Unscientific Ethics: Science and Selective Ethics

By Benatar, David | The Hastings Center Report, January-February 2007 | Go to article overview

Unscientific Ethics: Science and Selective Ethics


Benatar, David, The Hastings Center Report


Biological, medical, and other scientists have a much greater interest in ethics than they once did. Many scientists speak of the importance of conducting science in an ethical way and for ethical purposes. They commonly proclaim that science should not advance unfettered by moral constraints and without ethical evaluation. Accordingly, scientific journals and books are increasingly interested in including articles providing ethical analysis of scientific matters. All things considered, this development is welcome, not only because attention to ethical issues is important, but also because the trend feeds itself--it causes more and more people to become interested in and give attention to ethical issues.

The problem with trends is that they are often not very reflective. They are not created by vast numbers of independently minded people coincidentally having the same idea. Instead, they emerge as increasing numbers of people emulate others. When the trend is greater attention to ethics, the danger is that the interest will not always be genuine. In other words, when all those around one are professing the importance of ethics, there is (often unconscious) pressure on one to offer similar professions, whether one has a deep commitment to the idea or not. As a result many people will pay mere lip service to ethics, often without realizing that they are not actually behaving any differently.

It is not surprising that many scientists (like many nonscientists) lack a deep commitment to the ethical evaluation of their work. Because current orthodoxies about what is ethical in science are probably not all correct, a thoroughgoing ethical evaluation of scientific practice would at least sometimes be critical--and sometimes extremely critical. Naturally, scientists involved in widely accepted but ethically problematic practices would be deeply threatened. Their options would be (a) to abandon the problematic practices, (b) to abandon ethics, or (c) to select an alternative ethical evaluation that endorses the practices. The first choice would threaten their livelihood or professional development; the second, their sense of themselves as scientists of integrity. The upshot is that the third option is psychologically easiest, especially given the human capacity for self-deception.

The problem, however, is that selective ethics is bad ethics for just the same reasons that selective science is bad science. In ethics, as in science, the evidence must precede the conclusion. In other words, those interested in truth, whether scientific or ethical, cannot first accept a view and then selectively muster evidence in support of it. An open mind is a requirement not only for good science but also for good ethics. Although one might approach a question with a hypothesis in mind, to assume the truth of that hypothesis is to put the epistemic cart before the evidentiary horse. Instead, one must consider the evidence--whether empirical, conceptual, or logical--with an open mind and follow wherever it leads.

Precisely because selective ethics is bad ethics, those engaging in it are psychologically impelled to avoid appearing to themselves and others as being selective in their ethics. To preserve their image of themselves and others' image of them as committed to honest ethical evaluation, their selectivity must be coupled with the appearance of impartial responsiveness to the evidence and arguments. In other words, selectivity in ethics is well camouflaged. There is thus something instructive about indicating its presence when one catches sight of it. Just because it is not usually seen does not mean that it is not there. To this end, I turn now to a particularly brazen case from my own experience.

I was approached to write a chapter on "Ethical Considerations in the Use of a Primate Model in Biomedical Research" for a volume in a series of handbooks for those experimenting on animals. The editor of the volume explained that the book was intended for biomedical researchers and that she wanted a chapter discussing "the philosophical aspects of using a primate in such research.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Unscientific Ethics: Science and Selective Ethics
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.