Saturday, November 21, 2009

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.

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