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Who matters (or should) when scientists engage in ethical decision-making?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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One of the courses I teach regularly at my university is “Ethics in Science,” a course that explores (among other things) what’s involved in being a good scientist in one’s interactions with the phenomena about which one is building knowledge, in one’s interactions with other scientists, and in one’s interactions with the rest of the world.

Some bits of this are pretty straightforward (e.g., don’t make up data out of whole cloth, don’t smash your competitor’s lab apparatus, don’t use your mad science skillz to engage in a campaign of super-villainy that brings Gotham City to its knees). But, there are other instances where what a scientist should or should not do is less straightforward. This is why we spend significant time and effort talking about — and practicing — ethical decision-making (working with a strategy drawn from Muriel J. Bebeau, “Developing a Well-Reasoned Response to a Moral Problem in Scientific Research”). Here’s how I described the basic approach in a post of yore:

Ethical decision-making involves more than having the right gut-feeling and acting on it. Rather, when done right, it involves moving past your gut-feeling to see who else has a stake in what you do (or don’t do); what consequences, good or bad, might flow from the various courses of action available to you; to whom you have obligations that will be satisfied or ignored by your action; and how the relevant obligations and interests pull you in different directions as you try to make the best decision. Sometimes it’s helpful to think of the competing obligations and interests as vectors, since they come with both directions and magnitudes — which is to say, in some cases where they may be pulling you in opposite directions, it’s still obvious which way you should go because the magnitude of one of the obligations is so much bigger than of the others.

We practice this basic strategy by using it to look at a lot of case studies. Basically, the cases describe a situation where the protagonist is trying to figure out what to do, giving you a bunch of details that seem salient to the protagonist and leaving some interesting gaps where the protagonist maybe doesn’t have some crucial information, or hasn’t looked for it, or hasn’t thought to look for it. Then we look at the interested parties, the potential consequences, the protagonist’s obligations, and the big conflicts between obligations and interests to try to work out what we think the protagonist should do.

Recently, one of my students objected to how we approach these cases.

Specifically, the student argued that we should radically restrict our consideration of interested parties — probably to no more than the actual people identified by name in the case study. Considering the interests of a university department, or of a federal funder, or of the scientific community, the student asserted, made the protagonist responsible to so many entities that the explicit information in the case study was not sufficient to identify the correct course of action.*

And, the student argued, one interested party that it was utterly inappropriate for a scientist to include in thinking through an ethical decision is the public.

Of course, I reminded the student of some reasons you might think the public would have an interest in what scientists decide to do. Members of the public share a world with scientists, and scientific discoveries and scientific activities can have impacts on things like our environment, the safety of our buildings, what our health care providers know and what treatments they are able to offer us, and so forth. Moreover, at least in the U.S., public funds play an essential role in supporting both scientific research and the training of new scientists (even at private universities) — which means that it’s hard to find an ethical decision-making situation in a scientific training environment that is completely isolated from something the public paid for.

My student was not moved by the suggestion that financial involvement should buy the public any special consideration as a scientist was trying to decide the right thing to do.

Indeed, central to the student’s argument was the idea that the interests of the public, whether with respect to science or anything else, are just too heterogeneous. Members of the public want lots of different things. Taking these interests into account could only be a distraction.

As well, the student asserted, too small a proportion of the public actually cares about what scientists are up to that the public, even if it were more homogeneous, ought to be taken into account by the scientists grappling with their own ethical quandaries. Even worse, the student ventured, those that do care what scientists are up to are not necessarily well-informed.

I’m not unsympathetic to the objection to the extreme case here: if a scientist felt required to somehow take into account the actual particular interests of each individual member of the public, that would make it well nigh impossible to actually make an ethical decision without the use of modeling methods and supercomputers (and even then, maybe not). However, it strikes me that it shouldn’t be totally impossible to anticipate some reasonable range of interests non-scientists have that might be impacted by the consequences of a scientist’s decision in various ways. Which is to say, the lack of total fine-grained information about the public, or of complete predictability of the public’s reactions, would surely make it more challenging to make optimal ethical decisions, but these challenges don’t seem to warrant ignoring the public altogether just so the problem you’re trying to solve becomes more tractable.

In any case, I figure that there’s a good chance some members of the public** may be reading this post. To you, I pose the following questions:

  1. Do you feel like you have an interest in what science and scientists are up to? If so, how would you describe that interest? If not, why not?
  2. Do you think scientists should treat “the public” as an interested party when they try to make ethical decisions? Why or why not?
  3. If you think scientists should treat “the public” as an interested party when they try to make ethical decisions, what should scientists be doing to get an accurate read on the public’s interests?
  4. And, for the sake of symmetry, do you think members of the public ought to take account of the interests of science or scientists when they try to make ethical decisions? Why or why not?

