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Theoretical Ethics

Are There Things Which We Should Not Know?

Agnieszka Lekka-Kowalik
Catholic University of Lublin, Poland

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ABSTRACT: It has been claimed that decisions concerning scientific research topics and the publication of research results are purely methodological, and that any moral considerations refer only to research methods and uses of acquired knowledge. The arguments advanced in favor of this view appeal to the moral neutrality of scientific knowledge and the intrinsic value of truth. I argue that neither is valid. Moreover, I show three cases where a scientist’s decision to begin research clearly bears moral relevance: (1) when starting an inquiry would create circumstances threatening some non-cognitive values; (2) when achieving a certain piece of knowledge would threaten the existence of the individual’s private sphere; and (3) when there are reasons to think that humankind is not prepared to accumulate some knowledge. These cases do not prove the existence of some intrinsically ‘morally forbidden topics,’ but show that the moral permissibility of any given inquiry is not a priori guaranteed but needs to be judged in the same way that its methodological soundness is judged. Judgments concerning research topics have both methodological and moral aspects and these two cannot be separated under the threat of distorting science. Making such judgments requires knowledge not only of scientific methodology, but also of its social and philosophical implications. Philosophy is necessary in order to do good science.

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My search for an answer to the title question is restricted to science which is the main source of our knowledge about the world and to its moral dimension. In order to know anything in a scientific way one needs to investigate relevant themes with scientific means. Are there then topics which should not for moral reasons be investigated in science? Of course, not all topics are worth pursuing; and not all research methods and uses of gained results are morally acceptable. Is it, however, possible that in scientific practice there might arise situations in which scientists would be morally obliged to refrain from gaining a piece of knowledge, even if that piece were scientifically interested, no objection to methods raised, no prospect of misuse detected, and some considerable gain expected? The usual answer to this question is negative:

Science must be free to question and investigate any matter within the scope of its method and to hold and state whatever conclusions are reached on the basis of the evidence — or it will perish (Glass 1993, 50).

That is, freedom from any restrictions to choose research topics and to publish results is an absolute condition for the existence of science. A scientist’s decision to investigate this or that topic and to publish her conclusions is purely methodological. Moral considerations come only when methods or applications of results are deliberated.

I shall call this view into question. I claim that a scientist’s decision to investigate any research topic has both methodological and moral dimensions, although in some cases the latter comes more to the fore than in others. In this sense morality is a constitutive element of science, and not something impose on science from outside.

The above view is expressed in many different ways: that there is no scientific knowledge that we should not want to have for knowledge understood as truth is the goal and fulfillment of the highest human capacities (Gaerdenfors 1990); that sciences yield knowledge and knowledge as such — as contrasted with its application — cannot be good or evil (Bunge 1991); that honest scientific inquiry cannot be ethically wrong unless one believes that truth itself is wrong (Herrstein and Wilson 1985). Such claims are attempts to guarantee a priori moral neutrality (and moral permissibility) of scientists’ decisions concerning research topics on the basis of moral neutrality of scientific knowledge and of the intrinsic value of truth. Yet, these arguments do not work.

Taken literary, the statement that knowledge cannot be morally good or bad is trivially true if knowledge is considered as a set of propositions. We cannot predicate morality of propositions, just as we cannot predicate color of numbers. Moral neutrality of propositions is irrelevant to the issue of whether a scientist’s decision to investigate a certain topic is morally neutral as well.

The same holds for arguments appealing to the intrinsic value of truth. Let us agree that science yields truth which is intrinsically valuable. However, the nature of a goal does not justify the means of achieving it. The intrinsic value of truth seen as the goal of science does not justify scientific inquiry as the means of achieving that goal. A scientist’s decision to investigate a certain topic is a part of inquiry and not a part of knowledge, and so from the intrinsic value of knowledge and of truth moral acceptability of action leading to it does not follow. If a necessary link between an object’s intrinsic value and moral obligation to choose that object as our goal existed then it would be possible to guarantee a priori moral permissibility of any scientific inquiry. For we could never be morally forbidden to do what we are morally obliged to do. If we were morally obliged to achieve scientific knowledge in all cases then we would always be morally permitted to inquire with scientific means. Thus, we would not need to bother ourself with the question whether our decision to investigate this or that topic is morally acceptable. This would be secured a priori. A valid methodological justification of our decision would remain the only problem. Can we, however, accept the existence of such a link between the intrinsic value of knowledge and moral obligation always to achieve it? This seems to be doubtful.

Whether or not we are morally obliged to gain some knowledge seems to depend on circumstances. A medical specialist on neurophysiology is morally obliged to know many things relevant to his work in order to give his patients the best treatment; no such moral obligation arises for someone for whom knowledge of neurophysiology is a means of impressing friends. On the other hand experts in various contests are morally obliged not to search for knowledge concerning a person under evaluation for it is expected that such knowledge might distort their judgements. Obviously people’s current judgements are influenced by their previous knowledge on a given topic. Why should we otherwise introduce the institution of ‘a blind referee’? Of course, the contest public is free to inquire without moral anxiety into the competitor’s cv.

