Unscientific Ethics: Science and Selective Ethics

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

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