Is ethics a speed-breaker for scientific discovery?

adminscience/fictionLeave a Comment

This essay is not reflective of my personal opinions. It was written purely with the intention to see how theoretical philosophical ideas can be twisted to argue certain view points (this one just happened to be scientifically inspired) and the results were interesting to say the least.

In his book, Critique of Practical Reason, Immanuel Kant wrote, “Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” The two things he is referring to are curiosity and morality. Humans deal with curiosity by dreaming up ideas and pursuing them till they create reality and this is commonly called science. Morality is a little trickier, it is dictated by an individual’s internal compass; one that sways side to side trying to decide the right thing. Aspiring to understand and control the moral compass came the field of ethics. However, morality and curiosity don’t always go hand in hand. They often fight each other, with ethics trying to reign in science, creating conflict between the scope of discovery and the compromise in humanity. This brings about the question – Is ethics a speed breaker for scientific discovery? 

Before this predicament is discussed, it is worth looking into the flip side – why ethics? Ethics is what makes sure that the nightmare-inducing experiments of World War 2 are not repeated. To ensure that people aren’t thrown into boiling water after they have essentially been frozen alive, that they aren’t surgically sterilized in a bizarre attempt to create a stronger race. As utterly horrific and disturbing as these actions were, they led to the creation of the Nuremberg code of 1949, a doctrine still used to keep the exploitation of participants at bay. This dogma is interesting because it also outlines rules on less serious issues such as giving credit and being truthful about the research conducted. 

Furthermore, when modern-day issues of ethics arise, it is often these less appalling ones. This brings about the case of Elizabeth Holmes, a supposed pioneer with her invention of one drop blood tests, who managed to raise over 700 million dollars for a nonexistent product. She outsourced most of her machinery and the company’s products frequently gave inaccurate results, a serious hazard especially when it comes to medical testing. Similarly, in the same realm of biological science, lies another much more intricate debate. The one that entertains the possibility of “designer babies” using the CRISPR technology to add and delete genes. To change the traits of a non-consenting, eventually sentient being seems wrong. A cascade of consequences could ensue due to an incomplete understanding of gene functioning. Left unchecked a dystopia-esque scenario might be in the books, in short, it could be a big disaster waiting to happen.

On the other hand, what is left untouched remains unknown? There are limitless possibilities to this particular discovery, from creating artificial organs that have zero chance of rejection to potentially eradicating life-threatening genetic diseases. Science asks for a little bit of risk, to be able to venture towards new realms. Why did Elizabeth Holmes capture the world’s attention? Why was she able to keep up her façade? Sure her eccentricities played a part but she presented a revolutionary idea away from the tried and tested needles of the days’ bygone. Another reason for bending the rules is sometimes sheer necessity. Dr. Claudia Henschke undertook a critical study that emphasized the role of regular CT Scans for smokers as a lifesaving tool, the catch? The funding for this study came from a tobacco company. While claims of influence crowded her study, there is no denying that research is expensive and funding, especially for such large scale projects, is difficult to come by. Does the source of money really matter when the implications of the research are this large? 

The best example by far though, while talking about the necessity to bend rules, is the ongoing Coronavirus Pandemic. The fast-paced onset of a highly infectious disease had researchers worldwide scrambling to create a cure. Vaccine for the disease has received the fastest approval for human trials and allowance to forgo the usually mandatory animal trials. In this case, the larger benefit has outweighed the potential harm to a few and made it worth to dip into the gray area of ethics. 

All in all, science and ethics have an incredibly complicated relationship. This exists in part due to the subjectivity of what is right. A large portion of science can be mathematically or empirically proven and thus does not elicit moral conundrums, but there exists the idea of discovery that is firmly rooted in experimentation. And experimentation requires sacrifice. While internal moral law is important to keep in check overly ambitious and inhumane research, shooting for the starry heavens above us is the way forward.

Coming back to the delicate nature of philosophical arguments, I would like to illustrate in just two sentences how easily they can be strengthened or disproved depending on which school of thought you follow. Highly recommend reading this research article – Utilitarian and deontological ethics in medicine. Regardless, here is a brief summary of my point :

Deontology (the study of duty) states that actions should be considered independent of the outcomes (or as philosophers call it – consequences) and therefore, in some cases, the means do not justify the end. Thus, from a deontological perspective, regardless of the larger implications, some actions will never be justified which is why scientific ethics is important. If you really want to get into it, reading Kantian moral law or specifically the universal principle would be a good start.

On the other hand Utilitarian Consequentialism or the idea that we should always work to maximise “the good” outcomes for the largest number of people (essentially the theory states that humans always work for the greatest happiness at the lowest amount of pain). So here we could argue that since “the good” outcomes resulting from certain unethical research are more than the negative outcomes – it is valid.

Philosophy is based on the merits of discourse. There are many such conundrums: Libertarian Free Will vs Determinism, Camus vs Kierkegaard (they debate the role of faith), and Plato vs Aristotle (is philosophy a science or not) to name a few. I thought it would be intriguing to highlight how these opposing theories fit into the flow of a conventional argumentative essay.

A good place to start seeing which side your internal moral compass leans (Deontology or Consequentialism) would be to look at the trolley problem and its various iterations. And to learn more about the gripping but terrifying story of Elizabeth Holmes, do watch The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley. Just some additional Food for Thought!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *