Desperately Seeking Publisher
Raising Children in Religious Traditions

What are the Issues?

Question_mark_1

What are the ethical issues worth addressing?

The value which, for the most part, we all share is that of human life, and thus some of the most important ethical issues relate to this, such as the Ethics of War, and the Gordian Knot that is abortion. We will certainly come to address both these issues – but not yet.

So these issues notwithstanding, what are the ethical concerns that matter to you?

Before throwing this open, an important yet somewhat arbitrary distinction must be made:

  • Let us consider something as a political issue if its resolution requires the involvement of political or legislative machinery, such as councils and governments. For instance, national health care is a political issue, as is censorship, drug prohibition, and military redeployment.
  • Conversely, let us consider something as an ethical issue if its central concern is the behaviour of the individual. This can in fact include political elements – for instance, whether or not to write letters of protest to the government or engage in acts of civil disobedience are ethical issues which fringe upon the political, while how one drives one’s car, or acquires one’s media, or spends one’s money can be seen as ethical matters, even though it is possible for the political to infringe upon these areas.

As a direct comparison: conserving the environment is a political issue, but minimising personal impact on the environment is an ethical issue, at least by the criteria above.

We doubtless cannot fully separate these two related fields, but I hope to avoid political partisanship for the time being.

So, caveats aside, which ethical issues are important to you? It doesn’t matter if these are trivial annoyances you happen to feel strongly about, or Earth-shattering crises of unimaginable import – all that matters is that you care about how people behave in respect to them.

Comments to this post have been closed; if you have anything you wish to add, please use the sequel post, here.  Please share the ethical issues you care about in the comments there. Feel free to debate with other players, but remember to play friendly!

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I feel that the largest and most crucial issue facing the world today is one of personal responsibility and a culture which assures us we have none.

Organized religion, big business and government all use tools of individual disempowerment to ensure a passive and responsive population base.

An ethical issue for me is the over-sexualization of media, the so called mainstreaming of pornographic imagery. People should be free to get their jollies, sure, but sex selling everything and everyone has dire consequences, particularly for young girls (oh please, won't someone think of the children!).
I suppose I generally have some ethical concerns as relates to American culture generally, but by and large many of them I can chalk up to taste, not really ethics. Though bad enough taste seems to regularly infringe on the same territory :)

My (possibly meta-)ethical question is: how should we spend/sacrifice the Quality of the now in deference to the future?
What I mean is, applied to myself, the question is should I be dedicating my life to research on green tech instead of games, even though I would be less happy doing it? (Not that I might not do it in future).
Applied in the general case, should we possibly suspend ethical considerations in the name of a more secure future? (e.g. Lebensraum!)

In the personal case, its pretty much personal responsibility (as Corvus). In the general, this is possibly a case of utilitarianism vs everything else, in the extreme choice scenario. For me, whats interesting is how the two levels relate/commute.

"How should we spend/sacrifice the Quality of the now in deference to the future?"

Both the issues that came to my mind after reading this short column fall into this category - how to help preserve the planet, which is both a responsibility for every individual and also the government in defining stricter controls for corporations.

The other issue is simply a matter of deferring immediate pleasure for either future pleasure or self-development.

in response to the comments above
is it ethical to base a decision on "quality"? which measure of "quality" is acceptable or viable or feasible? how to share and trust each others measure of it?

with regard to science
does current science (esp. computer model based *prediction*, which now dominates not only the climate field but everything from (bio)medicine to railway safety) offer some form of ethical bedrock to build on? how to evaluate scientific predictions "ethically"?
is an ethical position preferable because if has scientific support?

on utilitarian ethics
who is responsible for the consequences of predictions that turn out to be false?
is scientific ( esp. economic) prediction a "care free" business?

Should happiness or contentment be ethical goals?

Translucy:
Quality is spelt with a capital Q. This is Pirsig's affectation, but also because I am referring to my conception of a universal aesthetic metric, that goes beyond even the commonalities of humankind toward Platonic mathematics. I haven't investigated it to my satisfaction yet, but I first came across it in a quite lightweight context.
I think this is getting a little beyond the topic of the post though. In reference to my original comment - I would say that the differences, between the gains of certain actions now and the sacrifices suffered by the lack of those actions, is large enough that the measure of their relative worth to the now and the future is self-evident to most ethical people. Whether they agree with it is, as always, for them to decide individually.
That is quite open to argument, I concede.

