Science & Morality working together


Hey, I am a science (engineering) student and I have been interested for awhile now in solving social/moral/ethical dilemmas as engineering problems. For example, I think we are at a point where we can predict who is a pedophile or a sociopath using social networks, big data, fMRI, and other methods and to a certain extent I feel concerned moral citizens should have a sense of obligation or duty to help make things like this happen. unfortunately, when I talk to people about this they tend to think it is immoral or too open to abuse, etc (of those that are interested, know about it, think it’s possible, and don’t want to use it out of selfishness or greed). However, I think in part they are uncomfortable talking about a higher moral law because of the history between religion and atheism. Even though I am an atheist, I believe that on these sorts of issues religious people and atheists have a common interest and can work together for the betterment of all. Perhaps I think this way in part because I grew up in a spiritual background myself. Anyhow, how can we as human beings work together to tackle moral/ethical issues some of which relate to our survival. Things like:

ocean acidification that kills sea creatures and disrupts the food chain
predicting violence and preventing it
securing global water/food supply
predicting child molestation, murder, rape, etc and preventing it

Thanks for your thoughts!


Every tyranny starts with the best of intentions. First of all, big-scale surveillance to root out possible perpetrators makes us all into suspects, and the steps from there to rooting out political opponents is very short.

Second, what you propose is a “pre-crime” system where people are punished before they commit a crime. While on first thought this is appealing to most of us (after all we’d eliminate crime), it effectively means we start punishing innocent people. “Pre-crime” is not just a precursor to dystopia, it is dystopia.

So no, I don’t agree we should have a sense of obligation to help things like this happen. On the contrary, I think we have an obligation and duty to make sure it doesn’t happen, if we want to stay free.

But sadly, I think it will happen. It’s just too tempting for politicans, and the majority of the population will support it out of fear of pedophiles and terrorists. And the results will be worse than in former surveillance states like the DDR.


This takes no account of free-will. While I understand the desire to help people who have inclinations of this kind, it doesn’t seem to take into account that we actually do have choices regarding our actions. It seems to veer awfully close into eugenics.


I noticed in the heading of your post, it indicates your religion is Catholic, but in the message body you say that you are atheist. Clarify that if you wish.

Now to your question. One of the most serious problems with detection of criminal intent is false positives. Imagine that in a selection of one thousand average citizens, there are five future criminals. Suppose we test the 1000 people and all five future criminals are detected and justly dealt with. That’s great! Now suppose the test is not perfect and only four of the five are detected, and the fifth criminal gets off. Well, that’s not bad; we’ve just reduced the future crime rate by 80%. Now suppose the test fingers six suspects, five of whom are future criminals but one of whom is innocent. What if the innocent man goes to jail? What if he doesn’t go to jail but loses his job? Maybe he doesn’t go to jail or lose his job, but he is watched and wiretapped by the authorities. What if his wife or his neighbors don’t trust him any more? What do you think is the most likely outcome of a false positive indication? Does such a system promote the common good?


As someone who studies science and engineering subjects, your examples fall into more than one category.

  1. This is a problem for chemists, biologists and those involved in ocean fishing. What causes acidification? How are sea creatures adapting to it? Are there ways to mitigate it? Is this cyclic? Are some areas more affected than others? A global map would be helpful.

  2. Involves social science, data on incarceration by age, race and locations. Data on trends in criminal activity. Data on income disparity and its relationship to crime. Contact with some social service agencies. Getting law enforcement data and collecting current studies.

  3. This is doable but best methods need to be employed. Buying and sending food and portable shelter is one thing, but it would be most helpful to buy from local farmers and suppliers if possible. It costs money to send filtration systems like Life Straw to countries without access to clean water and for technical assistance in digging wells. Aid workers are sometimes killed and food is sometimes diverted. The local conditions need to be carefully assessed. Civil war, or border wars or even tribal wars, will hamper aid efforts and are usually not a logistics only problem. In some cases, a tax will be imposed on imported food by a local government, chieftain, or warlord.

  4. The most complex problems. This will be best addressed by collecting available data from local, State and Federal agencies. Secrecy is also a concern, along with legal matters like probable cause. Profiling methods have improved but there’s a lot of data to digest and some of it may not be available to the public since some operational methods and procedures would fall into the category of keeping this knowledge out of the hands of perpetrators or potential perpetrators.

Most murders are committed by people who know the victim(s). A study of historical trends would be needed. As far as rape, a state by state study, and a rates map, would be helpful. One would need to know the most likely conditions/circumstances, and most likely types of victims.

