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RATIONALISM, EMPIRICISM, AND MORALITY

The intellectual clash between empiricism and rationalism creates a dilemma for all social scientists. Empiricism holds that people learn their values and that values are therefore relative. I consider myself an empiricist, but I accept the rationalist idea that there are universal truths about right and wrong.

I’m not in the least interested, for example, in transcending my disgust with, or taking a value-neutral stance about genocide in Germany of the 1940s, or in Cambodia of the

1970s, or in Bosnia and Rwanda of the 1990s, or in Sudan in 2010. I can never say that the Aztec practice of sacrificing thousands of captured prisoners was just another religious practice that one has to tolerate to be a good cultural relativist. No one has ever found a satisfactory way out of this rationalist-empiricist dilemma. As a practical matter, I recognize that both rationalism and empiricism have contributed to our current understanding of the diversity of human behavior.

Modern social science has its roots in the empiricists of the French and Scottish Enlightenment. The early empiricists of the period, like David Hume, looked outside the human mind, to human behavior and experience, for answers to questions about human differences. They made the idea of a mechanistic science of humanity as plausible as the idea of a mechanistic science of other natural phenomena.

In the rest of this chapter, I outline the assumptions of the scientific method and how they apply to the study of human thought and behavior in the social sciences today.

 
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