Computer modelling! What would we do without it? As any computer scientist knows, the algorithms behind these models are completely translatable into paper and pencil maths. It's just that we couldn't possibly actually do all those calculations by ourselves before the end of the universe (as the rebuttals to Searle have pointed out). It seems unproductive to examine the utility of these tools in this context of ethics, since they are, after all, just tools. They may be highly incomprehensible [nobody alive knows everything about a single computer] but they are eminently deconstructable.
As for whether an ethical position is preferable because it has scientific support, I think that if you go to the extremity of principle or practice then the science loses a lot of authority - basically people can reject science if they want, and they do. Its a matter of belief. If ethics are relative and we all need to reach accord, then how can we point to universal truths that only we think are universal? Religions, ditto.

As regards your last few points - I don't think punitive responsibility is a very good motivator for those in high power, and I don't think personal/altruistic responsibility is a very good motivator for the rest of us. So who is responsible? Whoever choses (or is chosen) to take the blame, usually. Societies need scapegoats, 'real' responsibility seems unimportant.

Finally, scientific prediction should be impartial, as we all know. So yes, it is 'care free'. It's what you do with the knowledge you uncover that forces ethical decisions.

zenBen: I 've read Pirsig's book, too, alas I don't seem to understand what he finally wants to say ;)

Why is an universal aesthetic metric desirable? Could you elaborate on your view on "metric" in general? We seem to agree (given your studies on "flow metric" if I am not totally mistaken on browsing your web site) that "metric" in a somewhat pragmatic psychological sense is becoming increasingly important for the way people do self-reflection, try to achieve "self-progression" or maybe "self-governance" even in an everyday context?

With regard to my concern about the ethical importance of *prediction* and the *assumptions* needed to start from (the estimate of initial conditions and parameter values) I wonder if you'd like to address my questions more directly ;)?

My concern is really not so much about neither the mathematics of algorithms nor about some flavor of "chaos theory -inspired" skepticism - it's about a responsibility to live up to "The Standard" of *best available* technology/science - and this *is* a *qualitative* category indeed.

What should society, what should an indivdual do to ensure that *best available* science is applied?

I don't know if a universal aesthetic metric is desirable, it seems like the specification of one would have such far reaching effects that prediction of its consequences, even if the formulae to do so were available, would be intractable. On a simple guess, I'd say *yes* - but it might just require a fundamental repositioning of our conception of our own consciousness. Few people would embrace that.

"With regard to my concern about the ethical importance of *prediction* and the *assumptions* needed to start from (the estimate of initial conditions and parameter values) I wonder if you'd like to address my questions more directly ;)?"

I really shouldn't, I doubt I'm qualified :D
Eh, I think that with sufficient *gerrymandering* of initial conditions, where these by necessity involve assumptions, the science can almost say whatever the author wants it to say. I would therefore suggest that ethical issues should be based on results that were produced solely by engineering. In other words, if you want to base ethics on empirical studies, make sure the studies contain no assumptions. This probably excludes most areas where ethical decisions are needed. More and more 'thinkers', such as Dan Dennett, are beginning to believe that cognition will eventually become an engineer-able. I am almost convinced myself, although I still think Penrose can't be totally dismissed. This would open up quite a lot of ethics to the above approach.

As for your last question, eh, one suggestion I do have is that I don't think its a good idea putting inflexible religious-fundamentalist ideologues in charge of picking the science to be applied (naming no names, respect of the GM's no-politics rule)...but then by the GM's definitions, that description fits quite a large proportion of the scientists (can I safely name Dawkins here, not being a politician?).
I think education is key - that is perhaps a personal and societal ethical responsibility that can be improved on.

Also, I have a concern about this issue, the viral power of memes and our responsibility to control, or at least try to minimise the damage of, the effect of our output of ideas.
Again with the personal and cultural responsibility! Seems like a common thread. Central to Jack's issue too.

I'd like to chime in behind the "personal and cultural responsibility" issues, as broad as they may be. In particular: Is it okay (whatever that means) to pursue my own interests, or is it more ethical to work for the greater good (whatever that may be)? I suppose this is just a reformulation of zenBen's question.

