Philosophy

Discussion

The Moral Responsibility of the Scientist

Andrew Belseya1

a1 University College, Cardiff

Robert Hoffman's note, ‘Scientific Research and Moral Rectitude’ (Philosophy, 50 (1975), 475–7), is a highly misleading introduction to this important topic. Hoffman points out (rightly) that there are some people who ‘believe that the researcher's claim to freedom of inquiry should be upheld only if his discovery does not adversely affect mankind or any significant segment thereof’ (475), and his aim is to reject this belief. But such people are right, as can be shown by some counter-arguments and examples. But first a slight qualification is necessary, for, as Hoffman points out, it is impossible before an inquiry to state categorically that its outcome will (or will not) adversely affect mankind. But it may be possible to estimate whether it is likely to affect mankind adversely, and it is surely reasonable to hold that a researcher's claim to freedom of inquiry should not be upheld if it is likely that the inquiry will adversely affect mankind. If a nuclear physicist interested in particle fusion wishes to carry out research which is likely to lead to an uncontrolled nuclear explosion, no one would seriously uphold his right to carry out this research in a laboratory situated in a densely populated area. And to reply that he still has a right to carry out this research alone on a desert island would be to concede, not to circumvent, the claim that scientific research ought to be under the critical eye of moral responsibility. The critic of science would not in any case accept this reply, since he believes not unreasonably that nuclear explosions adversely affect mankind wherever on earth they occur.