Nomination For Enshrinement in the Hall Of Bad Ethics Ideas: A Hippocratic Oath For Scientists

Nope. No sewing machine. It will cause too much “harm.”

A blogger for the Lindau Nobel community asks, as a follow-up to a discussion raised in one of the august group’s recent meetings, whether scientists should have to take an oath similar to that traditionally (but not universally, by the way) taken by physicians, a pledge to “do no harm.”

No. Next question!

This is not merely a bad idea, but an arrogant and ignorant one. The medical profession is dedicated to healing, without regard to who is being healed. “First, do no harm” is a rational and excellent absolute principle, one that relieves the profession of the burden of many (but not all) complex utilitarian dilemmas that doctors and other health professionals may not be equipped to solve. Medicine is much narrower than science, and its limitations more clear. Most people would agree with doctors on what constitutes “harm” in 99% of the situations where the issue would be raised. Not so science, where one man’s monstrosity is another’s giant step for mankind.

Science advances human knowledge, and there should be no limits to that advance. Not only is there no way to determine at the moment of discovery, and certainly not before it, whether new insights into the workings of nature and the universe will confer net benefits or harm on mankind; scientists, by the narrowness of their focus and training, are likely to be terrible judges of what “harmful” knowledge is. My favorite American inventor is Walter Hunt (1796-1859), best known as the inventor of the safety pin, as well as the U.S. record holder in patents until a guy named Edison came along. Hunt invented one of the first practical sewing machines, but decided not to patent his invention because he thought it would do “harm” by throwing seamstresses out of work. Progress, be it economic, technological or political, often does “harm,” and nobody is smart of prescient enough to know how the final tally of pluses and minuses will work out, or even when to take score. Pledge never to do harm, and scientist might as well pledge to take up beach-combing for a living. The quest for knowledge about the world and the workings of the universe is an absolute good, and the fact that mankind may put a particular piece knowledge to bad use is not the concern of the scientist uncovering it. Indeed, we cannot and should not trust them to make such assessments, and decide what knowledge the rest of us can safely control.

The proposal of a scientist’s Hippocratic Oath really is an attempt by scientists to grab power: Knowledge is power, as we all have been told since grade school, and now scientist want to control what constitutes “acceptable” knowledge. We don’t want such power in the hands of scientists. A quote from the post illustrates this vividly. The author, Lou Woodley, relates a conversation with a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry about the oath, and is told that such a restriction is inappropriate for science:

“[Dr.] Lehn says, “The first aim of scientific research is to increase knowledge for understanding. Knowledge is then available to mankind for use, namely to progress as well as to help prevent disease and suffering. Any knowledge can be misused. I do not see the need for an oath”. However, answering the question about nuclear weapons he says, “With respect to weapons and the like, if everybody were to take an oath and refuse to conduct research, then that would be OK”.

This is a genius in chemistry with a middle-schooler’s comprehension of history. The development of the atom bomb, with just a slight change in timing, might have prevented Hitler from conquering Europe and more. The use of the atom bomb may have saved a million lives. The existence of the atom bomb almost certainly prevented a Third World War, and perhaps a Fourth and Fifth as well. Whether or not one agrees with these assertions, the simplistic reasoning of the Nobel chemist to justify censoring scientific research at its origin is frightening. A moral dictatorship of clerics is undesirable, but a moral dictatorship of scientists is ridiculous.

You just do the research, guys, and you will be well-rewarded with fame, fortune and plaudits. Leave it up to humanity to decide how your discoveries will be used. The worst harm scientists can do to mankind is to limit the search for knowledge based on their own imperfect supplies of it.


Source: Lindau Nobel Community

Graphic: Sew a lot

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

8 thoughts on “Nomination For Enshrinement in the Hall Of Bad Ethics Ideas: A Hippocratic Oath For Scientists

  1. An interesting argument, Jack, and while I agree with a large part of it I don’t think it’s quite this simple.

    Science is currently corrupted. There are numerous examples, but the now-debunked claim that childhood vaccines are linked to autism is a splendid one of what can happen: corrupt scientist, gullible media eager for the latest Big Scare, and you end up with expensive lawsuits by parents desperate to find SOMETHING to blame for their child’s condition and, what’s worse, thousands of kids unprotected from entirely preventable diseases.

