Who matters (or should) when scientists engage in ethical decision-making?
By JANET D. STEMWEDEL - SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN
Added: Mon, 23 Apr 2012 23:46:45 UTC
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.
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