This Comment of the Day by reliably thoughtful commenter JP is exactly what I hoped this particular Ethics Quiz would inspire. Unlike some ethics quizzes, and reminding everyone that an issue isn’t presented as an ethics quiz unless I have doubts about the ethically correct answer, this one has me torn right down the center. The usual ethical systems for approaching a problem are at odds here, making it a true ethics conflict.
Here is JP’s Comment of the Day on the post, “Ethics Quiz: The French And Indian War Remains”:
I think the simple answer is that depends.
There any a lot of laws in the context of digging up graves that often vary between state and context. The United States pretty much has a statue of limitation on 100 years for excavation (not to be confused with common graverobbing). I imagine this is because it is far outside any claim a family member might have. Jack alaudid to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act which protects remains on federal or tribal lands. These rules were essentially created to protect the living. The purpose of their creation is what I believe is at the heart of understanding if the act is ethical or not. The first question I would ask: who does it hurt?
Arguably, it does not hurt the dead. Some cultures believe it does because what happens do your remains after death might affect your afterlife. Muslims, for example, believe in a physical resurrection of the body on the day of judgment. Therefore anything that might desecrate the body such as an autopsy, embalming, cremation, or even digging up the body would put their resurrections in jeopardy. While this might be easily avoidable if you know who specifically you are digging up, it could have lasting ramifications on the culture.
This is really who is hurt in the digging up of the bodies: those who have ancestral or cultural ties to burials and the dead themselves. This is often why when archaeologist prepare to dig, they have to jump through red tape to make sure no one was hurt/offended in the process. The American Association for Physical Anthropologist (AAPA) code of ethics says “It is inevitable that misunderstanding (SIC), conflicts, and the need to make choices among apparently incompatible values will arise. Physical anthropologist are responsible for grappling with such difficulties and struggling to resolve them.”
I think the question we need to ask here is, is the benefit worth it? If that is the case it seems to be a matter of utilitarianism. There are benefits to digging up bones or really engaging in archaeology in any form. Studying bones have provided historical research, but they have also helped understand how communities operated. I remember an old episode of Bones that showed a small family of three from two species of human were essentially killed because of that. Wither or not the episode is true, it illustrates one of the benefits in study.
There are also medical reasons to study old bones. Normal osteological assessments look for things like sex, age at death, stature, and any specific trauma and/or disease. Older bones might give markers of changes in the human body which would help identify possible future changes. In the time of Napoleon, the average height was 5’5” making Napoleon (5’6”) slightly above average (many people believe he was short). The average height for a male today is 5’7”.
Personally, I think this is just the ick factor. Death anxiety (worrying about ones death) thanatophobia (fear of death), and necrophobia (fear of the dead) are extremely common fears in all cultures. Death is the one thing no one on earth can escape. It will come for us all at some point. Perhaps we just want it to have more meaning than our short existence here on earth which may be why we go to extreme lengths to take care of our dead.
As far as this statement “Science does not stop progressing despite the best efforts of some politicians.” I think that needs its own assessment. Perhaps Dr. Frankenstein would agree, but I shutter to think what science could do without any regulation.