Ethics and Science

August 6, 2010

Charles Foster has a very nice post over at Practical Ethics:

Yesterday Richard Ashcroft, Professor of Bioethics at Queen Mary College, London, wrote in a Facebook update:‘I am fed up with being asked to come into science/medicine projects, add a bit of ethics fairy dust, usually without getting any share of the pie, just to shut reviewers up. I am not doing it any more. If they think we are important, treat us with respect. Otherwise, get lost.’

I’ll confess to being somewhat partial to this point of view as well. Even piddly ole me has been called in once or twice –not for biomedical stuff, but just to put an ethicist on the committee — only to add a bit of ethics fairy dust. I suspect you could switch out Foster’s concerns over medical scientists with environmental scientists, and you’d have the same sort of logic.

Here, try this on for size.

Why is it that ethicists are seen as “factotums who don’t deserve to have their names on the papers any more than the temp who does the photocopying”? Part of Foster’s answer relates to the nature of biomedical scientists, but consider environmental scientists too:

Partly it is because they [scientists and technologists] are temperamental utilitarians, with a fundamentalist conviction that their research will save the world. Sometimes rats, patients or principles may have to be sacrificed to appropriate that salvation. They are prosaic people, but allow themselves a few self-glorifying metaphors, often culled from life-endangering expeditions. Just think where we’d be if Edmund Hillary had lost his nerve on the Khumbu icefall. Well, ethical objections are like that icefall.They’re not usually bad people; just good people who believe too passionately in one thing. And that can be a very bad thing indeed.

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