. In fact, once Wernher von Braun became an American citizen, he became a very strong proponent of using rockets to travel safely into space. He continued to work on projects for the US military but with greater moral reservations and far less enthusiasm. One might argue that his later work, particularly with the Apollo program, generated far superior knowledge of rocketry because the objective was not restricted to better ways to blow up distant targets but to the more difficult task of sending humans into space without killing them. That’s a lot harder to do and requires greater knowledge.


The point of reviewing von Braun’s story is to suggest that the moral beliefs of a surrounding society determine how individuals see their world, what they value in it, which projects are possible or encouraged, and which are not. Though, clearly, it is not impossible to learn more about the world even in a thoroughly immoral society, a society that is more open to dialogue and to changing its moral attitudes will allow for a greater range of efforts to gain knowledge. A free society allows for free knowledge.


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Knowledge For Humans by Charlie Huenemann is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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