If, for some reason, you feel like chiming in on these questions in the comments would expose you to unwanted blowback, you can also email me your responses (dr dot freeride at gmail dot com) for me to anonymize and post on your behalf.

Thanks in advance for sharing your view on this!

_____
*Here I should note that I view the ambiguities within the case studies as a feature, not a bug. In real life, we have to make good ethical decisions despite uncertainties about what consequences will actually follow our actions, for example. Those are the breaks.

**Officially, scientists are also members of the public — even if you’re stuck in the lab most of the time!

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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  1. 1. darioringach 3:42 pm 04/23/2012

    Intermediate agents between individual scientists and the public are best positioned to take the public’s interest into account.

    In research ranging from environmental protection, to space exploration, and medical research, scientists are guided by priorities set by the scientific leadership of our funding agencies.

    These priorities, in turn, are shaped by advocacy groups, our very own representatives and public opinion at large.

    For example, it seems to me the “gut feeling” that a cancer researcher senses that his/her work aligns reasonable well with with public interest in finding cures to the disease derives partially from the mere fact that the work is funded by them.

    In my mind, public funding implies the key responsibility for scientists is to engage with the public and policymakers when they try to assess our progress, the importance of the work, and what we expect to learn by our efforts.

    Unfortunately, we are failing miserably… and thus the resulting anti-science sentiment we see among the public.

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  2. 2. hanmeng 9:21 pm 04/23/2012

    Speaking as a member of “the public”:
    1. Yes, I feel I have an interest in what science and scientists are up to. My interest is that what they do does not harm me (although I realize it’s by no means easy for them to tell what will ultimately be harmful and what will ultimately be beneficial).
    2. Sure, scientists should treat “the public” as an interested party when they try to make ethical decisions (but again, it’s by no means easy for them to tell what will ultimately be harmful and what will ultimately be beneficial).
    3. As to what scientists should be doing to get an accurate read on the public’s interests–that’s a toughie, because there are often conflicting agendas, not to mention lunatics.
    4. Absolutely, as a member of the public I ought to take account of the interests of science (scientists, not so much) when I try to make ethical decisions. I believe in science. (How’s that for faith, Dr. Frankenstein?)

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  3. 3. Bops 10:24 pm 04/23/2012

    Sorry you failed as a physical chemist.
    The science and math behind it is fascinating.

    Feel free to place your all your trust in faith, aliens, ghost chasers, and politically foolish people. I’ll go with science any day.

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  4. 4. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 11:27 pm 04/23/2012

    Umm … are you new here?

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  5. 5. gerty-z 11:46 pm 04/23/2012

    Bops, Sorry you failed reading. What is that even supposed to mean?

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  6. 6. Psi Wavefunction 11:56 pm 04/23/2012

    My brain isn’t computationally powerful enough to comprehend any potential connection between comment #3 and post in question. Perhaps it’s because I almost failed physical chemistry twice in my undergrad =(

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  7. 7. Zuska 12:11 am 04/24/2012

    The question, Bops, is WHERE will you go with science? Obviously you need to go with science to the Land of Logical Thinking but as gerty-z noted, you are going to first need an extended layover in Reading Comprehensionville. If you are willing to go any day, then please go ASAP, and spare yourself from further exposing your idiocy to the world at large.

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  8. 8. priddseren 12:40 am 04/24/2012

    Since there is no “public” it is a ridiculous set of questions. 7 billion people on earth with as many experiences and opinions as there are people.

    Plus anyone who claims to be an intermediary or somehow speaks for the public is an even worse moron because there is no possible way for anyone to “know” the public. Yes some will claim they can take polls or observe the trends and screams of the MOB of humans but the mob’s opinion is rarely a reflection of anything but the results of the sheep we call people reacting to the ridiculous claims of some individual.

    The public is in reality 7 billion individuals (regardless of the government imposed on them or in the case of some the fools who actually volunteer to follow socialism) we are all in fact individuals and no one speaks for me.

