Long-Term Responsibility In Research Ethics Research Paper

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The development of the modern sciences in the twentieth century brought about unexpected consequences for humankind both of a welcome and an unwelcome nature. The ethical issue of long-term responsibility in research takes on particular importance in view of the potential threat to future generations posed by the far-reaching and unforeseeable effects of realizing the possibilities of science. Yet our experience of the unforeseeable nature of innovation processes and the sheer impossibility of foreseeing the life circumstances of future (especially of distant) generations gives us reason for serious doubts about whether it is at all reasonable to speak of long-term responsibility in reference to research. Thus affirmation of this must be founded upon an enlightened ethical analysis of long-term responsibility. If, indeed, such responsibility is to be affirmed, it remains to be clarified who shall bear this responsibility: the researcher, the user, or those who benefit from the results of research. Finally, it may be necessary to determine how long-term responsibility should be implemented within the reality of societal decision-making processes.

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1. Scientific Aspects

The discipline of the ethics of science is concerned with the systematic reconstruction of those specific orientations for action that are determined by the understanding, immanent in each field of science in respect of its individual subject area, and the understanding of the scientific procedures for its description and explanation and an appreciation of the possibilities for action opened up by scientific knowledge. In this, ethics of science shall be understood as a part of philosophical ethics that refers to a specific, societal field of action determined by particular forms of knowledge. Above all, ethics of science, in respect of the task on hand, has to deal with two interrelated areas of phenomena. First, ethics of science draws on the specific ethos of the scientific community in order to reconstruct those orientations to which the scientist is committed, in the interest of seeking out the truth. This involves a smooth, unbroken transition from general rules of action (e.g., the prohibition of falsifying research results) to specific regulations for individual disciplines within the framework of their respective methodology. Second, ethics of science concerns itself with the relationship between general moral orientations and the problems of generating and applying scientific knowledge. Both in generating and applying, it is primarily a question of the practical consequences resulting from technical knowledge.

An example of the moral problems involved in the generation of scientific knowledge can be seen in the field of experiments on human beings in medical research and other medical science disciplines (above all in the field of psychology); more recent discussions target experiments on animals or genetic intervention into the genome of humans, animals, plants and microorganisms, for the purpose of getting to know more about genetics. The moral problems inherent in the application of scientific knowledge and the responsibility of the scientists concerned are now under discussion in almost every field of modern science, and have been especially since the ‘Manhattan Project’ (the building of the atom bomb by US physicists).

The beginning of modern science, at its core, has moved away from the concept of knowledge generated by contemplation, since it is now essentially characterized by knowledge that owes its existence to technical intervention into nature under controlled conditions. Not until a fundamental appreciation of the problems of a modern concept of knowledge was undertaken by Kant and other German proponents of idealism did it become clear that this, too, is thanks to moral presuppositions. Whereas initially it was not the technical consequences of the application of such knowledge that was in the foreground but rather the self-commitment of the scientist to the truth, in the interest of generating reliable knowledge, the discussion on the ethics of science in the twentieth century, in comparison, was first and foremost determined by the experience of the technical and practical consequences of scientific knowledge. In this it was predominantly the natural scientists, in the wake of the development of weapons of mass destruction and other large-scale technical applications of knowledge, who posed the question as to the moral principles of their actions. Above all, with the development of the modern biosciences, the question of the moral responsibility involved in the generation of knowledge has become the focus of attention. The problems arising especially in the medical disciplines and the biosciences are proving to be highly complex issues, involving the fundamental ethical orientation of societies characterized by scientific and technical civilization.

2. Fundamental Problems Of Long-Term Responsibility

As far as ethics is concerned, the idea that human beings not only bear responsibility for their actions towards those with whom they are faced in the ‘here and now’ is by no means a new idea ensuing from problems arising from modern science and technology. Nevertheless, the issue of obligation beyond the immediate circumstances of our actions is dramatically brought home to us by modern science and technology in a manner hitherto unknown, in that modern technology generates for successive generations qualitative and quantitative risks—but also chances—unknown to premodern technology, and this not only when actions are undertaken but also when they are omitted.

