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Some Thoughts on Scientific Responsibility. John Weckert Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics Charles Sturt University Australian National University University of Melbourne . Overview. Responsibility Six considerations: Double effect Dual use Collingridge dilemma Prediction

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Some Thoughts on Scientific Responsibility

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some thoughts on scientific responsibility

Some Thoughts on Scientific Responsibility

John Weckert

Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics

Charles Sturt University

Australian National University

University of Melbourne

  • Responsibility
  • Six considerations:
    • Double effect
    • Dual use
    • Collingridge dilemma
    • Prediction
    • Collective responsibility
    • If we don’t others will
  • Some conclusions
scientific responsibility
Scientific responsibility
  • Responsibility to do good science
    • Any attempt at guiding scientific research towards a purpose other than its own is an attempt to deflect it from the advancement of science (Polanyi,1962).
    • Scientific progress …results from the free play of free intellects, … in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown. (Bush, 1945)
european commission
European Commission

Researchers and research organisations should remain accountable for the social, environmental and human health impacts that their N&N research may impose on present and future generations (code of conduct for responsible nanosciences and nanotechnologies research, 2008)


Causal responsibility

Role responsibility

Moral responsibility

(Individual v Collectivity responsibility)

2 double effect unintended consequences
2. Double Effect/Unintended Consequences
  • Thomas Aquinas: A single act may have two effects, of which only one is intended, while the other is incidental to that intention. But the way in which a moral act is to be classified depends on what is intended
double effect unintended consequences
Double Effect/Unintended Consequences

consequences that are both foreseen and intentional

consequences that are foreseen and unintentional

consequences that are unforeseen

1 - responsibility

2 – alternatives?

3 -some unforeseen consequences should have been foreseen

3 dual use
3. Dual Use
  • Any products, software or technology that can be used for both civil and military purposes are dual-use items.
  • Not the sense used here
dual use
Dual Use
  • The so-called “dual use dilemma” arises in the context of research in the biological and other sciences as a consequence of the fact that one and the same piece of scientific research sometimes has the potential to be used for harm as well as for good. (Miller and Selgelid)  
dual use1
Dual Use

It is an ethical dilemma since it is about promoting good in the context of the potential for also causing harm

Ethical dilemmas should be solved not by simply weighing up the potential benefits against the potential harms, but rather by finding other alternatives.

4 the collingridge dilemma
4. The Collingridge Dilemma
  • Either a technology is in a relatively early stage of development when it is unknown what changes should be made, or a technology is in a relatively late stage of development when change is expensive, difficult and time-consuming.
  • If the former, then control is not possible.
  • If the latter, then control is not feasible.
  • Therefore, either controlling technology is not possible, or controlling technology is not feasible
  • So there can be no responsibility
  • BUT it is not a real dilemma!
5 prediction
5. Prediction

The consequences of research cannot be predicted

Therefore responsibility for consequences does not arise


"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."

Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

"640K ought to be enough for anybody."

Bill Gates, 1981


"Radio has no future."

"X-rays are clearly a hoax."

"The aeroplane is scientifically impossible."

Royal Society president William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, 1897-9.

  • Eric Drexler distinguishes between predicting future scientific knowledge and engineering developments
  • Some prediction is reasonable
    • Extrapolation from known cases
    • Eg. use of surveillance technology
  • Vision assessment (Grünwald)
1 collective responsibility
1. Collective responsibility

Science is collaborative (collective)

No individual can be held responsible

BUT if what the group does is morally questionably and I accept it, I am morally tainted (May)

6 if we don t others will the problem
6. “If we don’t others will”The problem
  • Tennis rackets
    • If we don’t manufacture tennis rackets containing nanoparticles someone else will
  • Bionics
    • We might worry about where bionics will lead, but the R & D will be done anyway by someone
  • Both statements are probably true
  • Are these good arguments?
  • The world won’t be a better place if we do not, because the developments will still happen
  • It may be a worse place because we have better safeguards
  • We will miss out and others will benefit
  • So we should do it and cannot be held responsible for any harms
if we don t others will arguments against
“If we don’t others will”Arguments against
  • If something is wrong we should not do it, even if others will
    • (deontological argument)
  • If we do it, it will give a bad example to others
  • If we don’t it will set a good example
    • (consequentialist argument)
if we don t others will
“If we don’t others will”
  • Metaphysical guilt even if no moral responsibility
  • We are responsible for the kind of people that we are
  • Moral taint
if we don t others will some considerations
“If we don’t others will”Some considerations
  • How bad is the action?
  • How much harm will it cause?
  • How much less harm will be caused if we do it than if someone else does?
  • How much more will it benefit us if we do it than someone else if they do it?
  • How certain is it that if we don’t do it someone else will?
  • Do we want to be morally tainted?
  • All arguments can be reasonable in some circumstances
  • All can be (often are) used as excuses
  • There is a need for more and continued examination of the issues underlying these arguments
albert einstein
Albert Einstein

'In our time, scientists and engineers carry a particularly heavy burden of moral responsibility, because the development of military means of mass destruction is dependent on their work.'

joseph rotblat
Joseph Rotblat

believed that scientists should always be concerned with the ethical consequences of their work.

was the only physicist to leave the Manhattan Project on the grounds of conscience

leonardo da vinci1
Leonardo da Vinci
  • How and why is it that I do not describe my method for remaining underwater and how long I can remain there without coming up for air? I do not wish to divulge or publish this because of the evil nature of men, who might use it for murder on the sea-bed (quoted in White, 2000, 206).