    So how does a scientist take the possiblity their invention or some invention based on their research is detrimental to the public. Well the first thing is if the scientist is claiming his research is “for the good of the people” then I would say that is a red flag because he could not know the “good of the people”. If he is relying on arrogance as a means to dispell regional or global consequenses of his research, then again a red flag. What do I mean? How about geneticly altered crops. Such as Corn. You have some company making the claim their altered corn cant get into the wild, (yet it does get into other farms, where the sue the farmers for apparently being downwind of the pollen from the genetically enhanced farm) and then they claim even if it gets in the wild, no harm could be done. Even though they cant possibly know. Anyone here of africanized honey bees, which were only bred this way. I would guess that it is impossible to come up with criterea that would cover all possible situations in research. The red flags should go up though when the scientists is so focused on teh research he ignores any negative possibilities, when he listens to the mob, when he is listening to priests or politicians and when he things he is speaking for or doing something for the good of the people.

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  9. 9. Rev.Corvette 2:10 am 04/24/2012

    Aside from obvious public good of scientific medical research. I say you cant go wrong with science that seeks answers to some of the “big” questions such as “how did life begin” and “what existed before the Big Bang”.

    Is it fair to say that ANY powerful scientific discovery has equal potential to benefit or harm the general population depending on it’s application?

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  10. 10. rayspier 6:21 am 04/24/2012

    As most of the objects in common use may be applied to both good and bad ends the question that has to be addressed is how to regulate the use of the object, tool or new knowledge so that it is more likely to generate benefit in the near, middle and distant futures.

    In general our rules, laws and regulations are set to govern the outcomes of actions – we are not allowed to murder whether we use a gun, a hammer, a pair of scissors, a kitchen knife, a sock with a stone, a stone, an ice-pick, tyre lever, spanner, etc..Thus we do not regulate the method only the outcome of the application of the method. Even the knowledge of the mutations that change the character of an influenza so that it may be transmitted from human to human may be used to good effect in acting as an early warning system to detect changes in the virus that might cause an epidemic in the near future.

    So the question as to whether it is appropriate to ask scientists to be wary of the possible downsides of their research is to make them so concerned that all research may be considered out of bounds (One can always think of at least one application of the work that can be used to cause pain, suffering or damage when in the hands of a malicious individual.) Rather we should encourage scientists to find out all they can about the nature and workings of the world out there so that we can acquire the knowledge-tools we may use with the intention of making the world a better place.

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  11. 11. DoubtfulReader 11:46 am 04/24/2012

    Hi.

    The question is not whether members of the public have an interest, but which interests deserve protection. As Francesco Carnelutti (Teoria generale del diritto) once put it, “interest” comes from Latin “quod inter est”, “what in the middle is”. An interest is a relation between someone and something that can do that person good or harm.

    Interest, thus, is different from a “vested” interest, and is also different from a “good”. For instance, in the Roman Empire the radio frequency was no good, for it could not be used by anyone. It became a good when it became usable – but it was not something of immediate interest to everyone, simply because the technology that made it usable, albeit existent, was not widely available.

    So the question proposed concerns more than science or knowledge: it concerns the use the industrial technique is going to make of the scientific discoveries. More than try to substitute the public for themselves, scientists should understand they are part of something bigger. Their activity is a social activity, it does not happen in the vacuum. It needs financing and rules to comply with. It impacts other people’s lives.

    Peter Drucker (Management) once said business is but an organ of society. Society cannot do without business, but profit and work and management cannot do everything: for Drucker, business ethic has to do with “primum non nocere” (first of all, do not knowingly cause harm), with taking care of one’s activities impact on society. But business should not substitute government for itself. Business is not there to substitute society’s decisions with business’ ones.

    The same should be argued about scientists. Scientific ethics has limitations and cannot decide which, of all the social interests, deserve protection – and what kind of protection.

    That’s because scientific ethic is something created (at least in its large part) by the scientific community and not by the society; the scientific community is not entitled to decide by the society.

    Scientists should see the end of scientific activity, where technical and industrial (for profit or for other ends, e.g. military or political – think of a scientist working for a communist, totalitarian government) exploitation of scientific knowledge begins.

    That’s the frontier of scientific ethics. Scientists should ensure that society continues free to decide after that.

    After all, they are also members of the public, and should ensure that they can – as people, not as scientists any longer – take part of the decision process. They should negotiate with who fund their research, to ensure that the *use* of knowledge is subject to further discussion and social decision.

    It’s society, not the scientific community – but also not the technocrats nor the technical and industrial lords (capitalistic or not) who should decide which interests are to be protected.

    Thanking you for the opportunity of joining this fantastic discussion, for which I’d like to congratulate you, I’d like to add a further question, about what scientific ethics has in common with professional ethics in general, and which its specificities are.

