Moralizations in science communication

Project description

In this project, we investigate how moral aspects are addressed in public debates on socio-scientific problems. To this end, the linguistic sub-project at Heidelberg University aims to develop a tool for investigating these approaches automatically. The science communication sub-project analyses the effects on attitudes to socio-scientific problems depending on references to morals. The philosophical sub-project develops a system on the basis of which the other two sub-projects will carry out their empirical research and establishes guidelines for negotiating value conflicts in science and society.

Numerous public debates are dedicated to problems that are characterized by a mixture of societal and scientific issues. Such “socio-scientific issues” arise from the fact that empirical sciences identify societal problems (climate change, antibiotic resistance, etc.) and develop ways to overcome them (vaccinations, risk assessments, etc.). On the other hand, the findings of empirical sciences raise normative questions that cannot be answered on the basis of descriptive scientific statements alone. These include questions about the social prioritization of goals, the justifiable handling of risks and uncertainties, the weighting of costs and benefits, or appropriate lifestyles. In democracies, answers to such normative questions are worked out through negotiation processes which, according to the ideal of democratic theory, are based on the ability to engage in discourse and finally lead to evidence-based compromises.

Our main focus is on how moral aspects are addressed in such debates. Two basic types of approach can be distinguished here. On the one hand, public discourse often shows that moral aspects are introduced via the questionable practice of moralism. This refers to very general ethical, moral, or social values that are unquestioned in a society and underspecified in specific cases, such as peace or freedom (“creating peace without weapons”, “freedom energies”). On the other hand, moral issues are addressed in an ethically balanced manner. Here, the moral or social value assumptions on which descriptive scientific statements are based are made transparent, and ethical criteria are used to weigh up how research findings should be incorporated into social decisions. This includes debates on the acceptability of risks for society, for example.

Using case studies in the areas of energy security, AI, and food security, we develop criteria for distinguishing an ethically deliberative discourse on normative issues from a moralistic discourse. In doing so, we build on a distinction already established in the general philosophical literature between factually appropriate moralizing (in the terminology of this project: an ethically deliberative discourse on normative issues) and the practice of inappropriate moralizing. In addition, we develop a conceptual distinction between constructive and destructive forms of moralization in exchange with the communication science work on the effect of moralization. Building on the empirical work in the project, we will establish guidelines for negotiating conflicts of scientific and societal values.


Prof. Dr. Dr. Rafaela Hillerbrand
Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)
Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis (ITAS)
P.O. Box 3640
76021 Karlsruhe

Tel.: +49 721 608-26041