The Rising Force of Ethics

| July 18, 2015 | 0 Comments

The Rising Force of Ethics. Pushpa M. Bhargava, The Tribune, Dec. 7, 2000.

The rising force of ethics

by Pushpa M. Bhargava

TRADITIONALLY our society has laid emphasis on morality and law. Today, however, the concern has shifted to human rights and ethics. While ethics are closely related to human rights, these are neither morality nor law, just as morality and law are not the same.

For example, in our country today if a boy and a girl who have come of age and are not related to each other live together by mutual consent, without getting married, it may be considered immoral but it would neither be unethical nor illegal. At times, at some places in our recent history, consumption of alcohol has been illegal, even though it is neither immoral nor unethical. During the cold war, transfer of scientific information between the scientists of the two blocks was illegal but it was neither unethical nor immoral. On the other hand, the recent introduction by Monsanto of its genetically engineered Bt Cotton in our country, particularly the way it was done, was surely unethical, illegal and immoral.

To have one’s name on a scientific paper simply because one heads an institution or a department and has provided facilities, is surely not illegal but, I believe, is both immoral and unethical. And all through the history of the world, we have had many unethical laws! The reason for these differences between ethics, morality and law is that ethics are derived logically from universal in-built human sensitivities and the sum total of human knowledge at a given time, while morality indicates the way society has developed through the ages. So ethics are rooted in genetics while morality is rooted in history and derives its sustenance from politics. Something that may be considered ethical under certain circumstance or in a particular situation at a given time or place, may be unethical under a different set of circumstances or at a different time or place.

Two years ago a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, Carleton Gajdusek, was imprisoned in the United States as he had contravened the law of the country. What he did would not be considered immoral or unethical in many countries. Normally, he would have been sentenced to imprisonment for over 60 years but he was released last year because of the moral pressure brought about by a large number of scientists and others from around the world.

In the 1860s, a bright, inquisitive and young technician called Miescher, working in the laboratory of the famous physiological chemist, Hoppe-Seyler, in Germany, discovered what we know today as DNA. Miescher had isolated it from pus cells on discarded bandages. When he brought this discovery which, in a way, laid the foundations of modern molecular biology and genetics, to the notice of his mentor, Prof Dr Hoppe-Seyler, the professor dismissed the discovery in the typical authoritarian tradition that dominated science at that time, specially in Germany. No one then called this act of the professor unethical, as it would have been today when, as a consequence of worldwide emphasis on democratisation, the right to question and to be listened to is becoming increasingly respectable.

Historically, till the last century — perhaps till the end of the last World War — society rarely used the term ‘ethics’ or ethical’, even though one talked constantly of things immoral or illegal. Curtailment of the freedom of expression or of the right to education were, for example, never considered to be ethical issues. In a hierarchical world-society where laws served the interests of the powerful and the privileged, and where basic human rights were denied to a vast proportion of the people, questions of ethics were rarely raised. In a feudal society as ours has been (and continues to be!), where it is for the powerful to order and for the powerless to execute it, the question whether the order is ethical or not does not arise.

Following democratisation of our society, partly through the disappearance of colonialism and recognition of basic human rights as enunciated in the U N Charter of Human Rights, a door has been opened to allow the entry of ethics into our value system, leading to a situation where ethics become more important than law or morality.

Take, for example, the world of science till just 50 years ago. Perhaps the only occasion till then when one did think of ethics in respect of science was when one looked at the extremely rare cases of plagiarism as in the case of the midwife Toad in Europe in the last century, which has been documented by Arthur Koestler in his book by the same name. Today, there are a host of ethical issues involved in not only doing science but also in administering, assessing, communicating and using science.

Plagiarism in science which was rare earlier but is far more common today, is not taken very seriously all over the world (except, perhaps, in our country) where a significant amount of scientific work is done. Society today permits discussion on giving credit for a discovery and, if the credit is wrongly given, there are many ways of challenging it. This surely did not happen in the past. A few hours after Alexander Grahm Bell filed his application for a patent for his new discovery, the telephone, another person by the name of Elisha Grey came to the same patent office and filed a similar application, unaware of the work of Bell. Ethically speaking, the credit for the discovery of the telephone should have been shared by Bell and Grey but this did not happen. Today, sharing of credit is common. Thus, in the second half of the last century, a vast majority of Nobel Prizes were shared, unlike in the first half of that century.

In administering science today, ethical issues arise in respect of distribution of money and resources, in making appointments, in writing reports, and in interacting with the Government on the one hand and with the various sectors of society on the other. Important ethical issues arise in respect of legislation that relate to science. With the passage of time, more and more pieces of legislation have related to scientific and technological matters — be it genetic engineering, or the disposal of hospital waste, or the patent laws, or the protection of farmers’ rights in respect of new crop varieties.

In assessing science in today’s world, ethical questions arise in respect of objectivity and fairplay, as science has become a source of power, prestige and money, thus prone to all kinds of political and other pressures.

In fact, today, discussion of ethics in science has become important and finds a place of honour in many leading scientific journals. Thus, virtually every issue of the most famous generalised journals such as Nature or Science, or many of the well-known specialised journals such as The Lancet, British Medical Journal, New England Journal of Medicine and Human Reproduction, carry write-ups relating to ethics in science.

Till the first quarter of the 20th century, the rate of progress in science and technology was slow and was compatible with the rate of social change. Therefore, there was no difficulty in the societal assimilation of the scientific and technological advances of that time. Thus, the discovery of radioactivity or X-rays, and their wide application at the beginning of the last century, did not raise a hue and cry in spite of their inherent dangers. Today, the difference between the rate of scientific and technological change and the rate of social change in which there is real assimilation of the scientific and technological discoveries of the time, has become wide and continues to increase as time passes. This situation has created an ideal environment for the exploitation of society by the scientist and the technologist. That is why ethics of science has assumed such significance today.

In fact, an interesting situation obtains today where one can use the extent to which ethical considerations dominate a country’s science, as a measure of the extent to which it is committed in practice to basic human rights. I have no doubt that, given this background, the role of ethics as a determinant of the quality and quantity of a country’s scientific endeavour would surely increase, as age, position, money, circumstances of birth and the like are replaced by knowledge, ability, commitment, reason, justice and fairplay as the sources of power and influence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *