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The case for a duty to research: not yet proven
  1. Iain Brassington
  1. Correspondence to Dr Iain Brassington,CSEP/iSEI/ School of Law, University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PL, UK;iain.brassington{at}manchester.ac.uk

Abstract

In this commentary on ‘Why participating in (certain) scientific research is a moral duty’, I take issue with a number of Stjernschantz Forsberg et al's claims. Though abiding by the terms of a contract might be obligatory, this won't show that those terms themselves indicate a duty—even allowing that there's a contract to begin with. Meanwhile, though we might have reasons to participate, not all reasons are moral reasons, and the paper does not establish that the reasons here are moral in character.

  • Research Ethics

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Have Stjernschantz Forsberg et al shown that, and how, there is a duty to research? As far as I can see, their argument isn't convincing.

One obvious difficulty with attempts to ground moral claims in a social contract is that social contracts are mostly metaphorical, and no one (maybe excepting immigrants into highly legalistic societies) has ever signed one. They are contracts of a very curious stripe, too, since we have no real choice but to accept them and their terms as faits accomplis. Finally, if a contract is the source of moral obligations, we still have to explain how we are bound by the contract itself without circularity. Stjernschantz Forsberg et al seem curiously reluctant to give these difficulties the respect they deserve: instead, they say that there are many other instances in which we are morally (and often also legally) bound to social contracts that we have not actively consented to, as citizens we are for instance obliged to pay taxes, although we have not signed a contract agreeing to do so.

This begs the question. Taxation may be something that contract theorists think they can explain, but being obliged to pay taxes is not evidence that there is a social contract in the first place.

The taxation analogy points to another problem: being obliged is conflated with having an obligation. Only the latter indicates a moral duty. If I have an obligation to pay taxes, it's something that I ought to do irrespective of whether I'm forced, and I behave well or badly depending on my propensity to meet that obligation. (There is a possible world in which the Inland Revenue collects taxes by placing an honesty-box outside its offices, and we all go and pay what we ought just because we recognise the obligation.) By contrast, one can be obliged in the absence of an obligation. I might be obliged by the gangster on my street to pay protection money; but this is a long way from saying that I have an obligation, at least qua moral duty, to do so.

This means that it's possible to say that one is obliged to φ without accepting that there's an obligation to φ, or that φ-ing is required as a moral duty. So while it is not unusual for people to be obliged to act by the terms of a contract, this doesn't commit us to accepting that there's a moral duty at play. For example, I might be obliged by the terms of a house sale to vacate my property by a certain date. But I would not have to think that vacating my house per se is a moral duty. Correlatively, if we are obliged by the terms of a contract to participate in research, that does not mean that participation is a duty in its own right. Importantly, this point stands even if we think that we have moral obligations to adhere to a contract. The analogy here would be with a promise: we might have a moral duty to keep promises, but this won't tell us that the thing promised is required. The same applies to the stipulations of a contract.

More importantly, none of this would tell us that there's an obligation to enter into the contract in the first place, or what its terms ought to be. Stjernschantz Forsberg et al really need to show that a duty to research obtains outside of the contract, and would be reflected in it. Their strategy for showing this rests on the claim that it would be rational for self-interested agents to support further research, and that, since research requires mass participation to be effective, rational agents ought also to endorse that—even if it means accepting commitments for themselves.

However, none of this tells us how morality enters into the picture. Let's allow—just for the sake of the argument—that recognising something to be in one's interest invariably creates a desire for it, and that a desire for something generates a rational requirement to endorse the means necessary for its realisation. Still: since not every reason is a moral reason, and not every error of rationality is a moral failing, what is rationally required and what is morally required are not the same thing. While people might have a reason to endorse the kind of contract the likes of which Stjernschantz Forsberg et al have in mind, there is nothing in their argument to make us think that this would carry any moral weight. (In treating a reason to act as a de facto moral reason, they repeat the mistake made by Chan and Harris in their 2009 paper1).

Stjernschantz Forsberg et al attempt to fill the moral gap by claiming that, although not improving the world is different from making it worse, we do, nonetheless, make the world worse by not contributing to things like programmes of research. On this point, they're straightforwardly wrong. Perhaps by not researching, we allow the world to be worse than it might possibly be; but that is not the same as making it, or even allowing it to become, worse than it is now. Unless we have a positive duty to improve the world—a claim that plays no part in Stjernschantz Forsberg et al's paper, and shouldn't be imported here on their behalf—there will be no reason to think that there's a duty to research (even allowing that research is the best way to improve the world at all).

Stjernschantz Forsberg et al need to show not just that a contract can impose requirements such as a requirement to research—that would be trivially easy, and generate only a trivial requirement—but also that that requirement is morally weighty in its own right. They have not succeeded.

I'll finish by raising a perplexing question about the idea that a duty to research can be based in rational self-interest. Would non-self-interested people have a duty to research as well? If they do, it can't, ex hypothesi, be because of their self-interest. So in the absence of another argument, it would be compatible with Stjernschantz Forsberg et al's argument to claim that the self-interested have a duty to research that the generous don't. Even if my other criticisms here are utterly off the mark, this would be a very curious result.

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Footnotes

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

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