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.

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