It is an indisputable fact that present-day actors expect the acceptance of a kind of risk that earlier generations never had to face. In the sense that this is a quantitatively and qualitatively new situation, it may be stated that humankind is now confronted with a new ethical problem. Thus the question of risk is materially the core question when considering the issue of the scientist’s responsibility for the future. Taking actions involving risks, however, is not in all cases conducive to conflict and thus is not always of ethical relevance. It is only of interest in those cases where others are expected to accept the taking of actions that involve risks. As far as and as long as the consequences of the actions concerned involve risks that are of a purely private nature, e.g., because (a) the consequences only effect the actors themselves; or (b) the consequences are not recognizable due to insufficient knowledge concerning the relevant causal or conditional nexus; or (c) though the consequences are foreseeable, the persons concerned, as moral subjects, are not deemed equals to the actors, so that as far and as long as this position is held, taking actions involving risks is not an ethical problem; it may be reduced to the problem of acting with predetermined consequences.

The ethical problems of taking actions involving risks are now exacerbated even more by a further dimension, i.e., when it is a matter of the consequences of technical activities for coming generations in the distant future. These are the guiding problems in the issue regarding long-term obligation. Thus, in principle, it should not be necessary to demand a new code of ethics but rather to attempt to come to terms with the ‘at any time’ concept of our obligation as seen in existing ethics. The question is to be asked more precisely as to what it means for human beings to be under obligation to other human beings in the distant future in view of the unforeseeable long-term consequences of their actions in applying the means of modern scientifically founded technology.

In issues of applied philosophy, like the question of responsibility for climate consequences, for the problems of the final disposal of nuclear waste, for the consequences of intervention in the human genome or for population growth, the problem of obligation and responsibility mainly concerns generations in the distant future. This entails asking a series of nontrivial questions that have to be answered if one seeks to justify the reason for and nature of such long-term responsibility. In this connection it is of primary importance to answer the following three fundamental questions:

(a) Are actors only under obligation toward those with whom they are concurrently interacting?

Only if the answer to this question is negative can there be any talk at all of obligation that extends beyond the actor’s present into the future. This question is to be answered in the affirmative by proponents of such ethical concepts from which obligations arise exclusively from claims uttered by currently existing conscious beings (this primarily implying preference-oriented utilitarian approaches). Within the framework of such concepts the paradox arises that for members of a generation G0 in relation to members of future generations Gn no obligations will ever be able to exist if the future generations are in reality not in a position actually to raise claims against the members of G. , which after sufficient passage of time (approx. n > 3) is always the case. In respect of concepts that reduce obligations to the actual voicing of claims of this nature it must be pointed out that there is a distinction between having the right to make claims on the one hand and the ability in reality to assert such claims on the other.

However, if future generations have justified claims against earlier generations (even when they are not yet able to assert them), then, in appropriate cases, corresponding obligations are incumbent upon the earlier toward the later generations.

(b) Does obligation end with generation k > i (e.g. where i = 3)?

Everyday intuition would seem to suggest what many economists profess, namely that due to the lack of knowledge concerning the needs of future generations, which increases with the growing distance in time, obligations extending into the future must end with a generation of a certain, relatively large magnitude of k. However, if one attempts to pin down this intuition precisely, it does, in fact, begin to seem implausible: on principle to allow obligations to end at certain generation markers would mean in effect that for the members of G0 in relation to Gi + 1, in contrast to the members of generation Gi there would be no obligations whatsoever, and this for the only reason that the former belong to a grade k i generation. A restriction of this kind on the scope of obligation would be incompatible with an ethical universalism, in principle presupposed both by obligation ethic as well as more recent approaches to an utilitarian ethics. If one grants recognition of moral justification to moral subjects at all, then it seems simply arbitrary to allow this to end at a particular time (or spatial) limit. To allow obligations to end with however near or distant a generation would be particularism of the present, an ‘ego-preference’ of those consciously concerned at the time. And in any case, such a form of particularism would be in contradiction to cognitive universalism, which is also inherent, so to speak, as a sort of regulative idea, in the search for scientific truth.

