By: Sven Ove Hansson
Philosophers are often asked to teach research ethics. Many if not most philosophy departments have professors teaching the ethics of medical research, the ethics of technological innovation, the ethics of experimental physics, etc. But there is one part of research ethics that tends to be absent from our teaching and research. Namely: the ethics of our own research.
When we teach the research ethics of other subjects we usually emphasize the demand for non-maleficence. Research subjects should not be injured, and research should not result in weapons of mass destruction or in technologies that harm human health or the environment.
How does this concern philosophy? Can philosophy have negative social consequences? Since our products are ideas, this is almost the same question as if ideas can have such consequences. There is no lack of examples of ideas being used to justify and promote discrimination and other inhumane and cruel practices. Therefore, I think the answer must be yes: Ideas can have negative social consequences. At the very least, the burden of proof rests heavily on those who claim that they cannot.
Most of the ideas produced by philosophers have no obvious (good or bad) social consequences. You can safely argue in favour of your favourite opinion about the structure of language, the nature of mathematical knowledge, or the meaning of beauty, without threatening anything that is valuable in society.
But there are also philosophical ideas, in particular in ethics, that can have negative social consequences. How would you react if you encountered a philosopher arguing that it is morally permissible to kill human beings if they have a certain skin colour, or belong to some ethnic or religious group, or age group? And how would you react to a philosophical defence of rape, or sex with minors?
These are not just hypothetical examples. There are philosophers who defend infanticide and child molestation. The former group has obtained considerable support from colleagues, who usually disagree with them but yet consider their argumentation to be a defensible part of an academic debate.
Presumably, not many of these philosophers would be equally positive if a political party took up the argumentation and started to promote the right of parents to kill an unwanted new-born child. The presumption seems to be that contrary to political propaganda, philosophical argument cannot precipitate violence. But is that true? Are academia a form of safe haven where an atrocity can be “safely” promoted without a risk of inciting anyone to commit it?
To me it is obvious that it cannot. We live in a digital age with an intense and rapid interchange between academic and non-academic discussions. If racist, misogynist, or homophobic arguments are produced in some corner of the academic world, it may be a matter of hours before these arguments are adopted by violent hate groups.
In most other academic disciplines, analogous problems would be dealt with differently. Suppose that a paediatrician came up with a new method to kill new-borns, or that a forensic scientist developed a technique to molest a child without leaving behind any trace of one’s own DNA. We can be sure that their colleagues would react quite differently from how the philosophical community has reacted to the promotion of infanticide. Why this difference? Do philosophers tend to believe that philosophical arguments cannot incite action? As I have already said, I do not believe that such a presumption can be defended.
But of course, promoting violence is not what philosophers usually do. As editor of a philosophy journal, Theoria, I have handled thousands of manuscripts, but only one that promoted ideas of this type. (It was a manuscript defending “consensual” child molestation, and it was rejected for several reasons.) Nevertheless, these extreme cases should be discussed, as one of several topics in a much needed discussion on the ethics of our profession. For instance, we also need to explore how philosophical research can contribute positively to society. I believe there is a great unused potential for such contributions, provided that we are prepared to increase our engagement in society.