Scientific Dilemmas: Science and Ethics

I was invited to give a talk and conduct a workshop to the Values Education Unit of the Philippine Science High School (PSHS). As the general topic centered on science and the role of the scientist in society, I chose to discuss “Scientific Dilemmas: Science and Ethics.” My presentation consisted of a PowerPoint lecture followed by two breakout workshop sessions: one, “Medical Research on Animals,” and two, “GMOs and Food Labeling.”

Topics Covered

The PowerPoint took the following structure:

• What is science?
• What is the scientific method?
• What are ethics?
• What are morals?
• Case #1: Medical Research on Animals.
• Breakout Sessions.
• Case #2: GMOs and Food Labeling.
• Breakout Sessions.
• Wrap-up.

Objectives of My Presentation

My objectives for this presentation to the PSHS Values Education Unit consisted of the following:

Science cannot tell us what to do, what is moral or whether research should or shouldn’t be done. We as a society determine whether specific research should be pursued and what values should guide our decisions.

Understand the difference between morality and philosophical ethics. Ethics asks questions about what we ought to do as opposed to anthropology, which describes the actual practices of a people and a culture and its beliefs about which behaviors are good or bad. Morality is understood as a set of moral codes that people ought to follow. These can come from religions, or from philosophical ethics, that is, ethical inquiry.

Apply one of more of these theories to the resolution of an ethical dilemma in science; and

Be able to examine several moral sides of an ongoing scientific dilemma.

The Beginnings of Modern Science

In the initial stages of my talk, I discussed René Descartes and the importance of his book, Discourse on Method (1637), in laying the foundations for the modern scientific method. One of Descartes’ most significant contributions to science was developing a new, mechanistic model of the natural world. This contrasted with the Aristotelian model that had dominated scientific thought for centuries. Descartes’ model suggested that the world could be understood as a machine operating according to physical laws.

In terms of the scientific method, Descartes is known for his emphasis on logical reasoning and deductive processes. His method involved starting from basic, indubitable principles (like his famous “Cogito, ergo sum” or “I think, therefore I am”) and deriving other truths from these basic principles through logical deduction.

Descartes also lays out some general ethical principles to guide science wherein he expresses hope that the application of his method will lead to practical benefits for human life, including improvements in medicine and technology. This reflects an underlying ethical concern for the welfare of humanity.

It is apparent that Descartes carefully threads a path between Catholic religious authorities and his philosophical ideas. In “Discourse on the Method,” Descartes makes it clear that he accepts the power of the Church on spiritual matters. Even while groundbreaking in many ways, his work was framed in a way that was generally compatible with Christian belief. He presents arguments for the existence of God in both the “Discourse” and his “Meditations on First Philosophy.” Thus, he sought to avoid the direct conflict with the Church that Galileo and other philosophers encountered with their views and publications.

Philosophical Ethics — What Are Our Choices?

As with all other areas of philosophy, our theoretical choices in philosophical ethics are wide and varied. However, science typically faces questions and dilemmas resulting from two primary and divergent ethical theories: utilitarianism (consequentialism) and Kant (deontology). For example, public policy pronouncements typically appeal to “the greater good” when mandating public health actions like vaccines, where these actions may do some harm. We accept such possible harmful consequences of these mandates in the name of “the greater good for the greatest number of people,” which appeals to consequentialist utilitarian theory.

In the course of my presentation, we then examined closely the outlines of each of these divergent ethical theories before moving on to consider the details of our selected cases.

Activity I: Medical Research on Animals

Is the use of animals in medical research warranted? We deliberated this question by considering two arguments representative of utilitarianism and deontology (Kant).

Providing some information on the LD-50 and Draize tests, I focused on the current use of researcher Barbara Orlans 3R’s, replacement, refinement, and reduction.

Replacement means using tissue culture instead of animal skin or a mouse instead of a dog.

Refinement means improving the quality of life of research animals and the methodology.

Reduction means reducing the number of animals used, for example, LD-10s rather than LD-50s.

Peter Singer on Speciesism – A Consequentialist Argument

Singer, a consequentialist, says speciesism is a bias or prejudice favoring one’s species over other species. It involves assigning different values or rights to beings based on their species membership, even when their capacities or interests are equivalent. For example, according to Singer, if we were to favor human interests over those of non-human animals simply because they’re of a different species, that would be speciesism.

Singer was one of the intellectual founders of the modern animal rights movement.

His book Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals (1975) makes the argument of speciesism in philosophical ethics.

Singer argues that we must consider and count the pain of animals when performing a utilitarian calculation. Additionally, “the argument that supports equal rights for minorities and women also supports animal rights” (p.201).

Tom Regan on Animal Rights – A Deontological Argument

Tom Regan was another key intellectual founder of the modern animal rights movement. Unlike Singer, Regan argued that certain animals had rights to be respected as “the subjects-of-a-life.” They have beliefs, desires, memory, feelings, self-consciousness, an emotional life, and a sense of their future, which means they have their own independent value and are not merely a means to an end for other beings.

Regan’s major book was The Case for Animal Rights, published in 1983. A Professor at North Carolina State University from 1967 to 2001, he was Co-Founder and Co-President of the Culture and Animals Foundation. He directed the film, We Are All Noah, which debuted in 1986. they appeal to different ethical theories to support their respective views – Singer, a consequentialist, and Regan, a deontologist.

