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Participation in biomedical research is an imperfect moral duty: a response to John Harris


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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