Ethics group

Ethics and Science

Science is a rational enterprise, concerned with the systematic search for testable knowledge. In that sense it is also said to be an ethical enterprise, in that it seeks truth and rejects myths. However, science alone can not answer essentially moral questions -- the kind that philosophers ask; the kind that religions answer; and the kind that post-modern skeptics say can not be answered.

Even so, in an age when scientific methods have unlocked extraordinary natural power to shape life and to rain death, moral questions will be answered -- if only by default. And scientists need to consider ethical concepts in a variety of areas to maintain a basic ethical standard. The most obvious questions involve adherence to professional norms, for example, avoiding plagiarism, ensuring the accuracy of data, approaching human subjects research with respect for individual autonomy and rights.

Broader social questions about scientific ethics may also include the individual and social impacts of new technologies and the overall directions that scientific research may take. But to begin discussing these, we have to begin discussing how we understand ethics and where an understanding of ethics can lead us.

Philosopher Paul Kurtz says that the discussion should go beyond simple professional ethics and involve the use of reflective moral intelligence. This approach centers ethical values on evident human needs and interests. The approach does not rely on religion or on post-modern skepticism. Instead, Kurtz proposes a third position that bridges the gap between religion and skepticism. (Kurtz, 2007).

It is worth noting that many scientists and physicians already see their work as deeply connected to their own ethical direction in life. To serve this purpose, a discussion on ethics should neither be too abstract (in the sense of focusing on meta ethics) nor too pragmatic (in the sense of focusing on applied situational ethics). Rather, what seems most useful is to begin with a basic conceptual framework -- a tool kit, so to speak.

ETHICS involves what is right, equitable, fair, just, dutiful and/or responsible. Ethical practice is as important in science as it is in any other walk of life wtih high levels of public impact. It's especially important to emphasize ethics today since so many new technologies have created new issues to consider.

How do we assess these challenges? All professionals have specific ethical codes based on long tradition. Probably the best known is the Hippocratic Oath in which a physician vows to "do no harm." Similarly, a number of scientific and professional groups have created standards for ethical behavior in areas ranging from research design to final publication.

The consequences of ethical behavior are usually profound. Although unethical behavior may seem to help people rise more quickly in their fields, people with a strong sense of ethics find their careers enhanced in the long run. Professionals who do not follow professional ethics - even if they break no law - may be fired from their jobs.

Generally, a discussion of ethics involves ethical traditions, religious traditions and moral principles. These should be considered as tools for helping you analyze ethical problems.

Finally, a question: Can ethics be taught? Some would no -- a person is either ethical or is not ethical. We disagree. While different people may approach ethical issues differently, a complete lack of ethics or compassion is considered to be a symptom of mental illness. The sense of ethics is very much like the desire for freedom. Nearly everyone has a desire to be free. We don't try to teach freedom, but we do try to understand the legal systems that protect personal freedom while balancing the interests of others. In a similar way, ethics can be understood as a philosophical system that protects individuals and social groups.

Philisophical Traditions

-- virtue, consequence, duty and justice --

Virtue ethics: A person's long term happiness can only be found through virtue, or being good. At the center of this Greek tradition of ethics was the value of using human reason to get beyond appeals to authoritity or circular religious arguments.

  • Plato emphasized the ideal. His allegory of the cave was meant to show that we live in a world of illusion and that we must shed our illusions to find the truth.
  • Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethicsheld that reason used to create happiness (human telos) gives us moral and intellectual virtues. The moral virtues include moderation, courage and magnanimity; the intellectual virtues include art, science and philosophical wisdom.
  • EpicurianandStoic traditions of ethics followed both traditions. The Golden Mean , the idea that we should sek moderation in all things and that good is usually found between the extremes, is an Epicurian ethical ideal.

--Consequence ethics involves considering the greatest good for the greatest number of people. So, in oither words, the virtue of an action is determined by its outcome. However, taken to its extreme, the greatest good for the majority might be very bad for a minority.