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  12. 12. sfwendie 4:45 pm 04/24/2012

    Yes I have a vital interest. Take global warming solutions, for example: a big university discovers a complicated but inexpensive solution to the ‘clean coal’ question. They take out a patent and refuse to share it with lower tier countries unless they pay through the nose. And the countries can’t. And the solution is locked away in the vaults.

    Yes, we have a stake in the decisions. When the still infamous news that in the 1940s, US doctors deliberately infected thousands of Guatemalans with venereal diseases broke, I was apalled. I would never have approved, much less funded, much less invested in the backers who were doing it. As for the scientists, well, their morals, if not their ethics were certainly outrageous.

    I favor using pollsters on this one. Along with a careful reading of Ursula LeGuin’s very short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”

    We rely on scientist for trustworthy, objective ideas and opinions. They help shape the discourse about global warming, cancer cures that do/don’t work, the recipe for a serial rapist, or the best way to mix cement. It is not in the interest of science to blindly follow the cause du jour, but we expect it to at least examine a proposed research direction before adopting/rejecting it. And when it comes to basic science, research for the sake of knowledge, they should have free reign within the bounds of ethics – as long as the results go into the public domain.

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  13. 13. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 4:51 pm 04/24/2012

    From a reader, via email:

    It is very important that you include in your thinking the ACTUAL history of science gone very, very bad….

    JUST two cases in point:

    one, the history in U.S., Canada, and elsewhere, of scientists convincing politicians to sterilize people that scientists deemed as somehow defective, physically and/or mentally.

    two, what HItler’s Nazi regime did in the same sort of attitude to people who their scientists deemed inferior, such as handicapped persons, etc.

    THE PUBLIC HAS A RIGHT TO KNOW HOW DECISIONS ARE MADE, BECAUSE THE PUBLIC WILL ULTIMATELY BE AFFECTED BY THOSE DECISIONS VIA LAW MAKING AND REGULATION MAKING!!!

    1. Do you feel like you have an interest in what science and scientists are up to? If so, how would you describe that interest? If not, why not?

    Of course! What science does greatly affects what politicians do and elect to do via laws that regulate medicine, food and health care.

    2. Do you think scientists should treat “the public” as an interested party when they try to make ethical decisions? Why or why not?

    Absolutely! But your writer must define what is meant by “ethical”….who is making decisions of what is ethical and what is not ethical or moral to do? Are scientists going to let religious groups define ethics for them???? Who defines what “ethical” actually means???

    3. If you think scientists should treat “the public” as an interested party when they try to make ethical decisions, what should scientists be doing to get an accurate read on the public’s interests?

    Again, for crying out loud, you need to define what “ethical” actually means… is it defined by religious groups, or is it defined as something that will or will not harm individual, innocent human beings???? Of course this greatly affects every single person’s life!!!

    4. And, for the sake of symmetry, do you think members of the public ought to take account of the interests of science or scientists when they try to make ethical decisions? Why or why not?

    Absolutely, the public should take into account the latest discoveries, or we would be back in the dark ages. And, in fact, the public does take an interest in science, it always does. (Even bad science when it purportedly said vaccines cause autism!) Hogwash like that… science has a duty to clear that kind of garbage up… and it needs to report the corrections over and over and over again until even the less intelligent, more religiously-bound members of the public finally get the truth about mistakes that have been made.

    If what you posit would be actually done, i.e., no reporting of science to the public, then we might as well go back to a world where Copernicus was excommunicated by religious people for saying that we are not the center of the universe, because you can bet your life that religious groups will have no compunction to stay out of such arguments!!!

    If science is not reported all the time to the public, then the public will not know how to respond to lawmakers who want to vote an issue in or out regarding science related things. Everything, from cars to clothing to crops to medicine et al, is science-related because scientists are involved in manufacturing and testing and every new development!! Every citizen in our world has a right to know what is learned by scientific testing and development.

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  14. 14. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 4:53 pm 04/24/2012

    From reader Zythvan Xoff, via email:

    Do you think scientists should treat “the public” as an interested party when they try to make ethical decisions?

    Let us take a hypothetical example.
    A medical researcher falsifies data showing a link between autism and vaccines. It takes years for the scientific community to discover his ethical breach. Two decades after the original research, a worldwide increase in measles- possibly to near-epidemic levels- occurs among the general population, due to individuals failing to vaccinate their children due to the medical researcher’s highly publicized falsified data.

    Yes, the general public has a heavily vested interest in making sure that scientists make ethical decisions.

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  15. 15. Asteroid Miner 5:27 pm 04/24/2012

    Reference: “The Rise of Nuclear Fear” by Spencer Weart. The fear started thousands or millions of years ago with the fear of witches, wizardry, magic etc. The design of the human brain is very bad. See “Religion Explained” by Pascal Boyer.

    “The Rise of Nuclear Fear” by Spencer Weart needs “Religion Explained” as background. A lot of modern first world people do magical thinking rather than logical or scientific thinking [not all logical thinking is scientific]. That is, they think of technology and things they don’t understand as magic. That is especially true of anything “nuclear.”

    Do you really want people who believe in witchcraft to stop all progress?

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  16. 16. Asteroid Miner 5:29 pm 04/24/2012

    Reference: Sam Harris’ latest book “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values”

    “The Science of Good & Evil” by Michael Shermer

    The entire new science called Sociobiology. The origin of the universe, Earth, life, humans and moral instincts are now solidly in the jurisdiction of Science, but religionists still dispute the change of jurisdiction.

    Moral and ethical instincts: See Sociobiology or ScioBio. The Library of Congress had more than 340 books, etc on the subject of Sociobiology. Books include:

    “The genetics of altruism” by Scott A. Boorman, Paul R. Levitt.
    “Genes, mind and culture” by Edward O. Wilson

    The Library of Congress
    URL: http://www.loc.gov/

    The Brights project on ethics and morality without god. http://the-brights.net/

    Yes, ethics and morality are now solidly within the jurisdiction of science. That means that ethics and morality are no longer in the jurisdictions of religion and philosophy. Ethical Engineering will soon be a mathematical branch of engineering with ethical equations.

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  17. 17. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 5:33 pm 04/24/2012

    Probably, though, there’s a way to take account of people’s interests (including what would support their continued health, autonomy, and flourishing) without necessarily accepting or endorsing all of their beliefs. (We definitely try to do this with the very young, or with people who are mentally impaired.)

    Does this mean that science, in taking account of the public’s interests, might find it appropriate to be somewhat paternalistic at various junctures? Maybe. (For example, you wouldn’t bring back trepanation just because of popular demand, I reckon.)

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  18. 18. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 7:25 pm 04/24/2012

    From yet another reader, via email:

    Do you feel like you have an interest in what science and scientists are up to? If so, how would you describe that interest? If not, why not?

    Yes, I want to know and have a keen interest. I would like to determine for myself whether their work is beneficial, or detrimental, to me and my family no matter the discipline.

    Do you think scientists should treat “the public” as an interested party when they try to make ethical decisions? Why or why not?

    Yes, especially if they are attempting to determine ethical decisions. And this should be Open Source, available for all to construe for ourselves.

    If you think scientists should treat “the public” as an interested party when they try to make ethical decisions, what should scientists be doing to get an accurate read on the public’s interests?

    Scientists should openly publish on web sites, as well as periodicals and traditional formats. Perhaps the national governments, UN, or some (non-biased) third party organization (NGOs), could provide the outlet for the public. Depending on the subject, or reaction to the subject, at least three to four months for comment; and perhaps more time if volumes of critiques are received with a methodology to count / log, and /or revise one’s comments.

    And, for the sake of symmetry, do you think members of the public ought to take account of the interests of science or scientists when they try to make ethical decisions? Why or why not?

    Yes. It is important to understand, or take into account, how and why scientists came up with their determination of an ethical decision. While portions of the public may not agree, their disagreement(s) will be tempered appropriately, instead of from ignorance, or combativeness.

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  19. 19. sfwendie 10:56 pm 04/24/2012

    Oops! I forgot an element in my example of public funding for a university study on clean coal.

    Most university research is a mix of public/private funding. Suppose (ENRON) funded 70% of the research and demands the results be given to it in toto, and then refuses to publish them? I was reminded of this by certain studies carried out at University hospitals investigating the effects of drugs.

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  20. 20. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 11:42 pm 04/24/2012

    From reader Jonathan J. Dickau, via email:

    1. Do you feel like you have an interest in what science and scientists are up to? If so, how would you describe that interest? If not, why not?

    Yes; absolutely! I’m into the frontiers of human knowledge in diverse fields, and like yourself I also want to know about the mindset of scientists, and especially their views on what fosters and promotes innovation and discovery – serving to stretch our horizons and promote progress.

    2. Do you think scientists should treat “the public” as an interested party when they try to make ethical decisions? Why or why not?

