Science, Ethics and Society

To seriously deal with basic ethical questions is especially important for scientists.

Category: Mini Lectures

Date: 23 June 2014

Duration: 11 min

Quality: HD MD SD

Subtitles: EN

Science, Ethics and Society (2014) - To seriously deal with basic ethical questions is especially important for scientists.

This Mini Lecture deals with question of the socio-political responsibility of science with lecture snippets of Nobel Laureates Roald Hoffmann, Dickinson Richards, Werner Forssmann, and Christian de Duve.

Science, is everything that’s possible permissible? With cloning, nuclear energy and stem cell research scientific progress continues apace. But against this backdrop the debate over ethics in science has become a pressing issue again in the 21st century. Each and every scientist will need to confront this debate at some point over their careers. And this is why the Nobel laureates deliberate on questions of science, ethics and society at the intergenerational meetings in Lindau. By contrast I believe -and there is a philosophical tradition to back this up- that in any action by a human being the instrument of that action, a gun, a molecule synthesised, yes, even a mathematical equation or a poem, must be accompanied, must be accompanied by a moral judgement. The judgment minimally is: Will the use of that instrument by me or by others, that’s the difficult part, hurt people or not? The invention or implementation of a tool without consideration of the consequences of its use by the inventor is deeply incomplete I would say. Hoffmann’s thoughts reflect the core debate about ethics and moral issues in science. This centres on the question of whether scientists bear moral responsibility for the consequences of their work. And more precisely, in what way does the scientific community have obligations and duties towards the societies they work in? So far we’ve reached no commonly agreed position on these issues. The UN Declaration of Human Rights does guarantee the freedom of science and research. But despite the legal basis, the declaration provides, it’s up to the scientific community itself to establish norms and principles on its own. And discussions in this arena have enjoyed a long tradition. It was over 2,000 years ago in ancient Greece that Hippocrates of Kos established medicine as a science. In his view man belongs to nature but nature does not belong to man. This was an opinion however that came to be challenged as modern science progressed. Gradually humankind went from being part of nature to actually dominating nature. Progress enabled man to achieve great prosperity. But it also caused great grief and suffering. In the physical sciences in this brave new world man was all but overwhelmed by his own success. A. N. Whitehead has said that the Middle Ages were the age of faith based on reason, the 18th century, the age of reason based on faith. It was faith in science and its limitless possibilities. It was faith also in man and his limitless capability. It is a sad reflection on our miscalculations to consider now if we are to survive how much of our time will have to be spent correcting our own mistakes. In all of this, where does Hippocrates come in? He comes in most vigorously. You will remember some 24 centuries ago his general position that man belonged to nature but nature does not belong to man. Although the context has changed it seems reasonable to suppose that Hippocrates would argue that man must now abandon the notion of conquering nature and become once more nature’s servant. It’s within this sentiment that physicians such as Richards have called on the scientific community to focus on the Hippocratic ideal of partnership between man and nature again. Only in this way will humankind be able to survive on this planet. But the core question remains. Where exactly does responsibility lie? Deeply rooted in the western philosophical tradition is a strict divide between science and moral values. Science aims to produce pure knowledge without taking social values into account. The responsibility for the use of this knowledge for good or ill lies with government and society itself. Without this division the objectivity and reliability of scientific research could not be ensured. One of the foremost advocates of this view was German sociologist and economist Max Weber. All the same even this stance is not entirely value free. That’s because we have 2 kinds of values. Epistemic values are values generated within science and therefore considered legitimate. These values settle the process of scientific work and lay down rules for publishing research. And with that they guarantee the generation of verifiable knowledge. At issue though are non-epistemic values. These may be personal view points, religious beliefs or moral stances. The key question here is whether scientists can and should keep these non-epistemic values well away from their work. With the terrible events that shook the world in the 20th century the strict distinction between science and values came to be questioned once again along with a moral duty of scientists and researchers. This view has been with us for quite some time. As early as the 17th century Francis Bacon, a pioneer of modern science, put forward the notion that scientific progress must serve humankind. This was an ideal that aimed to improve day to day life and collective wellbeing. This ideal also underlines the nominations for the Nobel Prizes. In his final will and testament Alfred Nobel stated that the Prizes should be awarded to those scientists who had achieved the greatest good for humanity over the course of the previous year. Today the question of scientist’s responsibility towards society has returned to the foreground. With developments such as genetically modified crops and nuclear test reactors much scientific enterprise now takes place outside the laboratory. This means that scientists have to consider the potential effects of that enterprise before work has even begun. Based on Bacon’s ideal of science in service to man, scientific research needs to be premised first and foremost on the principle of doing no harm. This is why Nobel laureates such as Joseph Rotblat have called for a mandatory ethical code of conduct in science with the needs of humanity being returned to centre stage. In medical practice the Hippocratic Oath has been the guiding ethical principle for almost 2,500 years. And there are ethics commissions that regulate the way people are treated in tests and trials. But so far much scientific research has lacked similar ethical safeguards despite several attempts to remedy the situation. One such attempt was the declaration of human duties formulated by Rita Levi-Montalcini. She conceived it as an addendum to the UN Declaration of Human Rights. But for Nobel laureate Christian de Duve an ethical code of conduct alone is not enough. Humankind itself has to overcome the blind compulsions of natural selection that are found in our genes. Many thousands of years ago the tendency to intra-group selfishness and inter-group hostility helped humans survive in the savannahs of Africa. But now these once useful traits have become a threat. They endanger life in an over populated and globalised world where almost all groups and cultures have become dependent on each other. If we continue to give in to the impulses of our genes, humankind will not be able to survive. Scientific research must be constantly evaluated in its impact on society and ethics. And this is an obligation for each and every scientist. All is not lost. But the writing is on the wall. If we don’t act soon to overcome our genetic tendency to intra-group selfishness and inter-group hostility, the future of humanity and of much of life on earth will be gravely endangered, possibly leading to total extinction under conditions that can only be visualised as apocalyptic. Here I turn to the young. This is the most wonderful thing about this Lindau Nobel Meetings. And as long as I am physically able to come I will come back because here is where we meet the young people of the world. And they are here and I would like to turn to all you young people in this audience and say to them: I want to tell you, my generation, our generation has made a mess of things. It’s up to you to do better. The future is in your hands. Good luck. Applause.


This Mini Lecture deals with question of the socio-political responsibility of science with lecture snippets of Nobel Laureates Roald Hoffmann, Dickinson Richards, Werner Forssmann, and Christian de Duve.