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On the question of ethics in science

It appears that the problem of ethics builds on the assumption that human action can be rational but not necessarily moral or, for lack of a better word, socially responsible. Ethics has been invented to bridge the gap between reason and responsibility, that is, the very gap that it created in the first place. Medical research is a perfect ground for ethics of this kind. It reinforces the belief that science is always rational but that its applications may not be. For example, in terms of stem-cell research, the conclusion that stem-cell research is a good path to follow is claimed to be rationally justifiable. It is the application-phase of this conclusion which may be problematic. 

We do trust our experts. After all, they hold the expertise as to what is right or wrong, at least in the realm of reason, we hope. To continue with the example of stem-cell research, we fail to ask our experts about the potential for failure of the research. We also fail to ask them about any alternatives which may be more promising. And if there are no alternatives, would this not be surprising in itself? We, the lay people, always imagine science as a field of differences rather than of uniformity. If no strong alternatives could be named,  would this be a sign of the strength of medical research or of its weakness?

The structure of TV-debates on stem-cell research always seems to follow a well-worn path. The question around which these debates focus is WHETHER to do stem-cell research or not. The question never is WHY stem-cell research. The promises for a brighter and better health-care are louder than the tiny glimpses of truth revealed by scientists when pressed. Dr Alan Bernstein, President of the Canadian Institute of Health Research, when presented with a medal by the Australian Society for Medical Research in late June admitted himself: "And despite what most people think, we really don't understand most common, serious diseases that afflict humanity" (p. 23; Media Monitors, 20.06.01; Australian Society for Medical Research -website).

In the heat and speed of the debate, the public has no idea what this admission may mean. Is stem-cell research therefore to be a playground for the scientists to find out more about diseases? Are they then to play with embryo cells until, as in the case of experiments involving laboratory animal cruelty and vivisection, the public's hope, patience and tolerance wear out? Whom will we then blame? The scientist or the ethicist? To whom will we turn when the scientists hit the wall? To the scientist or the ethicist? But can we trust the ethicist? Does he/she hold the power to tell what is right and what is wrong? 

Decisions will have to be made and the public cannot be excluded. But, as John R. Saul asks in Voltaire's Bastards, 1991, are scientists members of the public too? Should the public therefore be simply informed and lobbied or are scientists also responsible to themselves as members of the public and therefore as more than just followers of the current trends in their profession? Furthermore, informed decisions do not necessarily imply decisions which are unscientific. As history shows, Nature always manages to escape even the most precise definitions and paradigms. There may be no shame in reflection after all. 

The dichotomies between ethics and science, experts and non-experts, leaders and followers had been revoked every time the human race needed to justify all kinds of extreme acts. The holocaust is one of these, the Spanish Inquisition is another. It would seem that we reinvent our ethics every time we fail to critically reflect upon the questions we ask. It is very hard to reflect. It is easier to write a PhD thesis in stem-cell research than to reflect upon the question 'Why stem-cell research?'. Is the task of such a reflection a task for a scientist? How else will she or he know the answer and the concerns that might be involved? Inevitably, until the scientists themselves begin their work by critiquing their own positions, they remain closed-minded. A closed mind means that at stake is no longer a greater truth but politics. It is no accident that stem-cell research supporters make great promises to the public. The public knows no alternatives. It is kept in the dark and in fear. After all, the public should trust the scientist, but should the scientist trust the public?

Thinking the problem through further

1. People cannot proceed without making decisions.
2. Decisions must be informed because the point of scientific or any other interrogation is to gain information or an advantage of some sort.
3. Ethics cannot act by imposition of a code of rules because then we would have a problem regarding the legitimacy of the source of that code. Our problems cannot be categorised into the realm of ethics, science, morality etc. Rather, they are all a matter of a considered approach, or, as J.R. Saul puts it, balanced approach. 
4. All individuals who wish to act in a civil (considered) rather than mad (inconsidered) manner are obliged to interrogate the background of their beliefs:

It should now become more apparent that ideologies and the model that proceeds by challenging its own perspectives are two very different modes of operation. While ideology promises answers, a methodolgy that seeks challenges does not attempt to produce a truth about reality. Rather, it is a pragmatic model where the perspectives taken are seen as depending on the conditions considered. Nothing is correct in an absolute sense i.e. in itself and through itself. Although this argument may appear obvious, it needs to be said that most research institutions encourage research tradition which proceeds within a framework of ideology rather than challenge. Consequently, we are caught in a belief that one day we will know all we need to know. But the problem is that to realise this dream, we have divided knowledge into a multitude of specialised areas and, as a result, increasingly we become caught in a game where we find out more and more about less and less. The bigger picture keeps escaping us and will do so unless we abandon the insecurity on which ideology breeds and begin to ask big questions i.e. questions that force us to consider more rather than less. (What is reality? A. Lian, 2002)
5. From the quotation above it would follow that the value of critical reflection is in having to consider points of view other than one's own. A considered or a balanced approach would be a process of decision-making that does not refuse legitimacy to experiences other than one's own. But this does not imply that all points of view are equally valid. In a 'free for all' approach, every point of view would claim to speak from the umpire's chair and conflicting points of view would have no other way of being resolved but through politics. Thus, in order to preserve plurality of points of view, differences cannot be simply tolerated. Such a method is more likely to lead to homogenity and fascism rather than plurality. Rather, to preserve plurality, differences need to be engaged to produce new knowledge, new mindsets, new understandings, richer, more informed and fuller perspectives on the original problem investigated.  Without this demand for challenging one's point of view by engaging other perspectives, differences are silenced and become inconsequential. 

From the point of view of scientific inquiry, its task should not be as much to answer questions but to inquire about the contexts or beliefs behind the questions themselves. In this way, solutions are a product of a process which is directed at understanding the questions themselves and in consideration of a greater context than the original mindset. Solutions can be thought of as articulations of the engaged perspectives in a way that reveals a concern for and hence a consideration of the other.

6. Conclusion: In this sense, it is not the solutions that we should seek to legitimise but the problems themselves! This is very different. In the context of stem cell-research, or any other research issue, we need to ask about the context of the problems in terms of which specific solutions are legimised and endorsed. Asking about the promises alone  is to abdicate one's own responsibility to partake in a decision process that affects us all.  We do need to make decisions, we just must make sure that we are not on a no-through road.

Now let us consider a path that encourages research without committing anyone to a single way of looking at the world. For example, the question of 'How to sustain life?' has the potential to be most encompassing because it does not assume its own limits. It therefore escapes attempts which reduce life to specific diseases and hence to methods that are involved in elevating symptoms of those diseases rather than in sustaining life and in this way eradicating disease all together. This may look like an ambitious goal but only at a first sight. But a disease may not be a result of the body falling apart here and there. Instead, it may be simply a message that the body sends that a profound biochemical disorder is taking place. Disease then is a symptom and not a target. This certainly was the position of Sir Rudolph Peters.

Questions such as 'How to sustain life?', arguably create a conceptual space for an unlimited number of concerns and points of view to examine. To achieve this, these points should not be limited by research fields. Conclusions must be articulated within the whole spectrum of concerns as they all can be connected in terms of the principles and assumptions that give them a fuller meaning. 

Thus questions as broad as  'How to sustain life?' do not set the language or the model of its conclusions prior to the study. In fact, they have the potential to make room for connecting the various aspects of life in order to make the conclusions richer. By setting the question this high at the level of abstraction, we open up a space for an inquiry which is limitless and which, at the same time, generates opportunities for many enlightning conclusions. In this way, questions function as an opening rather than as a limit of the inquiry. 

22nd August, 2001 (Ania Lian)


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