“Who cares?”

“The care of human life and happiness and not their destruction is the first and only legitimate object of good government.” Thomas Jefferson

“No matter how brilliant a man may be, he will never engender confidence in his subordinates and associates if he lacks simple honesty and moral courage.” – J. Lawton Collins

As the two quotes above suggest, honesty and care should be major guideposts to our ethical decision making. Of all of the ethical theories discussed (utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, value ethics), care ethics seems to be the most vague and open to interpretation (van de Poel and Royakkers 2011). Even so, this theory may be more realistic in terms of having a greater appreciation for how groups of people interact within a society. Complex ethical issues do not arise in isolated boxes, where simple (i.e. individual) judgments can be made (i.e. Pantazidou and Nair 1999). Instead, intricate interactions across groups and organizations occur, so understanding the connections between “individual(s) with respect to the group” (van de Poel and Royakkers 2011) is key. Is the term ‘ill-structured’ as related to ethical issues just another way for saying ‘vague’ (van de Poel and Royakkers 2011)?

The ethical cycle seems to be a way to provide structure to chaos, in terms of attacking these “ill-structured” ethical issues (van de Poel and Royakkers 2011). I think that this is a very logical thing to do, especially since we are all scientists. Even so, I wonder if it is realistic. Do people facing ethical dilemmas actually go through all of the steps? Are ethical decisions not just user-defined anyway? Although theories provide a verbal roadmap, essentially a combination of our values, beliefs, and knowledge will be the guide that gets us to an ethical decision.

The idea of care ethics seems to get murky when we think of how science and policy interact within society. This relationship can be a slippery slope and trying to understand the motivations of scientists, politicians, and advocates can be difficult (Pielke 2007). Although Guidotti was charged with the task of using his expertise to enlighten the public on issues of lead in water, he used his position to advocate for those who were being dishonest due to his financial stake (Renner 2009a, 2009b, 2010). Instead of stepping back and admitting his mistakes and correct the record, he simply deflected any wrongdoing (Guidotti 2009), thus looking more guilty (and less trustworthy) in the end (as suggested by the Collins quote above).

On an interesting side note, Guidotti (2009) displayed all of his credentials at the top of his statement, whereas I was unaware of Renner’s Ph.D. until I noticed it mentioned in a small footnote (Renner 2010). Could this be another example of her attempting to present a balanced story, in that she is not putting her credentials ahead of the facts? Do scientists (or ‘experts’) use their knowledge as a shield against honesty as Guidotti did? In all of the Renner articles (2007, 2009a, 2009b, 2010), she simply presents the data without value judgments. Of course she also called Guidotti to task for his dishonesty in the 2009 articles. Should this not be the job of an ‘honest broker’ (Pielke 2007)?

As a scientist, being a true ‘honest broker’ can be a difficult task. Pielke (2007) makes the case that science and policy are hard to separate; so much so that the grants that we write as scientists specifically have to address the value of our work to society. This seems to be the crux of the determination between ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ science. Is science is becoming applied? Can we do science for the sake of discovery without involving society? In my field of aquatic ecology, it is necessary to do the basic research in order to be able to understand complex ecosystem interactions before I can even apply it to societal needs, yet funding agencies have been unwilling to support this research due to its ‘narrow focus.’  It seems to me that our role as scientists puts us at the forefront of care ethics, where our individual roles in producing knowledge have the potential to affect the whole society. Even so, if we are unable to do basic research (i.e. unaffected by policy and the ‘who cares?’ criticisms), how can we be the ‘honest brokers’ that society trusts us to be?

Works Cited:

Guidotti, T. L. 2009. [Letter to the Editor in response to Renner’s “Troubled Waters” articles]. AAAS Professional Ethics Report XXII(3):4. (Renner’s final response to Guidotti, is in PDF “W7 Renner Response.”)

Pantazidou, M. and I. Nair. 1999. Ethic of Care: Guiding Principles for Engineering Teaching & Practice. Journal of Engineering Education 88(2):205-212.

Pielke, R. A., Jr. 2007. “Four Idealized Roles of Science in Policy and Politics” and “Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics.” In The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics, pp. 1-7 and 135-152. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Renner, R. 2007. Lead Pipe Replacement Should Go All the Way. Environmental Science & Technology 41(19):6637-6638.

Renner, R. 2009a. “Troubled Waters: Controversy Over Public Health Impact of Tap Water Contaminated With Lead Takes on an Ethical Dimension.” AAAS Professional Ethics Report XXII(2):1-4.

Renner, R. 2009b. “Troubled Waters: On the Trail of the Lost Data.” AAAS Professional Ethics Report XXII(3):1-3.

Renner, R. 2010. Reaction to the Solution: Lead Exposure Following Partial Service Line Replacement. Environmental Health Perspectives 118:A202-A208.

Van de Poel, I. and L. Royakkers. 2011. “Care Ethics” and “The Ethical Cycle.” In Ethics, Technology, and Engineering: An Introduction, pp. 102-108 and pp. 133-160. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

One thought on ““Who cares?”

  1. Aquaman,
    I really like the quotes you posted. There is a lot of truth in them. I also find your description of the Ethical Cycle as “a way to provide structure to chaos” very appropriate and eloquently put. Your question regarding the application reality of the Ethical Cycle left me wondering the same thing: whether or not scientist facing ethical dilemmas truly go through all of those steps in order make a decision. Honestly, if I hadn’t read the Ethical Cycle chapter this week, I would have no idea that those guidelines even existed, and I am sure this is the case for most scientists and engineers. I suppose this is why classes like this are so important in the formation of great professionals. Some people do care 🙂

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