On Scientific Ethics

2024-04-21 Sun 00:00

On Scientific Ethics

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Dr. Jay Paul Morgan

About Blog Posts Publications Teaching Swansea University

“I am a scientist, and I solve problems. I don’t have to care about ethics!”

This statement concerns the ethics of scientists – scientific ethics. To understand whether the person making this statement is correct or not in their view, we must first understand the contents of the statement. Namely, the nature of ethics, and what it means to be a scientist.

To begin, let us look at ethics.

Ethics comes from the ancient Greek word, ethos, meaning character; personal disposition. Ethics by definition are the moral principles that guides the behaviour or conducting of an activity. But what are these principles? Immanuel Kant believed there were universal principles. He believed that our ethical framework is not situational-dependent and personal, such as making ourselves happy, but there were laws by which a rational actor behaves. Therefore to act ethically is to act rationally as expressed by following of the ethical principles.

Aristotle agrees with the relation of rationality and ethical standards. In his series of lectures, Nicomachean ethics, Aristotle explains the absurdity of letting barbarians massacre your family without any fight. Aristotle was a strong believer that there is a middle ground to all things and situations, and a person who acts rationally always strives to determine this middle ground. But, like in the situation of barbarians, the middle ground does not simply mean a neutrality and apathy and not doing anything potentially bad, but it means to the right thing at the right time. As agreed by Dante 'There is a special place in hell for people who, in a time of a moral crisis, maintain their neutrality'. Sometimes we must act in order to act rationally and ethically given the circumstance and situation.

Let us now turn to the subject of the circumstance: being a scientist.

The Science Council defines a scientist as someone who systematically gathers and uses evidence, to make a hypothesis and test them, to gain and share understanding and knowledge. In this way, we may define the scientific ethical framework by the guiding principles:

  1. Honesty in scientific reporting.
  2. Unbiased analysis of results
  3. Open sharing of methods, code, data.
  4. Correct citation and refrain from plagiarism or stealing of ideas.
  5. Moral obligations to society in general, and, in some disciplines, responsibility in weighing the rights of human and animal subjects.

To be a scientist is to follow these guiding principles. To go against these principles is to not act ethically, and therefore not rational. Someone who does not care about ethics is acting with absurdity, and by definition not a scientist.

But our statement concerns someone who wishes to disregard ethics in pursuit of 'solving problems'. This person is following the hedonistic view that their desires of solving problems overrides those of any moral principles and ethical concerns. This, in nature, in very unscientific as their interest is not in the scientific method, but in the result of having 'solved a problem'.

Someone who claims to be a scientist to want to solve problems, must do so with accordance to the ethical principles therein. Acting ethically, is not a chain with which we bind ourselves, but a compass that guides us to do correct science. To solve problems we must find a hypothesis and method of testing it that follows our ethical principles of science. Solving problems does not require us to throw away our ethics—for that would not be science. To act against these ethical codes would not be scientific and therefore irrational. From this we may conclude that the statement presented paints a picture of someone who is living paradoxically with their desired character of scientist.

Finally, I would like to end my argument with a quote from Albert Einstein, who says 'Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.' When we understand that in ancient Greek 'character' was 'ethos', we see this quote to be correct.

Date: 2024-04-21 Sun 00:00

Author: Jay Paul Morgan

Created: 2024-05-23 Thu 14:11