(c) Are actors under the same degree of obligation to members of the kth generation as they are to the first generation succeeding them?

The conclusion is often drawn from an affirmative answer to question (b) that the answer to question (c) must also be affirmative: Either there exists an obligation on the members of generation Gk or there exists no such obligation—but if it does exist, then it does so for the members of generation Gk just as for the members of generation Gk-1, Gk-2, … G1. This consequence, however, is not inevitable. On the contrary— irrespective of the question of temporal distance between those under obligation and those entitled to make a claim—a distinction must always be made between the existence of an obligation, on the one hand, and the degree of real liability on the other. Correspondingly the gradation of obligations must be sharply distinguished from the concept of discounting liabilities. Whereas, in fact, the idea of discounting (at any rate in most of the variants put forward) presupposes an ego-preference that is not compatible with universalism and which is therefore rightly rejected by most moral philosophers, the idea of a gradation of obligations, on the other hand, is unaffected by the presupposition of ego-preferences of those consciously involved at the time.

3. Social Implementation Of Long-Term Responsibility In Research

Obligations come into existence through discursively justified claims. In the case of long-term responsibility, however, the very element that is missing is the moral proponent. It can merely be introduced as an entity not yet asserting claims, albeit entitled to make claims. In such cases the process of justifying claims and obligations is therefore not based on real but on fictitious discourse. It must be said, of course, that fictitious discourses are not confined to long-term responsibility. Even in the case of short-term responsibility, moments of fictitious discourse are a matter of course, e.g., concerning forms of delegated, anticipated and representative obligations to act. The fictitious discourse has to be conducted as though the proponent were actually raising claims (with all the difficulties involved in the growing distance between the generations).

It is just as difficult to reconstruct the discursive arguments of the proponent as it is to reconstruct those of the opponent, i.e., the addressee of the claims introduced. Whereas the real proponents bring themselves to the notice of the real opponents, it can easily happen in the case of long-term responsibility that no one feels addressed by the issue. Thus the question must be posed as to who exactly shall be obliged to bear the long-term responsibility. Also for this question, the starting point is short-term responsibility because here, already, there is the problem of determining the addressee.

One of the first conclusions that can be drawn is that an answer like ‘Everyone shall take care of their own claims’ cannot constitute a satisfactory solution, since actions likely to result in conflict (distribution of resources, exercising usufruct etc.) are the very ones that do indeed concern other people. In respect of long-term responsibility, however, a special case arises in that ‘the others’ are not known to the actors and as yet may not even exist. Indeed, however, the ‘everyone for themselves’ solution already comes up against insurmountable barriers in connection with short-term responsibility.

Individuals who have come to the conclusion that they cannot take responsibility for the application of chlorinated carbohydrates as a propellant gas, that individually this conclusion is being justified, nevertheless fail to achieve the aims of acting because they are not in a position to evade the use of CFCs. Such examples can also be cited from the field of large-scale technical plant.

Examples taken from the field of short-term responsibility show that in addition to individual obligation there is also a responsibility of the kind that devolves upon the actors since ‘all’ the addressees constitute a plea and thus the claim which arises from it. In short it shall be referred to as ‘collective responsibility.’ Of course, this only indicates the direction of the solution. Collective responsibility could be regarded as a concept of escapism from obligation. It must therefore be clarified in what manner the validity of collective obligations may be asserted in real discourses.

For the further clarification of this question, it is necessary to make a terminological remark. A distinction must be made between obligation arising from an action and the responsibility for an action. Actors are subject to direct and undivided obligation for their actions, and responsibility is borne by them according to delegation of collective obligation. Responsibility arises from obligation through ‘moral division of work.’ Thus there exists not only the productive division of labour (in the economy) and the cognitive division of work (in the field of science). A moral division of work is especially applicable to those moral problems that exist in connection with the weighing of risks and chances in respect of the possibilities to act and the compulsions and constraints pertaining to actions in the context of modern science and technology. Due to the complexity of these problems the obligations of all concerned towards future generations must be delegated to the responsibility of individuals.