    Those represent real harm.

    Compou ding the problem: some high-prestige scientific journals have undergone the same transformation towards bias that has been seen in the mainstream media, and the peer review process has become increasingly suspect (the Climategate scandals are a good example).

    The majority of scientists, I’ve little doubt, operate with integrity and genuine openness. An increasing number, however, appears to have been lulled into dreams of fame and funding by allowing (or actively encouraging!) their work to be used to fuel the latest populist scare.

    I don’t know what the answer is, but some sort of ethical concept akin to the Hippocratic Oath, if not identical, is far from a bad idea.

    • There are plenty of codes and regulations covering what you are talking about—dishonesty, fraud, sloppy work, conflicts. The idea of the Hippocratic Oath is to install a prime directive regarding “harm”, as in “consequences.” Obviously scientists need ethical standards, and they have them. This proposal hypothesizes a change in duty.

  2. Tell the truth, the whole truth – but possibly not nothing but the truth, as long as any opinion is unmistakeably marked as such. Correct your past mistakes as you find them.

    Also be prepared to accept responsibility for the moral consequences of the power you provide to others being misused. Unless you feel it right to give them the power, you must accept personal responsibility and so withhold it. That’s not a Scientific sin, it’s a personal one.

    Providing the sharpest possible scalpel to a surgeon is one thing. Providing it to a vivisectionist of “untermenschen” another. Providing it as a toy for a 6-month-old baby yet another.

    The only scientific sins are knowing falsification of results, and omitting contradictory evidence. But scientists have responsibilities as humans too.

    Please have a listen to this song.

    As someone who works or has worked on “Aerospace and Defence”, this is not a hypothetical for me. My work has been directly responsible for several deaths, just as surely as if I’d pulled the trigger. I regret the necessity, but would do it again.

    It’s a matter of public record that I’ve been involved with the IDF’s submarine program, the last time at Haifa Naval Base. I can neither confirm nor deny any nuclear capability they may have.

    Knowledge is power, as we all have been told since grade school, and now scientist want to control what constitutes “acceptable” knowledge. We don’t want such power in the hands of scientists.

    With respect, it’s we who have made that power, not you. While scientists, as a group, are no more qualified to make ethical decisions than are high-school students, each scientist must take personal responsibility about who that power is shared with. The buck starts here.

  3. And just who would be the one to define”harm”? Like beauty, it is something that is in the eye of the beholder.

    Scientists like Einstein, Oppenheimer, Feinman used their science (each his own contribution to the whole) to give us Fat Man and Little Boy but that same science today generates electricity, drives submarines and is implanted to derail prostate cancer. Harm and good all from essentially the same source, although the original “harm” is subjective.

    And who defines harm for doctors…. they have the power to prolong life virtually indefinitely that in some cases leaves a person trapped in a nursing home until their family is bankrupt… cynical, yes, but harm is done to someone, nonetheless.

    And where would medicine be today without all that “science stuff”?

    • Einstein did very little directly on the Manhattan project. He wrote a few letters to politicians and did a small amount of consulting, but he was not actively involved in the development and he was not officially apprised of how the project progressed. As the war went on, he became very apprehensive about the possible use of nuclear weapons and wrote the President of his concerns.

      A part of Einsteins’ Special Theory of Relativity was used, but used in a way that even Einstein had scoffed at as ridiculous 20 years earlier. If even Einstein cannot foresee what harm may come, how do you think such an oath is even possible?

  4. So Gerald Bull did nothing wrong when he went to work for Saddam Hussein building giant cannons? He was pursuing knowledge and I guess that means he doesn’t have to consider the likely consequences of his work.

    • You can’t cobble together a general principle from anecdotes. He has free will, he’s responsible for his actions. No scientist is required to patent his sewing machine. That doesn’t mean that every scientist should take an oath making it a professional violation to do so.

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