Ethical and Legal Issues of Social Experimentation

Ethical and Legal Issues of Social Experimentation

Ethical and Legal Issues of Social Experimentation

Ethical and Legal Issues of Social Experimentation

Excerpt

The federal government during the past several years has conducted a major series of social experiments—systematic efforts to judge new or changed social policies by their effects on a sample of the population. Such experiments have significant potential value in improving the design of programs intended to help solve social problems, but they also raise serious ethical and legal issues. The protection of human rights and values has always been difficult whenever people are the subjects of scientific inquiry. The medical, biological, and psychological sciences have developed elaborate procedures and guidelines for human experimentation, as well as a complex literature on the subject. But the effects of social policy are more difficult to control, identify, and measure, and no accepted body of moral and legal rules has been developed to regulate the conduct of social experiments.

The growing literature on social experiments alludes, albeit unsystematically, to recurrent problems, such as the risk of harm to experimental subjects, the difficulty of balancing the requirements of scientific validity and dissemination against the often conflicting need to protect the right of privacy and to inform the subjects. Such questions raise others, among them the post-experimental obligations incurred by, and the right of the general public to be informed about, the activities of social investigators.

To address some of the vexing issues of social experimentation more systematically, the Brookings Panel on Social Experimentation, whose members are listed on page xi, convened a two-day conference of experts at the Brookings Institution in September 1973. The participants, listed on pages 181-82, included social scientists who had devoted attention to the issues, government officials and others engaged in the preparation and execution of federally sanctioned social experiments, and scholars who had investigated ethical and legal issues in medical and social research. This book presents the papers and critiques prepared for the conference, re-

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