168 Definition of Ethics and Societal Responsibility

Learning Objectives

This section explores the questions of the role of ethics in science, the role of responsibility of science for society, and the responsibility society has in science. It is not meant as an in-depth study of ethics in general. Please look at philosophy books for a thorough study of ethics.

What Is Meant by “Ethics”?

Ethics is the study of the standards of right and wrong that inform us as to how we ought to behave. These standards relate to unwritten rules that are necessary for humans to live among each other, such as “don’t hurt others.” We function better as a society when we treat each other well. Ethics can also refer to the standards themselves. They often pertain to rights, obligations, fairness, responsibilities, and specific virtues like honesty and loyalty. They are supported by consistent and well-founded reasons; as such, they have universal appeal. It’s never good to have a society that supports hurting others as a general rule; honesty and loyalty are positive attributes. Can we think of instances when hurting others is condoned (such as in war) and where honesty or loyalty may be misplaced? Of course! That’s one of the reasons why ethics are so complicated.

adapted from: Introduction to Ethics. Authors: Manuela A. Gomez, El Paso Community College. Introduction to Ethics by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY. Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted. accessed from https://www.oercommons.org/courses/introduction-to-ethics/view on 3/16/2022

Types of Ethics

Ethics is a big field with different types and traditions. Only a few are listed in the following sections.

Personal Ethics

  • Includes your personal values and moral qualities.
  • Influenced by family, friends, culture, religion, education and many other factors.
  • Examples: I believe using animals for research is morally wrong.
  • Personal ethics can change and are chosen by an individual.

adapted from: Introduction to Ethics. Authors: Manuela A. Gomez, El Paso Community College. Introduction to Ethics by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY. Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted. accessed from https://www.oercommons.org/courses/introduction-to-ethics/view on 3/16/2022

Common Ethics

  • Ethics that the majority of people agree on.
  • Many philosophers argue there is no such ethics.
  • Do we have the same ethics in the world? Do we have the same ethics in the U.S.? Does everyone in your family share the same ethics?
  • Examples: Murdering people for the sake of murder is wrong.
  • Notice how this would change in the context of self-defense.
  • Common ethics have to be very general to avoid disagreement.

adapted from: Introduction to Ethics. Authors: Manuela A. Gomez, El Paso Community College. Introduction to Ethics by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY. Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted. accessed from https://www.oercommons.org/courses/introduction-to-ethics/view on 3/16/2022

Professional Ethics

Professional ethics can use formal codes. The purpose of these formal codes is to remove ambiguity regarding what is considered ethical and unethical behavior in that specific environment. For college students, there are formal codes about academic integrity. Formal codes about academic integrity include plagiarism. Louisiana State University defines plagiarism as “the lack of appropriate citation, or the unacknowledged inclusion of someone else’s words, structure, ideas, or data; failure to identify a source, or the submission of essentially the same work for two assignments without permission of the Instructor” (https://www.lsu.edu/saa/students/academicintegrity/index.php). Southern University and Agricultural & Mechanical College define plagiarism as “failing to identify sources, published or unpublished, copyrighted or uncopyrighted, from which information was taken” (https://www.subr.edu/page/851).

Some additional thoughts about professional ethics are as follows:

  • Rules imposed on an employee in a company, or as a member of a profession. For instance, journalists, doctors, lawyers, etc.
  • Imposed when you are a part of a professional setting or when you are being trained or educated for working for a specific profession.
  • Examples: no gossiping, time management, punctuality, confidentiality, transparency.
  • Not adhering to these may harm your professional reputation.

 

adapted from: Introduction to Ethics. Authors: Manuela A. Gomez, El Paso Community College. Introduction to Ethics by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY. Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted. accessed from https://www.oercommons.org/courses/introduction-to-ethics/view on 3/16/2022

Prescriptive Ethics

Adapted from Philosophical Ethics. George W. Matthews, Plymouth State University. Copyright Year: 2020. Attribution CC BY-SA (https://open.umn.edu/opentextbooks/textbooks/philosophical-ethics)

– What is really the right thing to do?