Oh, here's an issue I feel strongly (and ambivalent!) about: an individual's decision to use drugs. It may be too difficult to separate it from the political, but I think a distinction can be made.

Some interesting stuff here... I'm going to reply to the actual issues in a post (maybe more than one), but I'll comment on some of the sidelines here.

For clarification, these are the issues I'm seeing here:

1. Personal responsibility (Corvus) - if this isn't a key issue then I don't know what is, but sadly it does not necessarily lend itself to progress through debate as it is a theoretical rather than a practical issue.
2. Modesty of Sexuality (Jack) c.f. oversexualisation of the media - this is a good issue to raise; it directly relates to tensions with Islamic cultures.
3. Justice Between Generations (zenBen) - this is another theoretical rather than practical issue. I guess I shouldn't be suprised, since this is a very theoretical blog. :) Well worth looking at.
4. Freedom in the Face of Crises (zenBen) - although zenBen relates this to justice between generations, I see this as a seperate issue. The point being: if such-and-such a crisis must urgently be addressed, how do I justify doing a job that does not contribute to the resolution of that crisis?
5. Environmental Preservation (Bezman) - finally, a practical issue! :)
6. Hedonism versus Self-development (Bezman) - this is another great issue. We may have to defer it to the discussion of Utilitarianism, though - I'm not sure, though, as I may not be able to avoid tackling the big U sooner rather than later. This might have to be the theme of the next part of the Ethics Campaign.
7. Hedonism versus...? (translucy) - again, this is about the Big U. It may be we can't do our serious practical discussions without getting this one out of the way.
8. Freedom and Drugs (Foster) - aha, now this is a practical issue. And I shall be more than delighted to talk about it.

Okay, now the sideline discussions.

There's a lot of these too, so I may have to attempt to be brief. This is not a skill I ever mastered, however. ;)

"It's what you do with the knowledge you uncover that forces ethical decisions."

This presumes that what science produces can be understood as knowledge. Science and the media are two forms of reporting - I'm not sure I can still believe that the scientific reporting has greater weight than the media reporting... the same issues of bias and interpretation apply to both, and the best of the media reporting is generally more socially useful than the best of the scientific reporting (at least in my opinion).

We should pay attention to both, but it is perhaps a mistake to see either as producing "knowledge", per se. A tangential point at best, of course.

Your central point in this case - that whatever information we acquire feeds into our ethical decision process - is completely valid. The above sideline is a mere distraction by comparison!

"I would therefore suggest that ethical issues should be based on results that were produced solely by engineering."

This is an odd suggestion. Kuhn says a scientific theory only becomes handed over to engineering when there are no significant problems left to solve. Therefore, the sphere of engineering has very little if anything to contribute to ethical issues (which is probably a good thing), being principally concerned with technology - the load bearing properties of bridges, the silicon pathways of computer chips etc. I'm not sure engineering can be brought to bear on any ethical issues at all.

"Why is an universal aesthetic metric desirable?"

I think we can say with some confidence that no such metric is available, nor can be constructed. Pirsig's desire to work against subject-object metaphysics is one I share, but replacing this with MOQ is wedding Buddhist metaphysics to Plato. I prefer my Buddhist metaphysics without Platonic idealism, pesonally. :) I prefer "real Zen Buddhism" - destroy the subject-object distinction, but don't try and replace it with some other gloss, otherwise you don't achieve the necessary transformation. Each to their own in metaphysics though, of course!

"I think education is key - that is perhaps a personal and societal ethical responsibility that can be improved on."

Here I am in rapt agreement! Education is vital to the solutions of our social problems, and I tend to side with Dewey in saying that we need to be training children *how* to think not telling them *what* to think. But is this actually possible?

"In other words, if you want to base ethics on empirical studies, make sure the studies contain no assumptions."

No assumptions, no studies. Sorry. :( You must read Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions if you have not already done so. Alternatively, I'll be writing about it here on the blog at some point soon (I skipped over this in the Metaphysics Campaign; I think I assumed it was widely known material) - you could wait for that and then decide if you want to follow it up, but it's essential reading in philosophy of science.

"...cognition will eventually become an engineer-able."

I certainly believe we will be able to create cognitive machines of some kind if our species survives long enough. But this capacity does not necessarily allow for the reduction of cognition, alas (or perhaps - thankfully!) And either case is far beyond our lifetimes in my professional opinion.

"...the viral power of memes"

Ugh. Memes again. Perhaps you mean "the viral-like power of ideas" or "the viral-like power of words"?

If a meme is taken to mean an idea with the power to spread like a virus, then "viral power of memes" is a tautology. If meme is taken to be a building block upon which ideas are formed, then it is some wooly metaphorical construction that has no basis in cognitive observation. In either case, memes have nothing to do with the problem in my estimation, which is about the effects of language and ideas upon behaviour.

I know, I know, the internet uses 'meme' as a buzzword for an idea that spreads easily. But to use this word is to support in some way the spurious notion of a "meme theory" - we have no such thing. At best we have a meme hypothesis which does not match up to cognitive observations or research in any way that I have yet seen. It's not Dawkins' biggest mistake, just his biggest scientific mistake. :D Twentieth century science's very own phrenology.

I may not be able to win this battle over the language, but I'm not going to take it lying down. :)

---

That is perhaps enough sidelines for now. Let me go off and start work on the issues that were raised...

Thanks for the comments everybody!

Chris:
I seem to have been sloppy or imprecise in my wording, apologies.
It is evident on reflection that you can't have studies without assumptions. What I should have said is that ethics shouldn't be backed up by science and expect to be treated as True, but left to judgement and preference - on the other hand, there should be no argument when supporting data is not assumed. And I still think ethics and engineering relate, in engineering's broadest sense - is it ethical to build with asbestos? No, the engineering has answered that and so there is no ethical question...unless the application raises it, like if there are people freezing to death and the only help you can render is to airdrop asbestos!
Is that a debate? - Does Engineering Destroy Ethics!

Oh, and memes are an ugly word, but they get the point across in 'the internet sense'. They help to talk about the kind of powerful cultural trends that seem driven by ideas, like oversexualisation and the clash of cultures in the middle east. But it's probably slightly inaccurate usage - I'll use another phrase if you care to coin it.

If cognition is inherently engineerable, then I can't see why you wouldn't have an universal metric for quality. It's a completely open question, as far as I can tell. I don't think the 'cognitive engineers' like Kurzweil are admitting the possibility of a personal anthropomorphic principle - that perhaps we are all figments of our own imagination!

Thanks for the additional commentary, zenBen!

The capacity to produce cognitive machines is separate from the capacity to fully explicate and reveal the cognitive process. If you doubt it, ask any parent! They can make a new "cognitive machine" (a child) but they do not understand any aspect of how that cognition functions! :)

Take care!

zenBen, it looks to me like we have to start our own blog to see the ethical aspects of engineering being discussed :(

Chris, if that phrase about a scientific theory being "handed over to engineering" is true I am a lot less sure that Kuhn is essential reading... the man seems unlikely to have had much exposure to the latter field ;)

And finally, science and media are not just "reporting" - they are social processes with a multitude of active and passive aspects - they are formed by people and they do form people - science and (mass) media are in fact phenomena so young by comparison to say religion that we hardly understand what they really really are ;)

Here's another one: How should we treat non-human animals? We could talk about this with regards to killing for food, killing for sport, domestication and breeding (try searching for "toyger"), and probably a number of other things. Does Kant give animals "mutual respect"? Should we? I wouldn't put this high on my personal list of ethical concerns, but it would probably be an interesting conversation.

One more: When, if ever, is it ethical to lie?

translucy - I have a blog, but it's onlyaramble (a forum for rambling of the most esoteric order).
I did some serial debating once (the 12 delusions series), but it was more like talking to myself, since I haven't many commenting readers :/
(other than Chris!)
Don't suppose your web presence is anything to do with http://www.translucy.com/?

translucy: remember Kuhn isn't commenting on engineering, he's commenting on scientists. His point is that when there are no scientific (theoretical) problems left to solve, scientists dismiss a theory as being only of interest to engineers. This wasn't meant as a commentary on engineering, and it certainly isn't meant to suggest that there is no such thing as an engineering problem! :) Perhaps this comment loses its context outside of Kuhn's book...

Similarly, I never said that science or the media were "just reporting", I said they were *two forms of reporting* - surely a very different kind of statement! Obviously there is a lot more to either than that, and I am keen that it be understood that any human process is about people. But what constitutes the scientific record is its reporting - papers et al - and that's what I was referring to. My point was that a scientific report does not produce knowledge, per se, at least not in the sense that "knowledge" is usually understood.

I didn't see any discussion of the ethics of engineering here - I only saw discussions of the engineering of ethics, which seemed fanciful. Did you have some issues in ethics of engineering to discuss? I probably missed something in the rambles that have already gone by as there was so much to work through! ;)


Foster: oh, that animal rights issue was already on the cards for some future point, but I'll add it to the list now you've raised it explicitly. :)

Is it ethical to lie? Sure, one of Kant's favourite topics. :)

I'll update my notes accordingly. Thanks for the additions!


Addendum translucy: I'm pretty sure I lost your key point in the cracks of your discussion with zenBen, but I have a blazing feeling in my backbrain that we should rescue it. I think the problem may be that it seems more like philosophy of science to me than ethics. Care to attempt a clarification?

zenBen: many thanks for pointing me to this web site (I find that software rather odd, tho ;) And no I wasnt even aware of that "namesake". Let me see if I can find something in mind to post as a comment on your 12 delusion series :)

Chris: it's been a busy week for me so I'll just add a summary of my "ethics in science & technology" questions for future reference (below you find some definitions for the terms science, technology, engineering science and engineering design):

Questions on science:
1. Which questions should be investigated by scientists - in view of the fact that available resources are limited in some areas ven desperately so (including the life span of any invidual researcher)?
2. Which research results should be made public? How should a researcher proceed if her contribution is rejected by her peers as "non-original", inaccurate", "non-scientific"?
3. If peer review process and self-appointed academic commissions form some sort of academic self-rule do we need e.g. a "Supreme Court of Science" to ensure that this "government" does not go astray?

Questions on the interface between science and technology:
4. How to choose which scientific theories should be turned into applications and which should be ignored?
5. Should society as a whole try to make sure that research firms as well as large mass-producing corporations offer the "best-available" technology to the consumers, to local communities and governments (e.g. green-tech for energy and waste)? If yes how should society do that?

And finally on technical (engineering) design:
6. How can a designer be sure that he is actually using "best-available" technical knowledge, not only in the face of the uncertainty of future states of the designed object and the resulting consequences (e.g. overheating lithium batteries) but also given the fact that most design tasks build on competing empirical studies and theories that leave the burden of *interpretation* to the designer at the end of the sequence?

Here we come to the interesting fact that for safety critical design tasks, for example "load bearing properties of bridges", the dilemma of the bridge designer is at least partly alleviated by engineering guidelines issued by the national "bridge building engineers association" (in accord with the authorities of her country, usually updated as soon as a severe safety incident has occurred). These engineering guidelines of which there exist a multitude in every industrialized country and for pretty much every technical aspect of modern life propose or even prescribe how to apply scientific theory and empirical findings in an ethical manner. So they are ethical documents to the highest degree possible, I would think, in an attempt to make the application of technology "safe", consumer-friendly" and the like.

Definitions
"Science": the social practice of applying the "scientifc method" and to follow the traditions of the respective "field" or "discipline". These specific traditions also govern how the "discourse" is conducted (e.g. how results are published) and if the scientific practitioner ought to care about the application of his theories (e.g. medicine) or not (e.g. some parts of physics). "Social" means that an isolated individual can investigate an issue but he cannot conduct or be part of "science".

"Technology": The practice of transforming and subsequently controlling naturally found artefacts/materials or spaces on the planet according to human's aims. These aims are not necessarily practical or useful but can be completely silly. The difference with regard to the Arts therefore lies not in its "material" reality or its processes but in its traditions, the language used, etc. - in short: the technological tradition declared (mostly "useful") "material" aims to justify its actions even if there were no such aims to be found. The Arts (until recently) denied any external motivators or justifications (solely relying on inner genius and its traditions) even if the denial of, e.g. economic or political, "material" interests was hopelessly silly.

"Technology - Science interface": People "doing technology" ("technologists") do not wait until they get "handed over" a piece of "scientific theory" that is somehow deemed "finished by scientists" - conversely they will pick up every bit of empirical or theoretical activity they imagine to be useful for their "aims". Suppose you do a bit of research on the "finished scientific theory" behind "the load bearing properties of bridges", for say the nearest highway bridge, then you may be in for a surprise - even if the mechanics of concrete supports seem trivial is the *practical, real-world application* of mechanical theory in design and even more so in actual construction still subject to an engineer's experience and "professional judgement" - the "scientific theory" to go by is in fact full of open questions and not nearly finished even though bridge-building is one of the older "engineering" disciplines.

