Although chemistry has been at the center of public debate for centuries, it has rarely been the subject of professional ethical reflection. This distinguishes it from medicine, biology, and technology, on which ethical research and teaching exist at universities, according to Joachim Schummer, Founding Editor of HYLE, the International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry. But without ethics, chemical research easily becomes useless or even dangerous, he says.
What Is Meant by Ethics and Why Is It Important?
Science and technology ethics is not concerned with publication practices—such as how to cite correctly, what order to give authors, and how to review fairly—nor with questions of how to properly account for and document experimental results. It is about the ethical evaluation of research and the application of science in societal contexts. It asks: What risks and opportunities does the particular research, development, and application pose for society—both in the short term and locally, and in the long term and globally? Are the research purposes, methods, and outcomes consistent with general moral values?
Models and theories in ethics share at least three principles: Impartiality, Benevolence, and the Nonharming Principle. They differ in how they prioritize the principles and which ones they consider in addition, such as a principle of justice, and whether they consider future generations and effects on non-humans in the process (generational, animal, and environmental ethics). Some theories weigh intentions more heavily than consequences in the moral evaluation of actions. However, all condemn naïve good will that recklessly accepts the unintended negative consequences of one’s actions. Similarly, one should not confuse feelings of obligation, such as to one’s employer, family, friends, professional group, or country, with ethics.
Precisely because chemistry is important for dealing with almost all of the future tasks facing global society—especially climate and energy, material cycles, nutrition, the environment, and health—ethical competencies are in demand among chemists. Ethics education should impart the ability to grasp novel situations in all their relevant dimensions, to reflect on them, and to evaluate them according to generally recognizable standards. This leaves enough room for one’s own value preferences, which one should be able to defend in social discourse through ethical arguments.
Teaching Ethical Competence at Universities
Many scientific societies have been demanding for decades that universities teach ethical competencies. In this context, an understanding of how disciplines differ and how they work together is essential. Purely technical knowledge is becoming increasingly worthless.
Chemical ethics can be taught either top-down or bottom-up. Top-down means starting from general ethical theories and abstract concepts and then applying them to cases in chemistry and discussing them. Bottom-up starts with prominent cases from the past and develops an abstract level of evaluation from them.
For those untrained in ethics, the second path is easier because it starts with illustrative examples and only slowly progresses to more abstract concepts that can be applied to future problems. In addition, chemistry students gain an overview of culturally and historically significant cases that continue to shape the public discussion of chemistry today. Anyone who wants to take a stand here should be able to draw on solid knowledge.
- Ethik in der Chemie: Die gute Absicht reicht nicht,
Nachr. Chem. 2021.