– What moral principles are really justified and should be followed?

This approach to ethics is the uniquely philosophical attempt to find the true basis of ethical thinking. This way of approaching ethics is not scientific, to the extent that science concerns itself with “value-neutral” descriptions and explanations of whatever phenomena it is addressing.

Applied Ethics

Philosophical Ethics. George W. Matthews, Plymouth State University. Copyright Year: 2020. Attribution CC BY-SA (https://open.umn.edu/opentextbooks/textbooks/philosophical-ethics )

– What is the right thing to do in real-world cases of ethical controversy?

– What assumptions and principles lie at the basis of ethical controversies?

How does all of this play out in real-life cases? Under this heading are also to be found discussions of ethical issues associated with some particular area of human life, profession, or subject matter—hence medical ethics, business ethics, legal ethics, environmental ethics, bioethics, and so on are sub-fields within applied ethics.

Ethical Approaches (for Personal Ethics)

From the earliest moments of recorded human consciousness, the ethical discipline has entailed four fundamental approaches, often called ethical decision-making frameworks: Utilitarian Ethics (outcome based), Deontological Ethics (duty based), Virtue Ethics (virtue based), and Communitarian Ethics (community based).

adapted from: Introduction to Ethics. Authors: Manuela A. Gomez, El Paso Community College. Introduction to Ethics by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY. Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted. accessed from https://www.oercommons.org/courses/introduction-to-ethics/view on 3/16/2022

(2) The Primacy of the Public. Subtitle: Ethical Design for Technology Professionals. Author: Marcus Schultz-Bergin.

Research Ethics

Adapted from

The Practice of Science Versus the Uses of Science. (2021, February 20). https://socialsci.libretexts.org/@go/page/12555. CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Research ethics has to do with both how research is conducted and how findings from that research are used and by whom. In this section, we’ll consider research ethics from both angles.

Doing Science the Ethical Way

Adapted from

The Practice of Science Versus the Uses of Science. (2021, February 20). https://socialsci.libretexts.org/@go/page/12555. CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

As you should now be aware, researchers must consider their own personal ethical principles in addition to following those of their institution, their discipline, and their community.

The use of human beings as research subjects is exceptional because technically humans cannot be used in any way similar to animals in research. Considerations for human research subjects can be contemplated under systematic, scientific investigation in scenarios that can be either interventional (a “trial”) or observational (no “test article”), and they are normally referred to as test subjects. Also, for the purpose of the Common Rule, scientific research that only uses materials, including samples and specimen, from deceased persons is not typically considered human subjects research.

The ethical practice of research includes informing and protecting subjects if they are humans. But the practice of ethical research doesn’t end once subjects have been identified and data have been collected. Scientists must also fully disclose their research procedures and findings. This means being honest about how research subjects were identified and recruited, how exactly data were collected and analyzed, and ultimately, what findings were reached.

If researchers fully disclose how they conducted their research, then those of us who use their work to build our own research projects, to create policies, or to make decisions about our lives can have some level of confidence in the work. By sharing how research was conducted, a researcher helps assure readers that he or she has conducted legitimate research and didn’t simply come to whatever conclusions he or she wanted to find. A description or presentation of research findings that is not accompanied by information about research methodology is missing some relevant information. Sometimes methodological details are left out because there isn’t time or space to share them. This is often the case with news reports of research findings. Other times, there may be a more insidious reason that that important information isn’t there. This may be the case if sharing methodological details would call the legitimacy of a study into question. As researchers, it is our ethical responsibility to fully disclose our research procedures. As consumers of research, it is our ethical responsibility to pay attention to such details. We’ll discuss this more in the section “Using Science the Ethical Way.”

