Essays from the Far East: Ethnographic Survey

This summer, my study abroad course anonymously surveyed Chinese students attending Guangxi Normal University about their religious lives and philosophical thought. Of the questions asked, two were of primary interest to me as a philosophy student: (1) Where do Ethics come from? (2) What do you consider yourself—Religious, Philosophical, Superstitious, Scientific, or Other? Prior to examining the data collected via our surveys, I had the assumption that the answer to (1) would be Philosophy and Religion; much of our course material on Chinese religious life and philosophical thought led me to believe that such values would permeate the life of those we surveyed. I would have expected ideas such as filial piety (Confucianism), non-attachment (Buddhism), for instance, to come to the fore, given the course material we have studied. My second assumption before data examination was that the answer to (2) would be largely religious, despite the Chinese government being explicitly atheistic. However, reflecting on the data has revealed it to overwhelmingly be the case that neither of my assumptions were accurate. Sixty out of one-hundred surveyed students answered that (1) science is the source of ethical values, and seventy-one out of one-hundred students answered that (2) they consider themselves scientific, not religious. This is in contrast to my assumptions, which polled in at (1) thirty students answering Philosophy, nine answering Religious, and (2) only three students answering religious. Given these surprising results, this paper is an exploration of potential reasons why these data don’t map on to my assumptions about Chinese culture, and investigate the implications of these findings. Primarily, I attempt to postulate as to why “science” is such a weighty answer in the question of ethics and belief throughout the Chinese university culture.

The idea that science can be a foundation for an ethical life is not a particularly new one. Noteworthy scientists and anti-theists, such as Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris, have been more than vocal about their assertion that scientific inquiry can (and does) lead to a more rational, moral society. Their reasoning comes relies on the fact that science produces tangible results about human welfare and well-being. Religion and philosophy, they often argue, are left to the realm of speculation. Scientific investigation yields statistics and data which, they argue, can give us direct insight into the states in which humans are most likely to flourish and, therefore, can help us optimize our society in such a way that best allows for these conditions. Sam Harris’ book, The Moral Landscape, is one of the more frequently brandished books on the front lines of those who promote this worldview, and will be a lens under which I scrutinize the data regarding the Chinese students we surveyed.

For Harris, science builds an ethics in the sense that the collection and examination of data allows for the establishment of moral facts. (For the sake of brevity, the terms “moral” and “ethical” will henceforth be interchangeably used.) This line of reasoning seems to contradict the folk psychological sense in the West that some, if not all, ethical motivations are subjective, not objective. Without touting moral relativism, Harris clarifies in his book that moral facts are simply “facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc.” Whereas much of our legal system is premised on a top-down management of people’s behavior, a lot of our day-to-day ethical judgments come from a bottom-up sequence of situational impulses. These impulses are often inconsistent, revealing how unsophisticated our ethical reasoning truly is. Harris proposes that we can study these inconsistencies, test for how we behave, and predict outcomes in situations that result in a better society for all. This sounds a lot like science—and, for Harris, is science. Yet, it remains unclear how strong the connection between Harris’ book and Chinese philosophical thought really is. In other words, it is prudent to look at the ways in which science has made itself known throughout China and seek potential connections with ethical thought.

At the pinnacle of salience for this examination is the fact that China, in the last few decades, has become one of the world’s leading centers of science, both in research and in publishing. I looked up a few Chinese academic journals, and a surprising amount of them contained both the words “science” and “ethics” in their names. This is common for American publishing journals as well. Perhaps the reasoning for these survey findings is that science, broadly speaking, requires a strong, rigorous system of ethics in place for experiments to be conducted. Particularly where humans are concerned, participants in scientific studies are required to sign a waiver of consent. Other such ethical restrictions are often, ideally, in place throughout scientific testing. I can imagine that Chinese thought easily interchanges and associates these terms, “ethical” and “scientific,” in such a way that allows for ethics to arise from scientific inquiry and discourse (i.e. a scientific inquiry is ethical, and unethical experiments are to be condemned, etc.). In other words, scientific endeavors can be thought of, in some sense, as ethical. This is one possible explanation for the findings of our survey, but seems not to fully satisfy what we’re looking to find here.

There is also the recent upsurge in the visibility of science throughout Chinese everyday life—most notably Western Medicine becoming widely accessible, and computer technology becoming popularized—which is extremely pertinent to consider in light of our research findings. These developments have smoothly integrated their way into the pockets and cabinets of many Chinese citizens, likely even more so for Chinese college students. The ubiquity of science improving the quality of everyday life, I imagine, has not only laid a foundation for trust in science, but a reverence for science in the eyes of the average Chinese citizen. It would make sense, then, that one might associate an increase in science with the increase in well-being. Furthermore, that an increase in science is an ethical step forward for society as a whole. This sounds a lot like Harris’ argument, and seems more on track, but still insufficient to encompass the entirety of the picture. It’s important to remember here that roughly 75% of our surveyed students identified most strongly with the label, “scientific.” In considering this, if science really is equated with ethics, then it isn’t too far of a jump to speculate that these students want to increase the well-being of their society through the increase of science. It seems to be no coincidence that the majority of surveyed students aligned these two beliefs.

The interpretation of the data that most convinces me comes, again, from Harris’ Moral Landscape: The investigation into beliefs. Science, as an enterprise and a practice, is not concerned with belief values of the individual (i.e. what offends me personally, the order in which I choose to care about things, etc.). Rather, science can reveal how radically wrong our thought about the world tends to be. In considering an empirical approach to ethics, the question seems to lurk in the background: What should I believe, and why should I believe it? Science, here, might actually have something to say about such speculation. As adumbrated above, science measures and reveal facts about the human mind, quantifies things such as impacts on health from new practices, etc. The lack of certainty one might feel towards determining the net effect of utilitarianism vs. virtue ethics could, theoretically, be solved—or at least aided—through scientific inquiry (i.e. data analysis). We could, in other words, test for the direct impact of vegetarianism vs. omnivorism, not only on our heath, but on the environment as a whole, etc. Science could, in this light, determine and dictate the way in which ethics are done and considered.

This is by no means a solution to the problems that the gamut of ethical study poses. Yet, examining the question of the origin of ethics in the context of Chinese culture is certainly illuminated by an examination of data and, perhaps, through scientific inquiry. The question remains: Does science have a role to play in sculpting the boundaries of what is right or wrong? Either way, I’m sure the data will bear it out.

Survey Data:

1) Where do Ethics come from?
Philosophy – 30
Religion – 9
Science – 60
Other – 14

2) What do you consider yourself?
Religious – 3
Philosophical – 19
Superstitious – 3
Scientific – 71
Other – 2

21 June 2015

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