Saturday, November 21, 2009

Ethics of Scientific Research - Midterm Question #2

Assuming an otherwise adequate scientific design, what should be done with the data gathered/conclusions drawn during an experiment where human subjects have been misused or mistreated? Use either utilitarianism or Kantian theory to justify your response.

Human experimentation where the subjects have been mistreated and misused has occurred in the past and may well occur in the future. The most obvious and outrageous cases stem from studies done by researchers working for the Nazi regime during the Second World War; however, several examples occurred even in the postwar United States. Most such studies were not adequately designed for a proper scientific investigation; indeed most of the desired studies had no recognizable scientific goal. But some studies, such as the Nazi studies of wounds due to weapons, appear to have had an adequate scientific design. Improved medical treatments for trauma, better helmet designs and better ballistic shielding would benefit from examining and studying this data. However, I will show from Kantian theory why researchers should not use this data, and why that data should not be destroyed.

One of the key components of Kant’s Categorical Imperative is that human beings should not be used as mere means to an end. Consequences should not factor into the moral decision, however the means of how the data were obtained do matter. And the reason it matters is due to the inhumane treatment of the people in these experiments. In these cases, the human subjects were treated solely as means to an end.

Using people as mere means runs counter to the Categorical Imperative that commands that all humans must be treated with inherent moral dignity and they must not be harmed nor deceived. The misuse and mistreatment of people in any context is antithetical to the maxim that people must not be harmed and that people should be treated with moral dignity and respect. By choosing to use the data, we effectively place ourselves into the context of the original experiment, essentially becoming part of the extended research team. We effectively would be using the human subjects in the same inhuman manner as the initial researchers, even though, as in the case of the Nazi experiments, those subjects may be long dead.

Therefore using Kantian theory, we as moral agents are duty bound to follow the Categorical Imperative. We must not use the data or conclusions from any experiment where the human subject was not treated with dignity or respect, and where the human subject was intentionally harmed or killed. It isn’t future consequences of our decision that matter, despite any beneficial outcome from the use of the data. It is the respect for the subjects of the experiments that matter, whether or not they are currently alive to act as free moral agents.

However, despite the decision that we shouldn’t use the data or conclusions from such experiment, we must also respect the free choice of other current and future researchers. We must show other researchers respect and dignity and allow them to act as moral agents. The freedom to pursue our research and the freedom to make our own moral choices is what we want others to not act to constrain. Therefore, we should not destroy nor hide any data. We must allow other moral agents the freedom to make the appropriate moral choice on their own, and we should not act in any fashion that removes that freedom from them.

Ethics of Scientific Research - Midterm Question #1

There have been no cases of smallpox in the world for over a decade, but several labs have kept strains of the virus. It is not known whether any strains of the virus exist in countries with biological weapons programs. Assume there are only two possible actions: preserve the strains or destroy them. Explain how a utilitarian OR a Kantian (don't do both) would act and the reasons/justifications for choosing that action.

Several laboratories around the world have kept strains of the smallpox virus since the eradication of the virus from the human population many years ago. Preserving the existing strains is necessary for research, and much can be learned from studying the virus, but the capability also exists for the virus’ use as a biological weapon. The destruction of the existing stocks of the virus would prevent its use as a weapon, but would curtail non-weapons research. However, no nation with an active biological weapons program is known to have the virus. So should the existing strains of the virus be destroyed? A Kantian would respond that our duty is to preserve the existing strains of smallpox, and the reasons would be due to the demands of the Categorical Imperative.

According to Kantians, moral agents must act motivated by duty and follow universal and absolute laws embodied in the Categorical Imperative. The Categorical Imperative demands that our duty is to act in such a way that our conduct could become a universal action. It also specifies that we treat all members of humanity as ends in themselves and not as mere means to an end and that all humans have inherent moral dignity and worth and should not be harmed or deceived.

If we were to order the destruction of all stocks of the virus, we would be acting in a way that would deny researchers now and in the future the opportunity to conduct research on the virus. It doesn’t matter what type of research would be conducted or would be possible, that research would never occur. Our command to destroy the virus would prevent other researchers from freely performing their duties, and would limit their ability to act as moral agents on their own right. We effectively show disrespect to these researchers and deny them their inherent moral dignity and worth. This is counter to the duties imposed by the Categorical Imperative.

The motivations for commanding the destruction of all strains of the virus would mostly be consequentialist: we would be concerned about all the potential uses of the virus, whether it is for weapons development by a nation state, or possibly stolen for use by terrorists. Kantians will not let consequences deter them from their duty; consequences do not factor into the moral decision. They must treat all potential users of the virus as moral agents and must not use those researchers as mere means to obtain any desired consequence, even if the consequence to be avoided is the construction of a weapon of mass destruction.

The decision to preserve the strains of the virus would be one that the Kantian would desire to have emulated universally. The decision made is not strictly the preservation of the virus; it is the decision to allow other researchers to make their own moral choices about how to conduct their research and how to use that virus. That is a decision that we would like other researchers to make. We want the freedom to pursue our research and the freedom to make our own moral choices and would want others to not act to constrain that freedom.

So in order to follow the duties of the Categorical Imperative, a Kantian must decide to preserve the existing strains of the smallpox virus. This preserves the ability of other current and future researchers to work with the virus and the Kantian trusts those researchers to act as moral agents and to make the proper choice of what they will do with the virus.