Full disclosure also includes the need to be honest about a study’s strengths and weaknesses, both with oneself and with others. Being aware of the strengths and weaknesses of one’s own work can help a researcher make reasonable recommendations about the next steps other researchers might consider taking in their inquiries. Awareness and disclosure of a study’s strengths and weaknesses can also help highlight the theoretical or policy implications of one’s work. In addition, openness about strengths and weaknesses helps those reading the research better evaluate the work and decide for themselves how or whether to rely on its findings. Finally, openness about a study’s sponsors is crucial. How can we effectively evaluate research without knowing who paid the bills?

The standard of replicability along with openness about a study’s strengths, weaknesses, and funders enable those who read the research to evaluate it fairly and completely. Knowledge of funding sources is often raised as an issue in medical research. Understandably, independent studies of new drugs may be more compelling to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) than studies touting the virtues of a new drug that happen to have been funded by the company who created that drug. The FDA has rules in reporting research data and/or findings in R&D. One is not required to carry all manner of research on for example a new drug that has been developed by a company. In most cases, safety, efficacy and dosage are threshold findings that suffice. However, if one does any research investigation, findings reported must not be selective under any circumstances, all data must be made available to the FDA. Mandatory reporters (that is, manufacturers, device user facilities, and importers) are also required to make some reports for adverse events and product problems about medical devices. Health care professionals, patients, caregivers and users may submit voluntary reports about adverse events that are serious adverse events associated with a medical device, use errors, poor product quality, therapeutic failures among others. Such reports and data obtained from additional sources, can provide crucial information beneficial to patient safety improvement.

 

Using Science the Ethical Way

Adapted from

The Practice of Science Versus the Uses of Science. (2021, February 20). https://socialsci.libretexts.org/@go/page/12555

CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

 

Science has many uses. By “use,” we mean the ways that science is understood and applied (as opposed to the way it is conducted). Some use science to create laws and social policies; others use it to understand themselves and those around them. Some people rely on science to improve their life conditions or those of other people, while still others use it to improve their businesses or other undertakings. In each case, the most ethical way for us to use science is to educate ourselves about the design and purpose of any studies we may wish to use or apply, to recognize our limitations in terms of scientific and methodological knowledge and how those limitations may impact our understanding of research, and to apply the findings of scientific investigation only in cases or to populations for which they are actually relevant.

 

CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

 

When Are Research and Innovation Good for Society?

Adapted from

Responsible Innovation – 2nd edition: Ethics, Safety and Technology; 2nd edition. Authors: Joost Groot Kormelink;. TU Delft, Technology. Policy and Management

https://textbooks.open.tudelft.nl/textbooks/catalog/view/24/53/164-1 accessed 3/15/2022 DOI https://doi.org/10.5074/t.2019.006

ISBN 978-94-6366-202-4; PUBLICATION DATE October 7, 2019; Copyright (c) 2019 Joost Groot Kormelink

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

 

