Around the time of the Industrial Revolution, scientists of the seventeenth century thought of improving conditions of human survival by rationally using the power of nature.
What they did not foresee was the senseless exploitation of nature's resources, which, in time, could lead to a desolate environment in which the survival of all the species could be threatened. Through examples and analysis, these writers have emphasized that science produces power along with knowledge and expands man's dominion over nature through this power. For example, if the energies of nature, which we have encapsulated in different types of containers, were ever released, it could possibly cause the extinction of all species. Simultaneously, however, we also have learned how to control or eliminate disease, how to reduce hunger, and how to contain pollution. But, in doing so, we carry the myth that we have "conquered" nature.
Scientists, philosophers, and other thoughtful individuals, however, realized that the notion of conquering nature was a delusion, and they deplored the weakness of such a notion in practical reasoning. Albert Einstein wrote in 1948: "The tragedy of modern man was in the following: he has created for himself conditions of existence which he cannot live up to because of his phylogenetic development." (Ehrlich and Ehrlich, 2-4).
At the same time, the lives and teachings of individuals like Mahatma Gandhi, Henry Thoreau, and Bertrand Russell have also made us realize that knowledge without wisdom and power without self-discipline are more important worries of mankind than the challenges posed by nature. We have begun to acknowledge the unintended consequences of human activities. The issue of human activities, however, involves the whole of society. And if this issue is not properly understood and addressed, we may find ourselves as the victims, not of nature as we found it, but of nature as we have transformed it (Ehrlich and Ehrlich, 2-4).
Within the realm of human activities, however, the scientists of today are increasingly accountable for the rise and misuse of their discoveries. With the advent of new information technologies, attempts are made to evaluate man's relation to nature. Society has begun to define a new code of ethics that would go beyond our current understanding of ethical and moral principles, and to recognize rights that are not strictly human. A new milieu is in the offing.
In this new milieu, scientists may face different ethical dilemmas. They should recognize that, in pursuit of research, what may appear initially as a personal choice is often found to be embedded in a pervasive social, cultural, economic, and political milieu in which it is difficult to know where one should begin and end.
Scientists are currently witnessing a rising wave of interest in ethical issues related to scientific research. In a sense, this interest in ethics seems better at recognizing rather than resolving problems. To a certain extent, this tendency is understandable, because in discussions of ethical issues relating to scientific research, it is easy to focus exclusively on the scientific aspects by describing fascinating procedures and data interpretations, only to end with a whimper that these procedures pose many difficult and unanswered questions.
Fortunately, however, some efforts are being made to grapple with perplexing ethical issues that permeate the undertaking of any scientific and technical endeavor. The complications resulting from such endeavors have been aptly discussed by many in the past (Cournand, 2007; Mauron, 1989), and should be obvious to any individual involved in the scientific enterprise. Also, there is now considerable literature on "ethics in science", and vice versa, to raise the level of debate of ethical issues involved in scientific research.
A researcher is a moral agent who participates in the creation and/or dissemination of knowledge on behalf of society (Singer, 1979). Hence, from an ethical standpoint, questions that confront scientific researchers are similar to those faced by other scientists. Also, in the pursuit of research, it is important to answer the questions about what we can and cannot overlook. Jurgen Mittelstrass (1999) has elegantly stated two fundamental questions that need to be addressed in our society, and which can be beneficially considered by all members of the scientific community. What is the value of scientific and technological assessment? Can the process of scientific research or technological innovation be planned in the same way as that of developing a product? Regardless of how we arrive at the answers to these questions, a philosophical issue that has also been raised in the past is crucial: Do scientists have a special ethics, i.e., their own scientific ethics? Is there, after all, such a thing as the ethics of science? Perhaps not. As Mittelstrass puts it, “In society's view, science constitutes a special form of knowledge, but not a special societal form with a corresponding ethic. One ought to separate methodologically founded rationalities from knowledge with ethically determined societal rationalities. In dealing with these situations, one ought to be guarded by a notion that there is an ethical answer, the correct ethical answer, for all issues and in all situations. Ethics is not a discipline which can judge what is justified and what is not." Such a notion only "confuses ethics with a cookbook that can provide an answer for every question of taste". (Mittlestrass, 1999) Ethics consists of principle. Ethics cannot take over the burden of deciding what or what not to do in a given case.
