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Participation in biomedical research is an imperfect moral duty: a response to John Harris
  1. Sandra Shapshay1,
  2. Kenneth D Pimple2
  1. 1Department of Philosophy, Indian University, Bloomington, Indiana, USA
  2. 2Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, USA
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr S Shapshay
 Department of Philosophy, Indiana University, 1033 E Third Street, Bloomington, IN 47405, USA; sshapsha{at}


In his paper “Scientific research is a moral duty”, John Harris argues that individuals have a moral duty to participate in biomedical research by volunteering as research subjects. He supports his claim with reference to what he calls the principle of beneficence as embodied in the “rule of rescue” (the moral obligation to prevent serious harm), and the principle of fairness embodied in the prohibition on “free riding” (we are obliged to share the sacrifices that make possible social practices from which we benefit). His view that biomedical research is an important social good is agreed upon, but it is argued that Harris succeeds only in showing that such participation and support is a moral good, among many other moral goods, while failing to show that there is a moral duty to participate in biomedical research in particular. The flaws in Harris’s arguments are detailed here, and it is shown that the principles of beneficence and fairness yield only a weaker discretionary or imperfect obligation to help others in need and to reciprocate for sacrifices that others have made for the public good. This obligation is discretionary in the sense that the individuals are free to choose when, where, and how to help others in need and reciprocate for earlier sacrifices. That Harris has not succeeded in claiming a special status for biomedical research among all other social goods is shown here.

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  • i This section of Harris’s article is confused. It is headed “Do no harm” and cites “the duty not to harm others”, which we would call “non-maleficence”. We agree that the obligation of non-maleficence is stronger than the obligation of beneficence, but the rule of rescue falls more happily under beneficence (which involves taking positive actions to do good) than non-maleficence (which involves avoiding or refraining from actions that cause harm).

  • ii We are indebted to an anonymous reviewer for bringing this significant disanalogy to our attention.

  • iii We are arguing that the rule of rescue may be seen as an imperfect duty when an agent is not uniquely situated to do the rescuing.

  • iv Except, of course, in the US, where approximately 46 million people do not have reliable access to healthcare. By Harris’s account, the principle of fairness would compel Britons more strongly than Americans to support biomedical research because in the US such research is not a truly public good.

  • v We gained an appreciation of this salient point from an anonymous reviewer.

  • Competing interests: None.