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.