“Ethics is important when goods collide. It’s no problem deciding between something bad and something good – where ethics really comes is when you have two good things two decide with and you must decide between them because it has consequences.” – Roald Hoffman, 2006
Do ethics arise naturally out of the pursuit of science? What, if anything, about the scientific process inherently forces scientists to confront ethical issues in their work? Last July, Professor of Chemistry and Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffman gave a talk (update: search for ‘ethics’ at the talk link) on this subject at the Annual Meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany.
There’s been an increasing spotlight on scandalous acts of fraud in the scientific community. Hoffman gives an elloquent overview of how the peer review process and the scientific method force scienctists to come to terms with their work, themselves, and eachother in such a way that ethical conduct arises natually, and in doing so marginallizes sensational scandals. Communication forces researchers to confront ethical quandries that must be faced, evaded, or navigated, and it is this negotiation that promotes ethical conduct.
The upshot of this is that while scientists may not necessarily be ethical, science itself acts as a set of rails for behavior in the scientific community. Having such a self-correcting system is important, because otherwise it may seem like the only reason for ethical behavior amongst scientists is the fear of being caught.
Hoffman’s talk raises some excellent questions about the motivation for ethical behavior, the critical importance (to ethics) of publishing experimental methods, and how our ethics need to be excercised so that they do not wither and atrophy. The talk is long, but if you can make it to the last 5 minutes he closes with a cool interpretation of the story of The Garden of Eden and how Original Sin was our first foray into the world of experimental ethics.