Ethical Challenges at a Particular Point in Time

Science does not take place in a state of total objectivity: instead it reflects a range of values that have become embedded over time. Scientists at different times and places will have different values, and consider certain areas of study, types of evidence, and methods of investigation more worthy than others. As the social context of science changes, new ethical challenges emerge for scientists to face. In Ethical Challenges for the Social Sciences on the Threshold of the 21st Century, Hebe Vessuri (2002) discusses the changing context of social science and the ethical challenges scientists face at the beginning of the 21st century.

There have been a number of changes in the relationship between scientists and wider society: authority has been lost, research has become increasingly politicised, and lay experts have become increasingly important. The loss of authority is the result of differences between the scientific and common sense understanding of knowledge; theoretical pluralism and the provisional nature of intellectual positions fail to offer the same assurance as ‘common sense’, increasingly leading people to question the ability of science to produce authoritative answers. The practice of multiple readings in social science has lead to increased politicisation, with those with vested interests increasingly appropriating the work that supports their positions and perspective.  At the same time both lay people and lay experts are increasingly becoming involved in the scientific process, as there is increasing recognition of the need for those affected by an area of civil society to have a say in its governance.

The poor and disenfranchised are often the subjects of research, as well as potential users of social science research, and ethical questions emerge about their rights, their role in defining research agendas, and decisions that are made on the funding of research. Social science research rarely finds definitive solutions to problems, but rather it becomes part of the negotiations of policy-making among those in power, with policy-makers only brandishing the findings of research when they support their positions. Lay experts can provide unique insights based on their position within society, but it is important that the role of expertise is not replaced by mere populism – expertise is too important for its recognition to depend solely on the realm of politics.

Scientists’ superior technical knowledge of science should not be confused with a claim to superior moral knowledge, and one of the key ethical challenges of the 21st century is to integrate knowledge and morality more fully. This will not only be achieved through interactions with those outside the social sciences, but recognition of the power imbalance with the lay public, and a public promotion of the importance of ethics and values, along with good scientific practice.

Read the original research: Vessuri, H. (2002). Ethical Challenges for the Social Sciences on the Threshold of the 21st Century. Current Sociology, 50(1), 135-150.

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