So scientists: next time an interviewer asks your opinion on the ethical side of your work, I have two suggestions:
And for all that people sometimes talk about a “national conversation”, a conversation isn’t something that just under 54 million people (the number of adults in the UK) can have. So the conversation metaphor faces a dilemma. On one hand, if what’s being proposed really is something like a conversation, then we’re talking about much a smaller group than the entire nation. On the other hand, if we really are trying to get millions—or even just thousands—of people involved in offering their views, then we are going to need a process that looks very different than a conversation.
In keeping with the stereotype of an Anglophone philosopher, I’m going to pick up on a couple of key terms in a phrase and ask what they mean. First, though, I’ll offer a brief, qualified defence of this phrase. My aim in raising these issues isn’t to attack scientists who use it, but rather to ask that a bit more thought is put into what is, at heart, a reasonable response to ethical complexity.
That’s quite right, and I’m not suggesting that if scientists want to say that the ethics of an issue is (partly) a matter of public opinion, they need to come armed with a fully worked out model for how to find out what that is and resolve conflicts between different groups within the public. My plea is much smaller than that: it’s a plea to acknowledge the complexity of saying that we need to find out what the public think, and the inadequacy of conversation as a metaphor.
But even if that makes sense at one level, it’s not really a justification for refusing to offer any view. After all, the suggestion that we “have a conversation” is presumably supposed to involve input from individuals within a particular community (whether that be local, national, of global), and scientists are themselves part of those communities. Of course, in the relevant cases they will have interests in that conversation having particular outcomes—if you are working on a new technology, you probably don’t want it banned—but that doesn’t disqualify them from having an opinion. In fact, I’d suggest it demands that they offer an opinion. If ethical issues are raised about a technology, as someone who is linked to that technology you have an obligation to explain why you think those issues don’t outweigh the potential benefits. When new technologies emerge, ethical questions inevitably arise about their use. Scientists with relevant expertise will be invited to speak on radio, on television, and in newspapers (sometimes ethicists are asked, too, but this is rarer). In many such cases, a particular phrase gets used when the interview turns to potential ethical issues:
In other words, while the conversation metaphor is superficially reassuring, it masks an absence of any view on the process by which public opinion(s) should be ascertained, or the sense in which that process will be legitimate as a method of deciding an ethical issue. Should this be a subject on which a small group of elites deliberates? Should public opinion be ascertained through widespread opinion polls? A referendum (binding or advisory)? Or should we aim for public representatives, through public representation on ethics panels, or through citizens juries or assemblies?
Here’s the defence: First, scientists aren’t ethicists. They aren’t trained to think about ethics, and it’s arguably not their job to do so (no more than the average person, anyway). And so when interviewers raise an ethical issue with them, their first response might be that they aren’t qualified to talk about that. In fact, many scientists might conceive of ethics as effectively reducible to ‘social values’. If answers to ethical questions are just a matter of what people in a particular community believe, then while ethical issues might be amenable to empirical research (e.g., on public values), that often won’t be the field of the scientist being interviewed. And finally, even if we thought there was a right answer to ethical questions, part of that answer might be procedural: we don’t need to be cultural relativists to think that whether the potential benefits of a new technology are worth the risks depends in part on what those who stand to be affected think, or that the legitimacy of licensing or restricting those technologies depends on public consultation.
By Ben Davies
It would make for an interesting qualitative research paper to analyse media interviews with scientists to see how often this phrase comes up (perhaps it seems more prevalent to me than it really is because I’ve become particularly attuned to it). Having not done that research, my suggestion that this is a common response should be taken with a pinch of salt. But it’s undeniably a phrase that gets trotted out. And I want to suggest that there are at least two issues with it. Neither of these issues is necessarily tied together with using this phrase—it’s entirely possible to use it without raising either—but they arise frequently.
Issue 1: ‘We’ sometimes seems to exclude scientist themselves
“We need to have a conversation”.
A suggestion that we have a “conversation” is appealing, because it suggests a reasonable, polite exchange of ideas within a common framework. But the idea of a conversation in this context can only ever be a metaphor, and one that’s misleading.
Scientists who have appealed to the idea of conversation might pull me up here. After all, we’re once again straying away from their area of expertise: the question of what process should be used to decide an ethical issue isn’t one that a biochemist or engineer is going to be able to speak to in the same way as the technical side of their work.
In at least some cases, that’s because the idea of a conversation is simply too cosy, too polite, for what needs to happen. On some ethical issues, it’s unreasonable to expect people to have a conversation; what we can expect, and perhaps need, is an argument.
So, while scientists shouldn’t take themselves to be offering the last word on the ethics of new tech, that doesn’t mean they’re entitled to offer nothing at all. To put it another way, rather than saying that we need to “have” a conversation, scientists should start the conversation by offering their ethical perspective and emphasising the need to hear other views.
Issue 2: “Conversation” is too vague
As I’ve said, “we need to have a conversation” is generally offered as a response to ethical questions about a new technology or practice. But it’s often offered as a response instead of a direct answer to those questions. For reasons I’ve mentioned, that’s understandable; scientists may feel it’s not their place to unilaterally pronounce on the ethics of a technology that will affect many people.
So, I think the common response to interviewers raising ethical issues, that “we need to have a conversation”, comes from an understandable place, and is partly right. That said, it’s a response that could be improved on in at least two ways.

  1. Do, in fact, tell us your ethical opinion – though acknowledge that this is the start of a process of public justification, not the end;
  2. Do by all means say that public consultation is needed; but please avoid the misleading metaphor of conversation.

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