Sunday, February 15

Knowing Vs. Doing

After considering the discussion in the last class with Dr. Dave McIlroy, there’s one idea that keeps coming to mind. Dr. McIlroy said that the difference between an ethical individual and a moral individual is that the ethical person knows what’s right and the moral person does what’s right. I don’t want to ague semantics; these designations could just as easily be the other way around. But, I think we can agree that there is a very big difference between knowing the good and doing the good. It is one thing for someone to believe that honesty is a positive trait, it is quite another for that same person to act and speak honestly in their daily life.
So, what is the true issue here? Is it that researchers don’t know what it ethical, or that they aren’t doing what is ethical? If scientists really don’t know the right thing to do, then requiring ethical courses for science majors may solve the problem. But, if we as a science community know the good and still don’t do it, then no amount of education is going to solve this problem. I do grant that ethical training would be valuable to better understand how to apply ethical principles in tough situation which have many facets. But, if we believe that more education will solve the problem, we are deceiving ourselves. The real question is how do we take the ethics we understand in our head, bring them down to our heart and then live them out in our lives. It is a change of character not a change of understanding which must take place in our universities, research centers and hospital.


  1. This was sticking in my head as well. Rollin's remark about review boards being acceptably composed of high school students indicates that the problem is not primarily one of KNOWLEDGE. On the other hand, he'd seem to advocate some ethical REtraining for all those scientists who have been blinded by "ideology". . . .

    The general issue of moral motivation is a very difficult one that goes back to Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle wrote quite a bit about akrasia (weakness of the will: where I know what I should do, but still don't do it), citing it itself as a moral failing. Be that as it may, there's still the practical question of how we can help people be good. I still tend to think (along with Aristotle) that society has a big role to play here --- I just don't know what.

  2. I agree that society has big influence on the encouagement of ethical behavior. It seems like this can go down one of two directions. The first is to design a system which appeals to individual's self interest to further moral behovior. For example, enforcing fines for speeding in school zones. In this case, itt is in the individual's best interst not to speen because of th consequences. We definitely should be instituting laws and policies which futher ethical behavior and discourage good behavior based on in individual's elf interest.
    The second way that a society can encourage ethical behavior is by helping to train, teach and encourage ethical character traits in its people. For example, parents encouraging their children to act honestly even when this wouldn't serve the child's interests. It seems like this second element of ethical training is what is missing in our current culture. How do we produce individuals who will act ethically even when it isn't in their best interest. These are the men and women we need in research and medicine if we are going to make significant ethcal progress. How much of a role society should play in this second tier of ethical training is kind of controversial in a pluralistic culture but we may have to take a hard second look at it again.


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