Friday, October 30, 2009

Ethics of Scientific Research - Second question

Are the participants of the Manhattan Project morally responsible, partially responsible, or not at all responsible for the effects of the atomic bomb?

In order to determine whether the participants of the Manhattan Project were in any way responsible for the effects of the bomb, we need to provide some definitions. By participant, we mean the scientists and researchers involved in the research and development of the atomic bomb, and not the military or political leadership involved in the project. We also need to restrict the effects of the atomic bomb to the human toll resulting from dropping the nuclear devices on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both immediate and long term. With those definitions and qualifiers in place, the participants were not morally responsible for the effects of the bomb.
The moral responsibilities of scientists are no greater than those of the rest of society, and given the context and limitations of their research responsibilities, their moral responsibilities are limited to the decisions and course of actions available to them. Scientists and researchers are presumed to be autonomous moral agents, responsible for their own rational choices. The decision to deploy the nuclear weapon was not in the realm of responsibility of the participants of the project. The military and political leaders bear the responsibility for using the weapon on the city of Hiroshima and 3 days later on Nagasaki. However, those leaders would not have had the opportunity to use the bomb if the participants had not designed and built the device. So how far does the chain of responsibility extend?
As stated above, the moral responsibilities of the participants need to be examined in the context of the actions and decisions available to them. Examining their decision to continue the design and development of the bomb after VE day should be weighed against their holding to general moral principles. VE day celebrated the removal of the initial political reason for the development of the bomb. That political reason was officially tied to the threat posed by the prospective development of nuclear weapons by Nazi Germany.
In terms of the participant’s employment duties, the participants can be shown to generally follow the principles of non-malfeasance, beneficence, autonomy and justice. In the context of the Second World War, the researchers did not inflict unjustified harm. In fact, the direct actions and decisions made by the participants did not cause any immediate nor foreseen harm beyond that expected in war. The participants acted in a way that indicates that they intended to benefit not only society, but also science, given the limitation of what intelligence they possessed about the war situation. Along those lines, they also worked to promote justice in the world, by doing their best to contribute to a device that they believed would be used to bring the war to a rapid end. Lastly, they provided information and knowledge to the supposed rational individuals who would make the ultimate decision to deploy the destructive power of the weapon they designed and built. By continuing in their work, they did not deprive the individuals that they worked for of the autonomy to make their own informed and presumably responsible decisions.
Much can be said about the principle of autonomy. If the Manhattan Project participants had stopped their work, they would have deprived the military and political leaders of their autonomy to make a responsible decision. Another set of scientists also designed and built a different form of weapon of mass destruction, which fortunately had not been deployed in the war. The researchers who refined nerve agents and other deadly chemical weapons did not deprive their superiors of the autonomy to make responsible decisions. The rational choice made by the leaders was to not use those weapons, and there was no expectation that those same leaders would not make a rational choice with the atomic bomb. The chain of responsibility extends only to those that made the decision to use the bomb, to those that used the information and technology provided to them to cause actual harm, destruction and death.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Ethics of Scientific Research - First question

Do researchers have ethical duties and/or responsibilities over and above the ethical obligations of the rest of society?

Ethical duties are the expectations on moral agents to act in the manner that they ought to act. Regardless of whatever ethical theory a moral agent subscribes to, the responsibility on that agent is to honor the duty to act ethically. Whomever the moral agent happens to be, the duty and responsibility to act ethically is the same. Scientists and researchers are no more ethically responsible than any other moral agent. They do not have ethical duties over and above the ethical duties of any other moral agent.

It is arguably the case that the social context and impact of the product of a scientist’s or researcher’s efforts is greater than that of many other human endeavors. Science, government, education, the media and other social institutions each have large and significant impacts on individual lives and on other social institutions. But what really determines which institution’s impact is more significant? By what metric do we measure that impact? Lives? Resources? Trust? In any case it can be argued that any one impact is greater or more significant than any other. However, one can not separate the impact of science from the impact of government which funds the research, nor from the impact of education which trains the researchers, nor from the media which informs the citizenry which supports the government. All of these institutions are interdependent, and no single one can be demonstrably shown to have a larger impact than any other.

But the impact of a moral agent’s actions does not necessarily correspond with the level of responsibility or duty to act ethically. There appears to be an underlying principle of equality which is seen in many ethical theories: all moral agents should be accorded the same respect. This equality of respect derives from the notion that all moral agents are rational individuals, each capable of determining a proper, ethical, course of action. Every rational individual is not only capable of determining ethical actions, but duty bound to act ethically. And with equality of respect comes equality of moral duty. In essence, the moral principles of beneficence, non malfeasance, justice and autonomy all have at their core the principle that all rational individuals are morally equal. Each rational individual should act in a manner that benefits society, does not cause unjustified harm, allows other rational individuals to make their own decisions, etc.. Despite the possibility that a particular moral agent X can impact society in a greater manner than moral agent Y, it does not necessarily follow that Y’s ethical duty and responsibility is less than X’s: they are both morally equal.

Given the principle of moral equality, it therefore becomes meaningless to assert that any specific, rational individual has a higher ethical duty or responsibility than any other rational individual. Scientists and researchers are by the nature of their actions deemed to be rational individuals. They do not have more or less moral stature than any other rational individual. These moral equivalencies do not aggregate to form a block of greater ethical duty based on the number of scientists and researchers versus the number of other moral agents either. Ethical choices and actions are made and performed by rational individuals, whether they are in a group or not. An individual moral agent can not surrender his or her ethical duties and responsibilities to the group or institution to which that agent belongs. Scientists and researchers do not have greater ethical duties or responsibilities than anyone else, and despite some protestations, they also do not have a moral free pass, either.