The first solution that springs to mind in this respect is the creation of bodies of scientific experts. In this, however, the problem of (non)acceptance arises which manifests itself in mistrust towards a perceived ‘expertocracy.’ According to the degree in which obligations are delegated to those bearing responsibility there is naturally a growth of uncertainty as to whether those responsible are (in generalizable terms) properly assuming their responsibility.

Thus it constitutes a basic problem of modern scientifically and technically based civilization to organize the social assumption of responsibility in such a way that, on the one hand, the effect of preventing an overburdening is maintained through the process of delegating obligation, while, on the other hand, the moral competence of the decision maker remains transparent. Although not every action is relevant in respect of distant consequences, the question must be asked in those areas that are sensitive to such distant consequences as to which social agencies are in a special way capable of, and therefore should be entrusted with, bearing long-term responsibility.

In this there are many complicated issues that have to be resolved. Above all the question of who should bear the responsibility is particularly explosive at present. Is it primarily a matter for the state and its three main organs of power or is it a matter for society and its subsystems to take over responsibility for the future? The state, through the medium of its legal system, is not a good advocate of long-term responsibility for several reasons. First it is subject to the specific democratic rules governing the lifetime of a parliament and secondly, the functionality of its laws is restrictive. The democratic rules controlling the period in which a parliament stays in power have the effect that the parliamentary system is geared to ultrashort periods of obligation, i.e., the members of parliament, as mandate holders, assume responsibility for four or five years, after which they have to answer to the electorate; the voters, in their turn, have to optimize their decision as to how they should vote with regard to a wide variety of political dimensions. Since the support given by the mandate holders to the idea of long-term responsibility is only one dimension among many, it is likely that for many voters this will be the dominant dimension—as long as voters each have only one unweighted vote.

For a restructuring of the political system, which could be imagined, it would not be sufficient to introduce marginal changes like merely extending the period of parliament or establishing a system of overlapping parliamentary recruitment. In accordance with the principle of diminishing obligation, as adumbrated above, it would be ethically not permissible— and certainly not enforceable either—to abandon the foundation of parliamentary democracy in the (putative) interests of distant generations. For another reason the state is not a good agency to take over long-term responsibility, because its most important medium, the law, is not suitable to regulate subtle moral issues. An essential difference between ethics and law consists in the fact that there is no judge for morally reprehensible actions. Ethics apply rigorously—in contrast to the law; which is why in ethics the saying, ‘Where there is no plaintiff, there is no judge’ makes no ethical sense at all. Otherwise, there would be no such thing as long-term responsibility since persons who do not yet exist cannot stand up as plaintiffs. Thus there would be no defendants either. A further problem with regard to law in connection with future generations is the difficulty arising from the fact that the relevant occurrence that would be subject to legal punishment has not yet taken place, or may only take place with a certain (possibly very small) degree of likelihood. It can be seen clearly that principles of law are inapplicable here. Furthermore, in respect of the relationship between law and morals the principle of subsidiarity applies, i.e., if something can be accomplished by moral discourse, no attempt should be made to regulate it by law.

Without the necessity of excluding the possibility that in many issues the law may be utilized as an instrument in establishing the long-term responsibility of the members of society, these reflections show that when it comes to answering the question of who should bear responsibility, the focus of attention naturally turns to society with its moral forming and preserving groups and their respective subsystems. In this process a number of subsystems play a prominent part, such as religion, culture (in the narrow sense of the arts), education, and the economy. The findings of the sciences and their respective applications, however, are only of particular importance from the point of view of long-term responsibility.

Their future perspectives are characterized by being particularly concrete and particularly long-term and are marked by having an especially profound effect on human life as we know it. Therefore, it is a paramount task of the scientific community to promote the capability of institutions of assuming long-term responsibility.


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