Innovation may bring a lot of good to society, but innovation is not a good in itself. History provides many examples of innovations and new technologies that had serious negative consequences, or simply failed to address significant problems and make meaningful contributions to society. Ethics is continuous. Well-known examples are carcinogenic asbestos or the ecological devastation caused by DDT. At times, science and society are intertwined in contentious ties. DDT manufacture was ethical at the time because it saved many agricultural products. DDT was shown to be persistent in the environment and to have harmful impacts on animal and human health as time went on. Once a product has been shown to be deleterious to society, there is a relentless obligation of science to pull those products from the environment.  This is demonstrating ethics as well.  Innovation itself can be controversial, as sometimes good intentions have had profoundly negative results with severe consequences and long-lasting impacts on society, populations, and the environment. The drug Thalidomide provides one of the best case studies that has continued to affect ethical conduct of research in numerous ways as the drug itself has found new uses. Thalidomide was original developed and tested on pregnant mice. Thalidomide was sent to the FDA for approval for clinical use but faced resistance due to insufficient data and the animal model used. Thalidomide found acceptance in the United Kingdom and generally countries in Europe and was mainly administered in the late 1950s and early 1960s for the treatment of nausea in pregnant women. By the 1960s, severe defects resulting from thalidomide treatment were being widely reported in several thousands of children. The United States escaped the scourge of the drug, but it was banned in most countries. Continuing research showed the drug to be useful in the treatment for leprosy and, later, multiple myeloma. Unfortunately, in rural areas of the world that lack extensive medical surveillance, initiatives continued to use thalidomide on pregnant women with leprosy, resulting in malformations. However, research on thalidomide has continued focusing mainly on mechanisms of action of the drug to delineate the molecular targets. Understanding how the drug works could lead to smart and safer drug design. Quite recently, it was successfully used in the treatment of some ulcers. This innovation originally brought tragedy but has led to improved toxicity testing. The United States, which initially was circumspect, has joined international regulatory agencies to develop systematic toxicity testing protocols. Thus, Thalidomide has served as a powerful tool in developmental biology, resulting in significant discoveries in the biochemical pathways of limb development. Notwithstanding the tragedies of thalidomide use, the Society of Toxicology regards its withdrawal from the market during the 1960s as a significant milestone. Ethical situations are difficult to contend, but revisiting these difficult lessons points to how far we have come and, going forward, the adjustments that have to be made and new things learnt.

It is therefore of the utmost importance—our duty, even—to define an adequate and shared conception of responsibility for our innovations and technologies. Just think about questions like the following:

  • Can our innovations save lives?
  • Will they produce more jobs?
  • Can they save the planet, or do they only contribute more waste and pollution?
  • Are they safe for users and secure from abusers?
  • Do they respect the values and basic human rights we hold dear, like privacy, freedom, autonomy and equality? If not, how can we make them so? If not us, who? If not now, when?

 

 

Responsible Research and Innovation

In November 2014, the Council of the European Union issued the Rome Declaration on Responsible Research and Innovation in Europe. It declared that “Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) is the ongoing process of aligning research and innovation to the values, needs, and expectations of society. Decisions in research and innovation must consider the principles on which the European Union is founded—i.e., the respect of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and the respect of human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. RRI requires that all stakeholders in civil society are responsive to each other and take shared responsibility for the processes and outcomes of research and innovation. This means working together in science education, the definition of research agendas, the conduct of research, the access to research results, and the application of new knowledge in society—in full respect of gender equality, the gender dimension in research and ethics considerations. The benefits of Responsible Research and Innovation go beyond alignment with society: it ensures that research and innovation deliver on the promise of smart, inclusive and sustainable solutions to our societal challenges; it engages new perspectives, new innovators, and new talent from across our diverse society, allowing us to identify solutions which would otherwise go unnoticed; it builds trust between citizens and public and private institutions in supporting research and innovation; it reassures society about embracing innovative products and services; and it assesses the risks and the way these risks should be managed.

The document can be found online https://www.sis-rri-conference.eu/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/RomeDeclaration_Final.pdf

accessed 3/15/2022

 

International Organization for Standardization and Societal Responsibility

There are also industry standards for social responsibility. The ISO (the International Organization for Standardization) is a worldwide federation of national standards bodies (ISO member bodies). It developed a standard for societal responsibility called ISO 26000. This standard provides guidance on the underlying principles of social responsibility, recognizing social responsibility and engaging stakeholders, the core subjects and issues pertaining to social responsibility, and ways to integrate socially responsible behavior into the organization. This International Standard emphasizes the importance of results and improvements in performance on social responsibility.

Adapted from ISO 26000:2010(en) Guidance on social responsibility, https://www.iso.org/iso-26000-social-responsibility.html, https://www.iso.org/standard/42546.html, https://www.iso.org/obp/ui/#iso:std:iso:26000:ed-1:v1:en. Accessed 3/16/2022

 

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