Is it possible to think of circumstances when a scientist’s decision to investigate a certain topics create moral uneasiness? At least three such cases might be indicated: when starting an inquiry would create circumstances threatening some non-cognitive highest values; when achieving a certain piece of knowledge would threaten the existence of the individual’s private sphere; when there are reasons to think that humankind is not prepared to accumulate some knowledge. Let us consider examples illustrating these cases, having in mind that real events in science are not so clear-cut or fall under more than one category of morally problematic research.

Suppose that a researcher suggests investigating jury deliberation. This seems to be a good object from a methodological point of view: the topic is interesting, morally unobjectionable methods are available and some practical profits are reasonably expected. Yet, as soon as we reflect on the nature of jury deliberation a problem arises: secrecy is its essential characteristic. When studying the reports which the jury-members give on their debates we are not sure whether we arrive at knowledge of jury deliberation or of the jury-members’s perception thereof. Yet, we have no cognitive access to jury deliberation itself unless we violate its secrecy. This is not a problem of hidden recording devices. Suppose that the jury-members in a certain case agreed to being observed. Observation as such is morally acceptable and the informed consent of our subjects is secured. However, the fact that the jury-members are observed may affect the very process of deliberation. That observers influence what is observed is not peculiar to jury deliberation. It seems to be a well-established psychological fact that the presence of a stranger changes behavior of a group and this poses methodological problems for sciences such as anthropology. Moreover, observing might not take place, but already the awareness of such a possibility influences the way people act. In most everyday cases we do not care about this fact. However, a jury is supposed to arrive at a just decision. If the very process of deliberation is affected by an observer’s presence, we have reasons to think that the decision will be affected as well. We are then not sure any more that this will be the same decision as it would be without the jury’s being observed. Thus, a scientist’s decision to start an inquiry — and not its methods and results — might threaten the execution of justice. It is a separate issue whether or when we are morally permitted to take a risk of sentencing an innocent person or acquitting a guilty one for the sake of cognitive profits. However, whatever decision a scientist makes it has not both methodological and moral aspects. For this is always a decision which states either: yes, I should go on with the inquiry in spite of the risk to justice; or: no, I must not go on because of that risk. The expressions ‘in spite of’ and ‘because of’ indicate that we need somehow to compare the values at stake — truth and justice — in order to solve the dilemma. Such an attempt is a moral issue, not methodological. On the other hand, the dilemma arises precisely because the methodological correctness of the suggested inquiry is recognized. Morality and methodology intertwine here.

Let us consider a second case. Suppose that a researcher investigates lying. It seems to be a well-established result that through measuring various factors (such as concentration of certain chemicals in our body) we can quite reliably ‘detect’ lies. It is conceivable that there are also some external indications of lying — a move of an eye or a twist of a nose. The imagined research results in a law-like relation between a certain reflex of the human body and a person’s lying. The methods were moral, informed consent of the subjects secured, abuses pre-vented. Would it not be practical to know this relation? Is it not a fascinating topic? It might well be. But there is also something deeply suspicious in the whole enterprise. Investigation into such a topic, if successful, would leave a person transparent in a certain respect. If I cannot control this reflex, the fact that I am lying will be revealed regardless of the reasons I have for my behavior and the consequences of exposing it. The same holds if science discovers relations between some visible uncontrollable gestures of the body and various states of mind such as loving, hating, being afraid, etc. To be sure, the intimate friend is usually able to recognize our lying, uneasiness, jealousy, etc. However, this capacity is a product of friendship — we accept mutual transparency as a part of the friendship. However, if science offers us means of ‘reading’ everybody’s minds then it forces us to know things which we do not necessarily want to know and to reveal things which we would rather conceal. In effect a significant part of our private sphere is destroyed. The more topics like that are successfully investigated the smaller does our human private sphere become. Many researchers point out that privacy is valuable as a basis of essential human relations. Would such scientific results in consequence threaten those relations?

We should not be misled by the term ‘means of reading one’s mind’ in this context for here knowledge is not ‘applied’ in any sense comparable to technical applications. Knowledge is here used in reasonings. That is we use one piece of knowledge to gain another; and it is easy to gain some knowledge about particulars once we have a scientifically established law-like relation. Knowing that all people twist their nose in a special way when lying we do not need any special inquiry to know when a particular person is lying. In a sense we cannot help knowing. The fact that the research on such transparency-forcing relations may be based on data which people freely confessed to scientists does not change the controversial character of such inquiries. The conclusion drawn from those data would apply to everyone. We willy-nilly obtain knowledge also about those who declined to reveal the relevant pieces of information.

Again, I do not insist that it is intrinsically wrong to choose such privacy-invading topics for research. My example does not render an argument for such a claim. It shows, however, that gaining knowledge, regardless of methods and of future application, has its consequences. We might try to liberate scientists from responsibility for application of scientific results but not from responsibility for gaining them; and the latter encompasses responsibility for consequences of gaining knowledge. Thus, when a scientist decides to realize a certain research project she implicitly makes twofold evaluation: methodological and moral. That is, she assumes that project is methodologically sound and expected consequences of gaining knowledge are morally acceptable. Again, morality and methodology intertwined in her decision.

