An orthodoxy of social science is that studies of ethics should be descriptive and not prescriptive; they should describe what is without evaluating what ought or oughtn’t be. But approaching this ideal – which not all aspire to – is no easy task, especially when important cultural values are involved.
A good illustration is a recently published academic article, ‘The Negative Association Between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World’ (you can read it here). In addition to being intended as descriptive it is also critical: it compares the judgements and practices of children of faith and non-faith using the standards of ‘pro-sociality’ and ‘altruism’. As its title suggests, religiousness was found to be inversely correlated with altruistic behaviour; in addition, some religious children were found to display greater punitive tendencies than the non-religious. But these contentious findings rely on a number of assumptions. Exploring them provides a good opportunity to examine problems of the relation of values to science. Continue reading