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CHEN AIHUA: The power of ethics cannot be underrated

By Chen Aihua | 2014-09-15 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
The John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology and Values at University of Notre Dame recently released the report “Emerging Ethical Dilemmas and Policy Issues in Science and Technology 2013,” which presented a list of items for scientists and laypeople alike to consider in the coming months and years as new technologies develop. The report calls attention to ethical issues in science and technology, such as data collection and privacy, neurological enhancements, autonomous systems and susceptibility to climate change.
As far as I am concerned, the causes for such ethical dilemmas, though, are various, they can be characterized as the conflicts that arise in answering the ethical questions “What can be done?” and “What should be done?” This is actually the recurrence of “Kant’s Questions.” He asked the following thought-provoking questions: “What can I know?” “What should I think about?” “What can I expect?” and “What is a human being?”
As Kant observed, the answer to the first three questions can be found by fully contemplating the last, which is, “What is human being?” Ethical responsibility is the fountainhead of all moral values. Even though ethically justified behaviors are not necessarily benign, people who violate ethical principles are definitely vicious.
For people, especially those who engage in scientific activities, ethical responsibility is a requirement. This ethical imperative motivates them to eliminate bias caused by personal interest and desire, shoulder their due responsibility and fulfill their duty. In converting anticipatory ethical responsibility in to practice, the power of ethics is underscored.
A review of the history of science and technology shows that their development is closely correlated with human ethics.
Some may posit that the over-emphasis on ethics will hinder the advance of science and technology. But as I consider, such a misunderstanding is due to an insufficient grasp of the notion that ethical dilemmas continue to emerge in the process of scientific and technological development. There is a give and take between the “moral effect” of ethical dilemmas and the “utilitarian effect” of scientific development, which both collide with and adapt to each other. This is one of the theoretical cores in studying the value of scientific and technological ethics.
The two value systems differ from each other in that an ethical dilemma conforms to the “should-be” logic but science and technology are susceptible to the logic of “profit.” The latter logic is guided by the principle of “economic rationality” and stimulated by the goal of profit-making, manipulating science and technology, natural resources, personal creativity as means of capital accumulation.
In a philosophical sense, the logic of “profit” applies to a set of values directed by utilitarianism—dominating scientific and technological development to the good of self-interest. Negligent of the sustainable development of human beings, nature and society, the logic of “profit” produces tensions in the relations among the three.
Therefore, to rise above the control of the logic of “profit,” the participants in science and technology need to follow the “should-be” logic dictated by ethics.
Admittedly, to resolve the emerging ethical dilemmas in the new technologies, not only must the moral codes for individual scientific activities be enhanced, an ethical adjustment targeted at collective scientific activities should also be conducted. Since most major scientific activities with far-reaching effects involve multidisciplinary and polynary scientific communities, the mere emphasis on the consciousness of abiding by ethical norms is far from sufficient, and institutions and mechanisms for ethical benchmarks should be set so as to specify the conceptual and behavioral standards for the agents in science and technology.
Chen Aihua is the Director of the Institute of Scientific and Technological Ethics at Southeast University.
The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 624, July 23, 2014  
Edited and translated by Bai Le
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