A third case is even more complicated. Suppose that a scientist formulates an equation to calculate the day of one’s death unless an accident or a disease occurs. It is not a totally unthinkable situation, taking into account that we are biological beings subjected to natural laws. Would we be able to cope with such knowledge? Even if there are some advantages of knowing the date of one’s death, there are still strong doubts whether we should seek that knowledge. It is not the use which makes such knowledge problematic. What is questionable is the fact that people would have no control over this information. If a death-equation is scientifically formulated everybody is subjected to it. I may learn when I die regardless of whether I want to know or not; and every-body else may learn regardless of whether I want other people to know. I might not be able to help knowing this thing about myself and other people, also when I would rather not know.

Yet, it is still more than just a case of unwanted knowledge. We know from experience the knowledge of one’s dying puts a ‘shadow’ on life and the reaction to it varies individually. The decision to reveal or to conceal this information usually causes a lot of anxiety among the people dealing with a dying person. Rescher observes:

there may be some sorts of knowledge which people just cannot handle, destabilizing them to the point where the knowledge destroys or undermines their ability to function effectively. Here it would be imprudent for the individual to acquire this knowledge—and it could be immoral of another to inflict it upon him (Rescher 1987, 5)

If the death-equation is made a piece of scientific knowledge then there is no way of evaluating an individual’s capacity to handle the information. Moreover, we have also reasons to expect that such a piece of knowledge would change our thinking about life, not necessarily into a desirable direction. Thus, if Rescher is right then it might be immoral to inflict this piece of knowledge upon us; and if this piece becomes a part of science there is no way of avoiding being inflicted with it. Whether or not it is morally justified to impose such knowledge on people cannot be evaluated within methodology alone. Again, both methodology and morality are required in order to make a decision concerning such research topics.

One can try to argue that consequences of gaining knowledge do not matter for there is no piece of knowledge to which humanity does not eventually adapt itself (Gaerdenfors, 1989). However, this argument has a hidden Darwinian presupposition that adaptation goes always in a desirable direction. This does not need to be the case. We can genetically manipulate domestic animals in order to adapt them to small crowded cages, long journeys, etc. There would be many economic gains if we succeeded and, moreover, animals would suffer less. Yet, we seem to have moral doubts whether we should promote this kind of adaptation (Verhoog 1996). It might well be that humanity will adapt itself to any consequences of gaining knowledge on any topic but it does not follow that those adaptative changes are morally desirable.

Are there are topics which should not for moral reasons be investigated in science? I claim that this question does not have an a priori answer. The arguments trying to show that the nature of science guarantees moral permissibility of inquiry into any topic we like do not work. Moreover, we may indicate cases in which a decision to start research requires both moral and methodological justification, even if there are no objections to research method and applications of knowledge expected from that research. It may happen that in our scientific practice we never encounter ‘a forbidden topic’. Yet, each time we make a decision to start research the above question must be asked anew and answered with respect to a concrete project. This is the first thing which my philosophical analysis reveals about the nature of scientific enterprise. The second one is that there is no algorithm for answering the question concerning moral permissibility of starting a particular research project. Answering this question requires from individual scientists and scientific institutions passing judgements and accepting responsibility for that judgements. Aristotle observes that only those who possess relevant knowledge can make proper judgements in a certain domain. I argue that decisions concerning research topics have both methodological and moral aspect. Scientists usually have relevant knowledge of methodology. Yet, in order to make prudent decision they should possess the relevant knowledge of morality and the latter requires considerations concerning the nature of science, the place of knowledge among human values, relations between science and society and similar themes obviously of philosophical character. Thus, philosophy should educate and shape science which is to be value-conscious rather than value-free. As a matter of fact this is already taking place for various universities introduced research ethics as an organic part of scientific education. It remains to be considered what kind of philosophy is able to fulfil its educational role.

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Bunge M. ‘Basic Science is Innocent; Applied Science and Technology Can Be Guilty’ in: D.O.

Dahlstrom. Nature and Scientific Method. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press 1991. 95-105.

Gaerdenfors P. ‘Is There Anything We Should not Want to Know?’ in: J.E.

Fensted (ed.), Logic, Methodology and Philosophy of Science, New York:

Elsevier 1990. 63-78.

Glass, B. ‘The ethical basis of science’ in: Bulger, R.E. et al. (eds). The Ethical Dimension of the Biological Sciences. Cambridge University Press 1993. 43-55.

Herrnstein R. J. and Wilson J. Q, Crime and Human Nature, New York: Simon and Schuster 1985.

Rescher, N. ‘Forbidden Knowledge’ in: Forbidden Knowledge and Other Essays on the Philosophy of Cognition, Dordrecht: Reidel 1987. 1-16.

Verhoog, H. Genetic Modification of Animals. Should Science and Ethics Be Integrated? in: A. Lekka-Kowalik and D. Schulthess (Eds). Forbidden Knowledge. The Monist 79 (2) 1996.

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