"Engineering Science & Design": is the attempt to bring together in practice the application of scientific theory to technology, the usage of the scientific method as the fundamental tool, academic traditions adopted from older disciplines (mainly math and physics), and traditions from craftsmanship that form part of the tradition and practice of engineering *design* - which is in many aspects closer to say product design than it is to the scientific method. It is the design aspect of the engineering field that is meant when people speak of engineering being "more of an art than science".

translucy: many thanks for this detailed analysis! A lot of this falls more squarely into philosophy of science than ethics, and some of it goes into outright politics. I'm not really in a position to pursue much of this to the level of detail required to advance this discussion usefully, but we can certainly touch upon it.

Let my clarify once more my earlier comment re: Kuhn. Kuhn work examined how science operates from a historial perspective. In Kuhn's assessment, a topic is only a live topic for scientific investigation if there are remaining problems or puzzles to be solved. When this is not the case - for example, geometric optics - scientists no longer consider this a legitimate research area (although science courses will of course still teach the relevant theories). It is instead considered something of interest only to engineers. None of this is the same as saying that there are no engineering problems, or that engineers do not start using scientific theories until they are "finished". Neither should it be interpreted as meaning that there is a "finished" state for a theory - only that certain theories reach a point whereby there are no remaining research problems, and at this point the matter ceases to be an active issue in science. (Although future changes in theories can reopen previously closed issues, of course!) I hope this clarifies my earlier flippant comment.

I have a piece on Kuhn which I will stick up at some point soon that hopefully will clarify this issue somewhat, although my original remark is so tangential to Kuhn's work I largely regret ever mentioning it! :)

Some quick answers to your questions from my perspective:

1. Which questions should be investigated by scientists?

If the areas of investigation are inexpensive, whatever the scientist likes. If they are expensive, whatever the scientist can acquire funding for.

2. Which research results should be made public?

All results should be made public. Scientists may be afraid of being ridiculed for publishing certain results, but if they are committed to the scientific process they have a certain duty to publish all results they can support with confidence. This might indeed be an ethical issue... We can look at scientific ethical values at some point.

3. Do we need a "Supreme Court of Science"?

It is my opinion that such an organisation would have the opposite effect - it would make science more tyrannical than it already is.

4. How to choose which scientific theories should be turned into applications and which should be ignored?

Most scientific theories have no practical applications; those that have commercial implications will naturally be pursued in a capitalist society.

5. Should the "best-available" technology be made available?

To decide what is the "best-available" depends upon establishing a value criteria. This is another ethics of science question - but it doesn't concern the ethics of scientists, but the publics ethics with respect to science. It turns political rapidly, however. Definitely worth looking at in more detail...

6. How can a designer be sure that he is actually using "best-available" technical knowledge?

They simply cannot, unless they wait for all the research problems to be solved (as with geometric optics) at which point they can have a high degree of confidence. Any time before this, their technical knowledge may be incomplete, inaccurate or just plain wrong. Many attempts to turn science into technology fail - sometimes because theories are incomplete or in error, sometimes because the theory suggests an application than in practice isn't possible at the current time or indeed at all. Designers, like scientists themselves, must take a leap of faith when deciding their attitudes towards the various theories on offer - although in many cases, abundant research papers or a general consensus view allow for something more of a measured decision. Even this, however, can be in error. One might say that the ultimate test for any scientific theory is how well it applies itself to technology.

Many thanks for coming back to expand upon your points here. You have a very coherent set of questions for scientific practice, and they deserve discussion, but much of this is way outside of the field of ethics! (The epistemological issues in science are almost limitless... I may well pursue a philosophy of science campaign at some point in the future).

I'll table some discussion of scientific values (both for scientists and non-scientists) to pick up on where your issues connect with the ethical sphere... It's definitely worth pursuing.

Many thanks!

