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Science and ethics shouldn't be muddled (or, advice for Jesse Bering).

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Jesse Bering's advice column is provoking some strong reactions. Most of these suggest that his use of evolutionary psychology in his answers lacks a certain scientific rigor, or that he's being irresponsible in providing what looks like scientific cover for adult men who want to have sex with pubescent girls.

My main issue is that the very nature of Jesse Bering's column seems bound to muddle scientific questions and ethical questions.

In response to this letter:

Dear Jesse,

I am a non-practicing heterosexual hebephile—and I think most men are—and find living in this society particularly difficult given puritanical, feminist, and parental forces against the normal male sex drive. If sex is generally good for both the body and the brain, then how is a teen having sex with an adult (versus another teen) bad for their mind? I feel like the psychological arguments surrounding the present age of consent laws need to be challenged. My focus is on consensual activity being considered always harmful in the first place. Since the legal notions of consent are based on findings from the soft sciences, shouldn’t we be a little more careful about ruining an adult life in these cases?

—Deep-thinking Hebephile

Jesse Bering offers:

  • The claim that "there are few among us who aren’t the direct descendents of those who’d be incarcerated as sex offenders today".
  • A pointer to research on men's measurable penile response to sexualized depiction of very young teenagers.
  • A comment that "there’s some reason to believe that a hebephilic orientation would have been biologically adaptive in the ancestral past".
  • A mention of the worldwide variations in age-of-consent laws as indicative of deep cultural disagreements.
  • A pointer to research that "challenge[s] the popular notion that sex with underage minors is uniformly negative for all adolescents in such relationships" (although it turns out the subjects of this research were adolescent boys; given cultural forces acting on boys and girls, this might make a difference)
  • An anecdote about a 14-year-old boy who got to have sex with a prostitute before being killed by the Nazis in a concentration camp, and about how this made his father happy.
  • A comment that "Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin relocated to French Polynesia to satisfy his hebephilic lust with free-spirited Tahitian girls" in the 19th Century, but that now in the 21st century there's less sympathy for this behavior.

And this is advice?*

Let's pick up on just one strand of the scientific information referenced in Jesse Bering's answer. If there exists scientific research that suggests that your trait is shared by others in the population, or that your trait may have been an adaptive one for your ancestors earlier in our evolutionary journey, what exactly does that mean?

Does it mean that your trait is a good one for you to have now? It does not.

Indeed, we seem to have no shortage of traits that may well have helped us dodge the extinction bullet but now are more likely to get us into trouble given our current environment. (Fondness for sweets is the one that gets me, and I still have cookies to bake.) Just because a trait, or a related behavior, comes with an evolutionary origin story doesn't make it A-OK.

Otherwise, you could replace ethics and moral philosophy with genetics and evolutionary psychology.

Chris Clarke provides a beautiful illustration of how badly off the rails we might go if we confuse scientific explanation with moral justification -- or with actual advice, for that matter.

This actually raises the question of what exactly Jesse Bering intends to accomplish with his "advice column". Here's what he says when describing the project:

Perhaps in lieu of offering you advice on how to handle your possibly perverted father-in-law who you suspect is an elderly frotteur, or how to be tactful while delicately informing your co-worker that she smells like a giant sewer rat, I can give you something even better—a peek at what the scientific data have to say about your particular issue. In other words, perhaps I can tell you why you’re going through what you are rather than what to do about it. I may not believe in free will, but I’m a firm believer that knowledge changes perspective, and perspective changes absolutely everything. Once you have that, you don’t need anyone else’s advice.

And good advice is really only good to the extent it aligns with actual research findings, anyway. Nearly two centuries worth of data in the behavioral sciences is available to inform our understanding of our everyday (and not so everyday) problems, yet rarely do we take advantage of this font of empirical wisdom...

That’s not to say that I can’t give you a piece of my subjective mind alongside the objective data. I’m happy to judge you mercilessly before throwing you and your awkward debacle to the wolves in the comments section. Oh, I’m only kidding—kind of. Actually, anyone who has read my stuff in the past knows that I’m a fan of the underdog and unconventional theories and ideas. Intellectual sobriety has never been a part of this blog and never will be, if I can help it, so let’s have a bit of fun.

(Bold emphasis added.)

Officially, Jesse Bering says he's not offering advice, just information. It may end up being perspective-changing information, which will lead to the advice-asker no longer needing to ask anyone for advice. But it's not actually advice!

As someone who teaches strategies in moral decision-making, I will note here that taking other people's interests into account is absolutely central to being ethical. One way we can get a handle on other people's interests is by asking others for advice. And, we don't usually conceive of getting information about others and their interests as a one-shot deal.

On the point that good advice ought to align with "actual research findings," I imagine Jesse Bering is taking actual research findings as our best current approximation of the facts. It's important to recognize, though, that there are some published research findings that turn out to have been fabricated or falsified, and others that were the result of honest work but that have serious methodological shortcomings. Some scientific questions are hard. Even our best actual research findings may provide limited insight into how to answer them.

All of which is to say, it seems like what might really help someone looking for scientific information relevant to his personal problem would be a run-down of what the best available research tells us -- and of what uncertainties still remain -- rather than just finding some quirky handful of studies.

Indeed, Jesse Bering notes that he's a fan of unconventional theories and ideas. On the one hand, it's good to put this bias on the table. However, it strikes me that his recognition of this bias puts an extra obligation on him when he offers his services to advice seekers: an obligation to cast a heightened critical eye on the methodology used to conduct the research that supports such theories and ideas.

And maybe this comes back to the question of what the people writing to Jesse Bering for advice are actually looking for. If they want the comfort of knowing what the scientists know about X (for whatever X it is the writer is asking about), they ought to be given an accurate sense of how robust or tenuous that scientific knowledge actually is.

As well, they ought to be reminded that what we know about where X came from is a completely separate issue from whether I ought to let my behavior be directed by X. Scientific facts can inform our ethical decisions, but they don't make the ethical questions go away.

_______

*Stephanie Zvan offers the best actual response to the the letter-writer's request for advice, even if it wasn't the answer the letter-writer wanted to hear.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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