The role of ethics in science and engineering
Deborah G. Johnson
Department of Science, Technology, and Society, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia 22904
It is generally thought that science and engineering should never cross certain ethical lines. The idea connects ethics to science and engineering, but it frames the relationship in a misleading way. Moral notions and practices inevitably influence and are influenced by science and engineering. The important question is how such interactions should take place. Anticipatory ethics is a new approach that integrates ethics into technological development.
Trends in Biotechnology, December 2010, Vol. 28, No. 12 589
Directing rather than interfering
What are we to make of the rhetoric of ‘going where no humans should go’? The above analysis suggests why the questions raised are so important and why the rhetoric is misleading. We should be asking whether science and engineering are taking us where we want to go; bringing morality into engagement with science and engineering ensures that human ends and values are served. However, the rhetoric of line-crossing and restricting is misleading because it suggests that science and engineering are endeavors that move independently of society, and, now and then, must be interfered with, restricted or diverted.
This blinds us from seeing science as a means to social ends and it deflects attention away from issues about how science and engineering are now being directed. Acknowledgment that science and engineering continuously interact with moral notions and practices opens the way to developing more effective ways to include ethics in steering science and engineering research.
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The analysis is not sufficiently fine-grained to result in a comprehensive theory of ethics and the sciences.
Firstly, it has to be acknowledged that science, simply conceived as the enterprise of expanding the multitude of facts available, will only occur in fields and enterprises which seem likely to yield moral goods. Otherwise, no research.
Secondly, it is important to distinguish between science and engineering. Science is the enterprise which brings fresh facts to our attention, while engineering takes those facts and makes something of them.
Thus, one can take the fruits of science — which some insist are value-neutral — and translate them into technologies which lend themselves best to evil accomplishments.
Once these terms are clarified, it becomes fairly obvious that there are no ethical limits on science, and that technology is where constraints are best considered.
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