Chris: though I do appreciate your continuing effort at clarification I fail to see how my questions qualify as "epistemological" as opposed to "ethical" - I understand ethics as asking "What should humans *do*?" - in scientific practice as much as in any other field of human activity.
More specifically with regard to 1 and 4, I fail to understand how shifting the issue to "funding" either by academic bureaucracy or financial markets does help much with these questions - should a chemist do research on novel agents *potentially suitable* for chemical weapons simply because there is funding available? Should a chemist consider such a question at all? Should she ask where the funds come from?

translucy: ah, in your comments here you do shift the emphasis quite considerably! Thank you for the additional clarifications - let it not be said that our rambling discourses do not make progress! :)

Asking whether a chemist should do research on reagents that could be used on chemical weapons clearly falls inside an ethical domain, as the scientist has the option to refuse such research on ethical grounds. Perhaps you are holding other such tacit implications that can shift these issues into an ethical focus that I've just not seen until now...

The general question of 'what should scientists investigate' (1) strikes me as somewhat beyond ethics, at least as framed here. If it is the question of what does society want scientists to investigate, this is political. If it is what the individual scientist will investigate, the pragmatic issues I listed before apply, and need not be seen as ethical, per se. But if the question is: what issues should a scientist *not* investigate, then I feel a return to ethics for some reason.

I'm quite confounded by my own opinion here! In this regard, I can only ask for time to mull over the issue; I may well end up in accord with you on this point.

Again with (4), this strikes me - at least in the general terms with which it is couched above - as a political issue. My response above is again pragmatic - there is no real choice as to which theories will be turned into applications. Commercially applicable theories will be exploited under the current circumstances, and to wish for other circumstances falls into the political, not ethical. But, as with (1), if you bring up problematic cases - say, genetic engineering of food - then the ethical again has room to surface (an individual scientist may refuse) but once again we are sailing into political waters.

In essence, I believe I now see what you are saying, but it has been a long road in teasing out this ethical aspect for me! Thank you for your patience. I instinctively knew you were getting at something important, but I could not see the wood for the trees in this case. Sorry for any frustration I may have caused!

To me, a large aspect of the issues you had been raising (at least, as you had phrased them) fall into epistemology on the one hand, and politics on the other. Now I appreciate that ethics and politics can be in close quarters, but I am still trying to avoid those issues which are essentially political (that require collective discussion or action to resolve). When we are talking about what scientists collectively should do from the perspective of society, this is hard to tease away from a political perspective for me; I hope it's clear why. (And remember, I *will* get to politics - but not in the ethics campaign. One step at the time...)

Some explanation of why I bring up epistemology is worth noting, as here I inadvertently added to the confusion. The question of what *can* be explored by science is a de facto epistemological question; and as I intimate above, scientists will investigate any and all such matters unless choked by lack of funding (at least, that is how the current scientific endeavour is organised). Hence these issues escape the ethical for me - at least when couched in the most general terms. That is: the issue of 'what should scientists investigate' is difficult to tease apart from 'what can scientists investigate', and where it can be separated, politics emerges in the non-epistemological side of the equation.

And yet - undeniably - there is a narrow band right between these two poles in which the question is very much ethical. As soon as you brought up the example of research on chemical weapons, the "scales fell from my eyes". But prior to this example, I could see your issues only in terms of the process of science on the one hand, and the politics of science on the other.

I hope this explains why it has taken me so long to understand your position, and I want to thank you once again for patiently returning to discuss it with me. I'm certain that if we had been in the same room we could have cleared this up much faster! :)

I will add a general discussion of Ethics of Science to the issues to pursue. But I fear much of the substance you would like covered may have to wait until we get to politics... Hopefully, I can at least tease out a sufficiently rich vein of ethically focussed points, but alas the scientific endeavour has long since been swept up in political affairs. Individuals rarely if ever control the choices of research topic in modern scientific practice, because funding (and hence politics) has become the overwhelming critical factor.

Thanks once again for your time and patience, and best wishes!

I'm not sure how to phrase this but it is linked to :

"This can in fact include political elements – for instance, whether or not to write letters of protest to the government or engage in acts of civil disobedience are ethical issues which fringe upon the political"

I was thinking of self-immolation as a form of protest. The converse of suicide bombing I think.

Suyi: goodness, we are dealing there with two of the most extreme acts - suicide as protest, and suicide with murder as protest. Yet these surely lie squarely in the borderlands between ethics and politics. It is not a subject I will discuss comfortably, but perhaps, at the least, we should mention it when it comes to matters of protest.

Thanks for the addition!

The comments to this entry are closed.