    Yes; absolutely, but with a caveat. The fruits of scientific progress will affect the public, like it or not, and unless their interests are included somehow, one’s ethics are compromised or perhaps even non-existent. Conversely; public opinion is an entirely different matter, and it is therefore more ethical to tell the truth about issues like global warming, if it is your informed opinion that concerns are legitimate, without regard to how the public is likely to respond.

    3. If you think scientists should treat “the public” as an interested party when they try to make ethical decisions, what should scientists be doing to get an accurate read on the public’s interests?

    Consult conscience in matters where you think the public is potentially endangered by technological advancements and breakthroughs in science, and do your own research about those affected, rather than trusting the media to deliver public opinion.

    4. And, for the sake of symmetry, do you think members of the public ought to take account of the interests of science or scientists when they try to make ethical decisions? Why or why not?

    Absolutely! It is plainly impossible to make ethical decisions without accurate knowledge. In today’s world, those exploring the frontiers of Science may be the only one’s well-informed enough to know what is really going on, in some areas of endeavor, and even then a colloquium of experts is often needed to crack some modern problems.

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  21. 21. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 2:09 pm 04/25/2012

    From reader Steven M. Ouellette, via email:

    I had more of a meta-answer than a direct answer…

    In the program in which I teach, we have a popular course called, “Ethical Decision-Making in Business.”

    I think it would be helpful to go back to the basics when examining the question of scientists and the public.

    If one subscribes to the virtue ethics approach, the public is only considered as part of the training of your internal moral compass, so your decision here is primarily based on weighing those things you think are right or wrong, and thus the public as such is not considered. “Do I think it is right to perform experiments on fetal cells?” The weakness: the road to hell is paved with good intentions…

    If one subscribes to the consequentialist approach, then you are faced more with the problem your posting identifies. In this case, I would need to try to predict future consequences from my research. “Do I predict that the greatest good will be served by my experiments on fetal cells?” Of course, the weakness here is that we are notoriously poor at predicting future consequences of anything.

    Or one could subscribe to the deontological approach and ask what your duties, obligations, and principles would drive you to do. “Do I have a duty or obligation to perform experiments on fetal cells?” Of course, duty can lead one in horrific directions as well, as Kant’s categorical imperative would lead one to conclude that lying is always bad, and thus to tell the truth about the Jew hidden in your house when asked by the Nazi.

    Finally, I prefer the ranked-principles approach, where previous to the question arising, I identify principles that are important to me and rank-order them. As I find new principles, I add them to the list. Then when confronted with an ethical dilemma, I can use this list to find the governing set of principles and use them to craft my response. This is similar to your “vector” analogy. “While I believe that live cells should be treated with dignity, I have a higher principle which is to help people in need, therefore since my work on fetal cells is intended to help people, it has the higher priority.” This is kind of a combination of virtue, consequentialist, and deontological approaches, I guess.

    Anyway, my point is that what appears to be a confusing set of conflicting priorities is made simpler if you frame the discussion with these approaches and show the strengths and weaknesses of each heuristic. This gives the student some “handles” to latch on to.

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  22. 22. scharch 6:27 pm 04/26/2012

    My answer to #2/3 is, basically, no. But I do have a moral obligation to consider all possible consequences of my actions from a deontological perspective.
    https://whocareswhere.wordpress.com/2012/04/26/research-ethics-are-not-utilitarian/

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  23. 23. DJH0478 4:50 pm 04/29/2012

    The public “interest” should never be taken into consideration when making ethical decisions (By the “public” I assume you mean public majority), for the following reasons,

    A. History (especially recent History) has shown the public be an ill-informed irrational extremist. I could site hundreds of examples from abortion and torture to lead in electronics.
    B. The “public” is impossible to define. As an example, imagine a deadly disease that only affected individuals of a Middle Eastern descent. If we defined the “public” as the “American public” due to funding and research being by America, then the “public” would most likely have no interest in a cure (especially just prior to 9/11). There may even be more “interest” in promoting the disease than curing it. So do we then change the definition of the “public” to include those that do not provide funding? If so does that change the outcome? The overwhelming worldwide sentiment is fairly anti-middle eastern.
    C. Special consideration should never be given to anyone based on financial interests.

    That being said, the impact on the public should always be considered when making ethical decisions and should be the highest magnitude vector in the decision making process.

    To answer question 4, the public should be more interested in science as they should be about politics, myself included. But unless you put it into an American Idol format I find that highly unlikely.

    Link to this

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