The Moral Basis of Forensic Science

At the site of the Murrah Federal Building Memorial in Oklahoma City. photo courtesy of meltedplastic via flickr.com
At the site of the Murrah Federal Building Memorial in Oklahoma City.
photo courtesy of meltedplastic via flickr.com

I have worked in forensic science for almost all of my professional career – approaching twenty years.   While my work is in the lab, I have been to homicide scenes and methamphetamine labs, arson scenes and officer-involved shootings.  In the chemistry lab I have worked thousands of cases involving illegal drugs and impaired driving.  Many of the impaired driving cases were wrecks in which

people were killed.  In the processing of crime scenes and in the analysis of evidence in the lab, I am very aware that the work that I am doing is impacting someone’s life.  The reason that the evidence is in the lab is because someone has allegedly done something wrong.  My job is to analyze evidence to help the investigator, attorney, judge or jury determine if in fact someone did something wrong.

Some may argue that forensics is not based on concept of right versus wrong, but on determining if an action was legal versus illegal.  Evidence is only analyzed if there is suspicion of a specific law being broken.  However, the concept of law is based on what people should and should not do – right versus wrong.  And since forensic science is the application of science to the law, forensics is also based in right versus wrong.

image courtesy of Ariane Middel via flickr.com
image courtesy of Ariane Middel via flickr.com

To test this idea, how do you respond to the following activities.  Visualize them happening to you or to the people you know.

  • Someone breaks into your house and takes your belongings.
  • A drunk forty-four year old man drives his pickup truck across the center line of the road, smashing into the Honda Civic your daughter and her friends are in.
  • A person abducts your child and forces them to engage in sexual acts with him.  These acts are recorded for later viewing.
  • The nursing home worker, who is supposed to be taking care of your father, beats your dad out of frustration of having to keep changing the bedding.

How do you respond emotionally as you play these scenes in your head?  Were you angered?  Maybe saddened with the thought of your loved ones suffering, or the loss you would (or perhaps have had to) endure.  We respond emotionally to these types of activities because they are simply wrong.  And we all know it.

Some people insist that laws and morality are built out of evolutionary need.  In such a view, there is no such thing as objective right and wrong.  Laws or merely social rules we have made to help our species along its evolutionary journey.  If someone holds this view, then we would have no reason to respond to criminal acts like we do.  I may not like that someone entered my house uninvited, but I couldn’t hold him accountable because he did nothing wrong.  If a drunk driver killed my family, I should not be angry at him for his behavior, he did nothing wrong.  I may hurt for my personal losses, but I shouldn’t act as if I was a victim.

If there is no true moral standard, then all of our laws are mere human rules.  And as our societies evolve, we could choose to make murder legal.  Should it ever be acceptable to murder someone for fun?  Should we require people to be drunk before they drive?   Would broadcasting children performing sexual acts on creepy old men on network TV be OK?

Does an activity being legal mean that it is right?  Absolutely not.  While many actions are morally neutral, there are some that are objectively right and objectively wrong.  Those that are right and wrong are based on a moral code given to us by God.  And this moral code is imprinted in our hearts and minds.  We know the difference between right and wrong because God has made us with that knowledge.

We have laws because people do evil things to each other.  Our society wants to limit those evils, so we use law and punishment as a deterrent against bad behavior.   Some forensic scientists work to determine the identity of a rapist or murderer.  Others watch hours of video, looking for clues as to where to find pedophiles so that they can be arrested.  And others determine what drugs or how much alcohol were in a driver’s blood and whether that may have caused a fatality wreck.  In all of these instances, the scientist’s work is based on the knowledge of right and wrong.  Without such concepts the law, and forensic science, become meaningless.


Do you think forensic science is based on objective morals, or rather on the laws of men?  I would love to get your comments on this topic.   

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