Activity I: Breakout Sessions

How does Regan amend the fundamental basis of Kant’s argument regarding the inherent value of human beings? What characteristic does he specifically say we share with animals? Working with your group, please clarify and discuss your answer.

What counterarguments does the philosopher Carl Cohen make against Regan? Can animals make claims about humans? Albert Schweitzer argues that all life has value. With which of these philosophers do you agree?

Would scientists learn more if humans volunteered for tests to spare animals? Would the research results not be more reliable?

Participating teachers were asked to consider these and other related questions with a guided worksheet as they broke into smaller assigned groups.

Activity II: GMOs & Food Consumption

A genetically modified organism (GMO) is an animal, plant, or microbe whose DNA has been altered using genetic engineering or transgenic technology. This modification creates combinations of plant, animal, bacterial, and virus genes that do not occur naturally or through traditional crossbreeding methods. Genetic modification affects many of the products we consume daily, for example, Alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, soy, sugar beet, yellow summer squash, zucchini, animal products, microbes & enzymes, and fish.

Pros: Arguments in Favor of GMOs

The benefits of GMO plants include tolerance to atmospheric stress, such as extreme temperatures, salinity, drought, and floods. Other benefits are resistance to viruses, fungi, and bacteria, herbicide tolerance, and insect resistance.

Proponents predict that genetic engineering would increase yields in the fields due to the characteristics above, although this would not reach the desired level of food security. However, hunger and malnutrition are issues that often require additional social and political strategies.

Cons: Arguments Against GMOs

The use of GMOs brings particular risks such as:

• Changes in the interaction between plants and the biotic environment;
• Persistence and invasiveness;
• Transfer of genes;
• Interactions with non-target organisms (effects on bees);
• Toxicological effects;
• Allergenicity; and
• Transfer of antibiotic resistance.

Vandana Shiva – Global Advocate Against GMOs

Dr. Vandana Shiva (©Augustus Binu)

Vandana Shiva has spent the bulk of her professional career talking about the real causes of food hunger and advocating against the introduction of GMO seeds, particularly in developing countries like India. Her now classic, Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge (1997), confirmed her status as a world-renowned environmental thinker, activist, and crusader for economic, food, and gender justice. A physicist, author, and editor of many influential books, Dr. Shiva has received over twenty international awards, including the Right Livelihood Award (1993), also known as the Alternative Peace Prize. Teachers were asked to view two short video clips to become acquainted with this dynamic speaker and her views.

Vandana Shiva on the Problem With Genetically-Modified Seeds (10:08)

Citation: Moyers & Company. (2012, July 13). Vandana Shiva on the problem with genetically-modified seeds [Video]. YouTube.

Vandana Shiva on the Real Cause of Food Hunger (3:31)

Citation: Food Farmer Earth. (2020, March 10). Vandana Shiva on the real cause of food hunger [Video]. YouTube.

Activity II: Breakout Sessions
GMOs & Food Labeling — Do We Have a Right to Know?

Teachers were asked to break into their groups and ethically deliberate whether consumers have a right to full disclosure about the content of their foodstuffs and whether they contain any GMO products. Worksheets were distributed, and attendees were asked to perform the following tasks:

• Evaluate the question using a Consequentialist ethical analysis;
• Do the same with a Kantian ethical analysis; and
• Report their findings.

What Have We Learned?

I concluded the training session by reviewing all the material we had covered and asked for feedback from teachers on what they found most useful for their courses and learning objectives. Upon closing, I was awarded a Certificate of Appreciation for my contribution as a resource speaker and trainer during the PSHS System Capability Building of Values Education Teachers given on January 27, 2023.

View Presentation PowerPoint

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About Douglas J. Anderson

I'm Douglas J. Anderson, Ph.D., a multifaceted educator with two decades of experience. Holding a Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Foundation, an M.A. in Anthropology and Southwestern Archaeology, and a comprehensive Oxford TESOL/TESL/TEFL certificate, I weave together diverse disciplines in my approach to teaching. My academic journey began at Fresno City College, where I honed my archaeological skills, which extended to on-field experience in Californian and New Mexican prehistoric cultures. This practical knowledge, enriched by my master's research on Narbona Pass chert in the Navajo Nation, informs my teaching. Deeply influenced by Dr. Albert Schweitzer's "Reverence for Life" ethic, I aspire to guide minds of all ages, instilling respect for all life forms in my teaching and community activism. My commitment to teaching excellence has earned me several professional awards, including a Master Teacher Award (2015-2016) and Teaching Excellence Awards in Philosophy (2013-2014), and Anthropology (2012-2013) from Front Range Community College in Colorado. I am an essential Subject Matter Expert in Cultural Anthropology for the College of Professional Studies, University of New England. I have expanded my influence beyond traditional academia, contributing as a Peace Corps Virtual Service Volunteer to the Philippine Science High School STEM curriculum. With my wife, Ana María, I devoted nearly three years with the Peace Corps to UNESCO's TiNi children's education program in Ecuador. Today, I share anthropological and related disciplinary insights via my blog and offer academic coaching through Apprentus.
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