Yes, all human beings should work together to solve these problems. However, science costs money, development and delivery costs money, and those requiring aid, in most cases, do not have the money to afford what they need.

In any field of engineering, for example, cost is the primary concern. Whatever you’re doing is usually for profit and the end result has to be cheaper and/or better than what’s available now. R&D money is usually tight, unless you’re dealing with the military.

There are groups like Doctors Without Borders, and others, who are volunteering their time and skill. Police forces are being cut. I think a non-biased analysis of the engineered global depression of 2008 is in order, since that was a contributing factor to some of the above.

The Catholic Church does work with all men of good will.



I must object to the drastic comparisons. First, profiling does occur. Second, the fact that everything we say or write via cell phone, texting, tweeting, etc. is being monitored is no doubt partly due to claims that terrorists, and other criminals, are using the same devices for their own purposes. The surveillance state we live in should not discourage us from helping our fellow man.

This is not the DDR or the former USSR.

I think the OP is not suggesting illegal activity. The internet, like many human inventions, can be used for good or evil. This is not about eugenics either. It’s about why certain things happen and how to best deal with the examples given.



Woops. You’re correct–I don’t know where I got the genetic engineering idea from. I guess I’m just leery of the idea of taking profiling too far after reading about steps society was taking to handle the feeble-minded and whatnot around the beginning of the 1900s. My bad.


Not at this point, no. But if the plans about analyzing surveillance data to predict who might commit crimes in the future and detain them are implemented and successful, we (the West - I’m not American, but this tendency is everywhere) will be worse than the DDR or former USSR.


Nonsense. After studying the current unclassified literature about surveillance in the West, the primary change has been the use of more electronic devices and more sophisticated computer software. While it would be inappropriate to discuss all the details here, my primary point is this: once certain parameters are detected, a human being is brought into the loop. If the data points to a person or group as a threat to public safety, additional assets are brought to bear. Probable cause needs to exist.

To put it more simply: if you are not engaged in criminal activity or involved in organized crime or with terrorists groups, you can lead the life you’re accustomed to.

This is not “what if.” The reality is that there are bad guys out there and only so many people who can deal with them.



This reminds me of the tv show “Person of Interest”.

Certainly we can use science and engineering to help solve social problems. Many of the advances in technology and engineering have helped us grow more food, obtain safe drinking water, transport goods to areas where there may be shortages, etc.

Science and technology can also be used to help catch criminals. Logically enough, crimes are usually committed by criminals. Every criminal has a first crime, but to try catching someone before a crime is in progress does create some ethical problems as well as some constitutional problems. And most who are not caught for their crimes go onto commit more, and it often increases in severity. Instead of trying to mind-read who might do something, I suggest that we’d be far safer overall if we caught those who have already done something and figure out ways to help them escape their life of crime.


Believing this technology will only be used to bring down “bad guys” is naive at best. I have also studied the current unclassified literature on the subject, and there is a lot of research into “pre-crime”. That kind of law enforcement is dystopian in itself.

In addition, while you are in theory correct that we have nothing to fear unless we have something to hide, you’d be surprised at what “crimes” are actually detected through electronic surveillance. After the data storage directive was implemented in EU countries, under the popular justification of “catching pedophiles and terrorists”, the amount of solved serious criminal cases has not increased significantly. The criminals governments use to justify the surveillance are often too good at hiding their tracks. However, despite promises to the contrary, many jurisdictions have extended the directive to agencies like tax, welfare and so on, to catch people who cheat on their reports etc. And even better, since the law only demands a court order when the police needs evidence, those agencies often have full access without control! So a lot of “criminal activity” gets detected, but the vast majority of cases are petty crimes like tax cheating, going on vacation while receiving sick leave benefits, media piracy (and in those cases only downloaders - “the scene” know how to hide their tracks) etc.

In addition to the fact that the surveillance programs in force haven’t really helped detect serious criminal activity at all, there’s also the fact that improved behavioral detection through big data etc. will also enable future, totalitarian governments to easily crush opposition. This is exactly how oppressive regimes often start; through the best of intentions. But it usually ends in disaster - that’s not a “what if”, it is something history has witnessed time and again, and since we always forget history, it will happen again in the future. I fear it will be sooner rather than later - our generation doesn’t remember the oppressive regimes of the 20th century anymore, and because of that, we applaud invasions of privacy that would have caused riots just a few decades ago. It is a dangerous development.


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