[MCAT] Morality of Science

Consider this statement:

Scientific inquiry is rooted in the desire to discover, but there is no discovery so important that in its pursuit a threat to human life can be tolerated.

Write a unified essay in which you perform the following tasks.  Explain what you think the above statements means.  Describe a specific situation in which a threat to human life might be tolerated in the pursuit of scientific discovery. Discuss what you think determines when the pursuit of scientific discovery is more important than the protection of human life.

The statement suggests that, although curiosity for knowledge is a trait that characterizes human beings, it is not a justification for scientific inquiries. Most obviously, when a human life is threatened during an attempt in scientific discovery, the attempt is unacceptable regardless of its goal and procedure. One could quickly think of the horrific story of Frankenstein, where an experiment to raise the dead lead to devastation and destruction. Modern biotechnology research sometimes carry the same connotation, when lives of human subjects or even the public are sometimes in risk in the experiments. For example, the statement would argue strongly against the revitalization of extinct viruses for biochemical research.

The statement seems to suggest that any risk to human life is intolerable in the pursuit of knowledge, but such a stringent conclusion could cause much harm to humanity as well. The clear example would be the termination of the majority of medical research. Any new medication or medical procedure would involve a certain level of risk to test subjects or early users when it is first introduced. Without medicine, human beings would suffer from countless diseases and injuries, defeating the purpose of the statement to protect human lives.

Scientific research should not be justified based on the virtue of knowledge, as the statement suggests, but it should not be abandoned in the name of risk elimination either. Rather, a rigorous examination to evaluate the importance of the potential discovery, the risk involved in the procedure and how it is managed, and the likelihood that this procedure can achieve its goals could determine whether the experiment involving risk to human lives is acceptable. Only when the goal of the experiment is sufficiently important (for example, finding the cure for cancer), the risk is reasonably low (low statistical mortality rate in animal tests), and the risky procedure can reasonably be expected to achieve the said goal can the experiment be justifiable.


4 thoughts on “[MCAT] Morality of Science

  1. but think about nazi doctors, who had same philosophy as yours, “if goals are important, means can be justified.” when they thought risking human lives were acceptable for greater scientific discovery(or so they thought), they sacrificed hundreds of innocent, healthy beings in the name of procedure for greater goods.

    I think original MCAT question poses question to all of us. besides obvious stem cell research debate, if the research definitely endanger or poses threat to our lives-not for our own goods, but for society’s benefit, individuals should not be sacrificed.

  2. My philosophy is not the justification of the means by the ends. Rather, I believe that the ethics of scientific research involving risks to human lives depend on a 3-component test outlined in the last paragraph. It is: 1. a sufficiently important goal, 2. a reasonably low risk, and 3. the research can be expected to achieve the important goal.

    I think you pointed out that this test requires a clear definition of “sufficiently important goal”, “reasonably low risk”, and the determination of logical connection between research and result, which I did not provide. I should clarify that these notions apply to furthering human well-being. So in this definition, development of weapons can hardly be an important goal for furthering human well being.

    I would argue that you understood the notion of importance and minimal risk when you cited the example of Nazi doctors, because their goal is far from important, and the sacrifice of human lives is far from reasonably low.

    Allow me to paraphrase your last comment: clinical research is only morally acceptable if the test subject’s well being is part of its ultimate goal.

    This notion has some important merits, but it dictates that experiments with negative (placebo) controls are unacceptable. This could adversely affect the progress of medicine.

  3. it is so difficult to understand the topic and then to write and argue in 15 minutes. I wonder if there is some format I can follow using. You do significantly better than rest of undergrad though. I hope you get into medical school of your choice.

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