Ethics Lectures

Class 8:  We talked about applying the different principles again and tried to find situations where they seemed to conflict.  We also discussed that there are certain cases in which people will reject the principal of utility.  Most of them have to do with human life, which brought us to a really long discussion of some of the end-of-life issues being discussed nowadays.  The Catholic church's stand (and mine, too) is that we must not withhold the essentials of life (water, food, and air) from anyone who is sick or dying.  If the person is unconscious and has no or very little chance of recovering and life-support machines are performing their vital bodily functions (keeping their heart beating, etc.), then it is moral to allow the person to die with grace by taking them off life support.  It is never right to actively kill someone, even to end their suffering.  That person has been given those last moments by God, and we may be endangering their soul by cutting those moments short.

Class 7:  We discussed women in the science community this class.  It is important that female scientists be respected and treated in the same way male scientists are.  One of our REU students shared with us that women are still pretty rare in the average college engineering class.  As the only lady working on her college's robotics team, the men on her team were a little unsure at first how to respond to her.  It didn't take long for them to recognize her expertise and for her to become "one of the guys."  However, it should not be necessary that a woman become "one of the guys" before she is accepted.  She should not be required to compromise her identity as a woman.  Something that still happens with all minorities, including women scientists, is that they have to prove they are "okay" or talented before they are respected.  And yes, these conclusions are reached using deontic reasoning.  Many, many wonderful scientists, male and female alike, are working to make sure that women and minorities are well respected.  It is just a process that requires a lot of time.

Class 6:  This time it was mostly scenarios of graduate students not treated ethically by their advisors or in situations where they might need to inform someone of falsified research.  We also learned a lot more about the philosophical principles involved the the average ethical analysis.  They are officially and formally defined as follows:

the Categorical Imperative:  "Act only on that principle that you could will to be a universal law."  This is the one that is basically the golden rule (treat people how you want to be treated), although it includes situations where "you" are not directly involved.  In other words, you would want an individual to avoid tapping on the window outside your classroom, because if everyone did it it would be really, really annoying.  The Categorical Imperative, slightly like quarks, also comes in a second flavor:  "Always act so that you treat humanity as an end in itself, never solely as a means."  That one is pretty self-explanitory.

the Principal of Utility:  "Act so as to maximize overall utility (i.e. happiness, satisfaction, the elusive and all important "Good", etc.)."  I don't like this one as well because it can easily lead to using individuals and small groups as means for the "greater good."  But, in the average situation, the Categorical Imperative and the Principal of Utility are pretty much in agreement.

And, last but not least, you can see the principles in action!! in the following analysis that was part of my ethics homework.  Have fun!

Class 5:  We discussed some situations where people were not treated ethically.  Since we're all here doing physics research, most of the cases had to do with a person who should have been credited as author of a paper and was not.  Mostly just an overview of some situations and how they could be handled in a better way for all involved.  We also learned some philosophical guy's principal:  Always follow the path you would be pleased to have as a universal law, only it is worded a little different than that since my brilliant memory has failed to get it exactly.  At any rate, it is basically just a smarter sounding, philosophical way of saying the golden rule, although it also includes how you would want two people to act who aren't actually "treating" you in any particular way.  Wouldn't it be more fun to teach it to children the philosophy way?.

Class 4:  This time, we talked about what to do when you know someone will not understand your data if you explain it properly, but if you exaggerate a little, they will actually get the right idea.  Say for example that through an experiment, you are certain to within 5% that people who eat pineapple are less likely to become concert pianists.  Now, the Association of Pineapple Export Stuff (APES), justly upset that this finding would hurt their business among piano players throughout the world, refutes this by saying that there is a 5% chance that you are wrong.  It would be very tempting to tell the APES, "Well there is a 95% chance I'm right," but that would be incorrect.  The uncertainty for a scientist is how sure they are that their number from an experiment is the right one.  Usually there is kind of a range that you know the result falls under.  We report that as either 10.0 +/- 0.5, or as 10 with a 5% uncertainty.  As a class, we concluded that it was unethical to misrepresent one's data, even with the intention of getting people to actually understand it..  A better solution would be to call up your good buddy at Time magazine, make sure he really understood what was going on in your experiment, and ask him to explain it to the general public of piano players so that they may be informed that by eating pineapple they risk their future careers as internationally acclaimed musicians.

Class 3:  We discussed situations in which someone should be credited as an author of a research paper.  It is pretty interesting in physics papers, because there is usually a whole team helping the main author with a project, while with philosophy and English papers, one person does most of the work and just gets advice from their colleagues.  Our homework:  Look up the ethics code of the American Physical Society, identify which parts correspond to Deontic and which to Consequential reasoning, and identify an imaginary case in which different pieces of the ethics code would conflict.

Class2:  We discussed the many reasons scientists might be tempted to offer a recommendation on public policy, and the pros and cons of them doing so.  Our homework assignment was to read 3 consecutive issues of Science or Nature, and determine what fraction offer a recommendation on public policy.

                Result:  About 1 in 6 articles or so give a recommendation on public policy.  Most of them say that their area of research needs more funding, although I found one that recommended better communications between chemists and biologists studying cancer and the medical researchers who develop treatments for it.



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