--Duty ethics (deontological from deon, or duty) Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) said that we should do what would be right if everyone did it. He called this the categorial imperative.

Its not the consequences that make and action right or wrong, but the motives of the person doing the action. Immanuel Kant described the categorical imperative with three basic axioms:

  • Act only according to that maxim by which you can also will that it would become a universal law.
  • Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.
  • Act as though you were, through your maxims, a law-making member of a kingdom of ends.

Duty ethics are "rules based" approaches. Philosophers like Thomas Hobbs argued that people are not capable of governing themselves, at least without rules. John Locke and Montesque disagreed, arguing that people are basically good, and that laws provide framework for people to act in virtuous ways)

-- Justice ethics stems from the work of John Rawls, whose Theory of Justice was conceived as a new alternative to utilitarian and duty ethics. The idea is that social choices should be made in non-selfserving way from an unbiased original position or "veil of ignorance." One example would be the division of estate property among the sons and daughters of a recently deceased parent. Those who divide the property would be the last to chose which portion they would be able to inherit.

-- Bioethics, also called environmental ethics or the "Land Ethic" was a movement to broaden the scope of virtue, consequence, justice and duty ethics from the purely human realm to other living things and the web of life. Aldo Leopold was one early proponent whose book, The Land Ethic, extended the ethical sense.

For instance, in Metaphysics of Morals, Kant said that people have a duty to avoid cruelty to animals. This was because cruelty deadens the feeling of compassion in people, and not because non-rational beings have moral worth. This would have been a typical idea of the 1700s. However, environmental ethics emerging in the late 20th century would include animals and the web of life as having moral worth in their own right.

-- Pragmatism is another approach that could be mentioned. Emphasis on context, balance of principles, modern perspective; For example, Rotary International 4-way test -- Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build good will and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

Religious Traditions

--Buddhist-- Eightfold path: (Right views, Right aspirations, Right speech, Right conduct, Right livelihood, Right effort, Rright mindfulness, andRiight meditational attainment).

--Christian -- Golden Rule (Love your neighbor; Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.)

--Hindu -- Ahimsa, do no harm to any living thing

-- Jewish -- Ten Commandments (also Christian and Islamic)

-- Islam -- "Surrender" to the will of God

Note that there is a great deal of overlap and interaction between these faiths. For example, Chistianity isn't the only (or even necessariy the original) source of the Golden Rule -- it is often found in other religions. Also note that not all religions are represented here. Other major religions include Confucianism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism and Wicca.

Also, see Robert Cavalier's Online Guide to Ethics and Philosophy.

Moral Principles (usually derived from ethical traditions)

When making these difficult moral choices, there are many places to turn for guidance, including: first, your own conscience, and in addition, your religion, your professional society, your company policy, and governmental laws and regulations. According to Gerald Corey, Issues and Ethics in the Helping Professions, (NY: John Wiley & Sons, 1999), some basic principles found in ethical tradtions are:

--Anatomy / people can make their own choices without manipulation

-- Nonmaleficence / do not harm

-- Benificence / help people

-- Justice / fairness, treat all people alike

--Fidelity / honor commitment to those you serve

--Veracity / truthfulness

Ethical Orientation (personal orientation or "ultimate loyalty")

Often this is psychological: Outgoing people may be more concerned with their communities, while introspective people are more concerned with personal liberties. The question is also cultural: Eastern cultures are more community oriented, valuing harmony over individualism, while western cultures (esp. the US) are well known as cherishing individual liberties (often at the expense of social harmony).

In either case, these orientations are not mutually exclusive. Nearly all people and societies have at least some concern for both individuals and communities.

Either of the two orientations, taken to the extreme, can produce social disfunctions. An extremely libertarian society may have great inequities in wealth and resources. An extremely communitarian society may stifle freedom and initiative. Professional Ethics

In both professional and personal areas, we may talk about Prescriptive ethics: (What you should do) and Proscriptive ethics: (What you should not do).

Paul Kurtz, ed, Science and Ethics, Prometheus Books, 2007.