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Ethics is always people's ethics; it cannot be divided socially into scientist's ethics and non-scientist's ethics. Ethics, rather, is a product and the virtue of all human beings, which is guided not by books or rules but by principles (Singer, 28-44; Pera, 58-72).
This, however, does not mean that a scientist should not have a special ethos. In fact, it is essential that scientists plan their behavior toward an ethical principle because of their special competencies, such as thinking, theoretical skills, problem-solving skills, and innovative and anticipatory skills. Their responsibilities are also of a special nature because scientists usually control their own practices and because the technological culture depends on the scientific mind. In addition, the consequences of scientific research concern not just us, who are living today, but also those who will follow us, and often only those. We now recognize that in the expanding possibilities for gene manipulations, we are capable of fundamentally changing ourselves. Man has become biologically manipulable. But as the old Indian treatise, Upanishad (written between the 8th and 5th centuries BC), states, "Man is related not only to animals and plants, but also to the elements, earth, water, air andfire. In nature, they are like us and we are like them." (Singer, 28-44) In manipulating ourselves, we essentially manipulate nature.
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Furthermore, when one considers cultural history (the history of man in nature), the responsibility of scientists increases considerably. Hence, it is essential that scientists acquire a special ethos to maintain their status as a "representative of rationality" (Singer, 28-44; Pera, 58-72) and it is for these reasons that a scientific organization has a special responsibility in laying down Ethical Principles or a Code of Ethics that would encompass each and every culture of today's world.
Agazzi (2002), Saladin (2004) and others have indicated that what we need today are strategies to limit the risks of unreasonable research without stifling genuine intellectual curiosity. We must ensure that such curiosities benefit nature, including all its living and nonliving forms. For this, clearly, we must first emphasize the significance of our scientific questions and not approach science merely because we have developed technologies. [In today's competitive environment to publish data for securing research grants, or perish, as has been said, sometimes a tendency creeps into a researcher's mind that, since a technology is available, one should apply it to generate the data. Undoubtedly, one must acknowledge the usefulness of technologies in resolving scientific questions.
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But in the ultimate reality, questions generate technologies. It is a different proposition to apply technology without really knowing the real scientific questions and their significance.] We must re-assess the role and significance of technologies that are used in our scientific pursuit. In this re-assessment and pursuit, we must recognize the complexity of ethical and moral decisions as well as the fact that important policy issues cannot be merely an economic or technical problem of means.
All new technologies, procedures, and therapies must be evaluated before being introduced into practice so that a reasonable assessment of their likely costs and benefits can be made. This is crucial not only for those in the developed nations, whose national health expenditures are under constraint, but also for those in the undeveloped and developing world, who are in a far worse situation. When technologies, procedures, and therapies are evaluated through publicly/privately funded projects on a population in a developing country, does the developing country receive a share in intellectual property rights for production and marketing of such products because of their involvement in their development? In the current world politics, where use of resources, including the use of knowledge, is hotly debated, apportioning intellectual property rights is an important issue. (Mauron, 249-265)
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An ethical code doesn't give answers. It brings clarity to the problems. An ethical treaty provides a structure of principles that guides us in the discussion of issues. Critics and others have noted that, within the context of ethics, there isn't always a right and wrong. On occasion, clashes between principles cannot be avoided, and the reality looms too large. And, the presence of a Code of Ethics does not mean that mistakes will not continue to be made. One hopes, however, that they may be less serious and less frequent.
As Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1971) said in The Devils, "the secret of human existence is that man must not simply live but must discover why he should live."