Article Text

Download PDFPDF

Must research benefit human subjects if it is to be permissible?
  1. Daniel Wikler
  1. Correspondence to Dr Daniel Wikler, Mary B. Saltonstall Professor of Ethics and Population Health, Department of Global Health & Population 643c FXB, 651 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115, USA; wikler{at}


Must medical experiments with human subjects offer them a ‘favourable risk-benefit ratio’, that is, more expectation of benefit than harm or burden, if they are to be judged as ethically justified? Ethical justification is easier for experiments that do offer net benefit to subjects, but ethical justification is possible also for some experiments that do not. Basic science experiments with healthy volunteers and ‘Phase I’ drug trials that seek to determine tolerable dosage levels are routinely approved by ethical review committees; moreover, guidance they receive from government funding agencies specifically asks them to weigh risks to subjects against benefits to subjects and also benefits to those who may benefit from the knowledge gained in the experiment. If a puzzle remains, it is why there remains any assumption that research ethics requires a ‘favourable risk-benefit ratio’ for the individual research subject.

  • Research Ethics
  • HIV Infection and AIDS
  • Policy Guidelines/Inst. Review Boards/Review Cttes.

This is an Open Access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial (CC BY-NC 4.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt, build upon this work non-commercially, and license their derivative works on different terms, provided the original work is properly cited and the use is non-commercial. See:

View Full Text

Statistics from


  • Funding National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (1 R01 AI114617-01A1, 1 R56 AI114617-01).

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.