Towards a Vocational Ethics for Scientific Researchers

What follows is the text of a brief talk I gave as part of QUB leg of a series of events run by Nuffield Bioethics concerning The Culture of Scientific Research

Towards a Vocational Ethics for Scientific Researchers

My name is Nathan Emmerich and I did my PhD here at QUB, looking at the ethical education of medical students. At the present time I am a Visiting Research Fellow in PISP where, amongst other things, I am writing about the idea of ethical expertise. I have also been part of the Academy of Social Science’s project on Generic Ethical Principles for the Social Sciences. If you are interested you can find out more about this project on the Academy website, including a position paper on ethics in social science research that concluded a major phase of the project. It is interesting that some of the broader questions that arose during the course of this work are reflected in the concerns expressed by yourselves in advance of this meeting. Part of what I am interested in is connecting what we normally think of as the ethics of research with these broader issues and, at least for the social sciences, I am trying to do so by moving away from talking about ‘research ethics’ and instead returning to the idea of a professional ethics or science as a vocation. I am going to try to illustrate these points by talking about Stanley Milgram’s infamous obedience experiments.


I am sure many of you are aware of Milgram’s experiment was an attempt to investigate the power of authority. To recap, in return for $4 he solicited individuals who were willing to participate in an hour-long experiment, supposedly concerned with memory. On arrival in the lab volunteers were duped into thinking that they were randomly assigned one of two roles, learner or teacher. In fact the assignment was not random and the volunteer was always assigned the role of teacher. The individual assigned to be the learner was a paid confederate of the experiment. The teacher was then instructed to ask the learner a series of questions. Using a bank of switches on a machine the learner also administered increasingly strong electric shocks in response to a wrong answer. Unbeknownst to the teacher the learner did not in fact receive any shocks and if the teachers expressed disquiet about the experiment they were prompted to continue by the researcher, the figure of authority. Whilst compliance rates varied across the 20 plus experimental protocols, many individuals continued to shock the learner beyond the point of it being painful, beyond the point at which the machine was labeled dangerous and even beyond the point at which the learner first refuses to answer further questions and then become entirely unresponsive. Many participants in the Milgram experiment were clearly upset during its conduct and whilst they were ‘de-hoaxed’ before they left the laboratory, some continued to have negative feelings regarding their treatment.

There are many things one might say about these experiments and, in particular, its ethics. However, I wish to focus on some of the perspectives that have begun to emerge in response to archive material that has recently been made available to researchers. Necker Russell, who wrote his PhD on Milgram and his experiments, suggests that instead of focusing on what the experiment can tell us about our (im)moral response to authority, the ethics of social psychological experiments, or the (ir)responsibility of Milgram himself, we consider the role of the other people involved. Whilst Milgram was usually present behind the scenes, various assistant researchers were in charge of the experiments. Furthermore various other individuals who had no connection to Yale or psychology played the role of the learner. Like the subjects of the experiment they were simply members of the public who were remunerated for their time. Whilst those subject to Milgram’s experiment were duped about the fact that they were inflicting harm on someone else, those conducting the experiments were under no such illusion: it must have been clear to them that some subjects experienced high levels of distress during the implementation of these protocols. However, with the exception of one individual who withdrew his involvement when a friend arrived to participate as a learner, none appeared to question the ethics of the experiment.[i] Russell argues that this is function of the moral authority of science: the fact that it, and the knowledge it generates, is seen as an imperative or collective good, one that outweighed the negative treatment of the research subjects.

Building on these points Russell argues that the social organization of science – its bureaucratic rationality - contributes to the fracturing of ethical responsibility. Various other actors considered Milgram’s experiments before they actually took place, these included: Professor Buxton, Milgram’s department head; Yale, Milgram’s institution; and the National Science Foundation, Milgram’s funders. All expressed some level of concern for the well-being of participants and, at least to a degree, raised them with Milgram. Nevertheless, they did little more than ensure they were legally inoculated with respect to these concerns. Once the experiments had commenced no one followed up to see what, in fact, occurred.

Russell’s contends that the bureaucratic division of labor inherent in the social organization of science produces an ethical division of labor and this division was essential to the success of these experiments. However, as revealed by the way in which Milgram sought to develop and perfect his experiment, to ensure that the greatest number of individuals delivered the greatest number of shocks, this division is not merely bureaucratic, it is methodological.

If this is correct then we might conclude that the behavior of Milgram, his assistants and research subjects, was not simply produced through ‘obedience to authority’ and/ or the moral motivation provided by the scientific imperative, but through this coupled with the methodological and bureaucratic division of labor that science and its social organization engenders. We might then reflect on the contemporary role of research ethics and research ethics committees. Certainly ethical review can identify unethical proposals and, like others at the time, may have expressed reservations about Milgram’s plans. They may have also required the separate submissions of the 20 plus different conditions in which the experiments were conducted. In so doing they may have learned about the way previous experiments had unfolded. An ethics committee may have also prevented the naïve repetition of the experiment by a class of students in an Australian university. Nevertheless it is unavoidable that the ethics committee is part of the bureaucratic apparatus of the university. As such, it not only contributes to the division of labor inherent in the social organization of scientific research, it does so with explicit regard to ethics.

This may have advantages, and positively contribute to the ethics of research, but it may also have disadvantages, and negatively contribute to the ethics of science. First, it may encourage researchers to think of ethics as something we take care of before conducting research. In contrast there is good reason to think that we should remain alive to the ethical dimension of research whilst it is being conducted.[ii] Second, it restricts the focus of ‘research ethics’ to the ethics of particular research projects. It leaves out broader concerns about the social organization of scientific research, various cultural norms and imperatives such as ‘publish or perish,’ the effect of the REF and pressure to attract funding. 

The point is that the bureaucratic rationality that social structures scientific cultures fractures its ethics, its ethos

Science as Vocation and Research as a Profession:

In a book that carries the subtitle ‘A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation,’ Shapin draws attention to the normative structure of science in the 18th and 19th century. He shows how science was considered a moral enterprise and, as such, a suitable occupation for individuals of social standing. To be a true ‘man of science’ was to be engaged in an ethical pursuit consistent with the requirements of faith and that peculiarly Victorian invention, the gentleman. We have, for the most part, abandoned the idea that science brings us closer to god. However, this moral motivation has not simply been replaced by the scientific enterprise as a human good but by scientific or objective knowledge as an end in itself. The reason for this is, I think, epistemological. Methodologically speaking true scientific knowledge is seen as ‘value-neutral,’ a commitment that acts to undercut the notion that the scientific enterprise is a vocation, a value-laden occupation. If we see this in relation to what Weber calls the bureaucratic rationality of modern life then we can, at least, understand how scientific cultures have come to neglect their broader moral dimension and the kind of responsibilities suggested by the idea that science is a vocation and a profession.

Whilst he was one of the greatest advocates of a value free (social) science Weber also argued for the idea of science as a vocation. We need to distinguish between the social, moral and political dimensions of the scientific enterprise – the culture of science – and the way this culture produces objective knowledge. Whilst we should not act to compromise this objectivity we do need to recognize the collective interests and responsibilities of science and scientists as a whole. Thinking in more collective terms might offer one way to address the problems that science and its social organization seems to promote. If we come to see science as a vocation and research as a profession then we will be better placed to articulate and address our the interests we have in common and openly consider the normative structure of scientific cultures and reflect on how we might promote science as a 

[i] This may not be entirely accurate. It may be that some of those who applied for the advertised position refused to act as confederate-learners on hearing the details of the experiment. However, it is impossible to know whether or not this was the case.

[ii] It is interesting to note that another infamous experiment in social psychology, the Stanford Prison Experiment, was halted because an individual external to the experiment – although she happened to be a psychologist - eventually questioned how long the experiment would be allowed to continue. Her moral reaction was a function of being introduced to the experiment after it had degenerated to a degree not previously imagined.