Ethical Dilemmas in the Sciences

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Ethical Dilemmas in the Sciences

Christian Jutten

“Science without conscience is only ruin of the soul” said François Rabelais. This centuries-old quote still resonates, today maybe louder than ever. I began to write this editorial at the end of February when Russian tanks and soldiers invaded Ukraine and waves of bombers began dropping their bombs on Ukrainian cities, targeting civilian buildings, hospitals, and schools. This dramatic event was a shock to Europeans, since most of them have lived in relative peace for more than 70 years. Most of them probably pay minimal attention to the wars, however continuous, that have been taking place far from Europe, in Asia or Africa. The surprise and amazement were total and people became aware of the destructive power of a few humans. If only we could bring back Roland Magdane, a French humorist, and his 1981 sketch: “The kings of fools” (in French) [1] . In this editorial, I would like to first address some of the dilemmas scientists are facing in their professional activities.

When we speak about missiles, tanks, and bombers, we immediately think about how these weapons benefit from our work and the advances in our fields. But then, ethical questions arise. Of course, most of us are working to improve quality of life, to progress medicine, to realize more durable and ecological agriculture. But, we are aware that people in poor countries often do not benefit from, for instance, the advancements achieved in the medical field. This is a dilemma for scientists!

In addition, it is clear that it is far too easy for people with bad intentions to divert these inventions from their beneficial uses to ones of destruction. As an example, with advanced satellite imaging methods, one is able to understand the universe, to detect pollution or study the evolution of cultures. But the same tools can be used by armies for keeping an eye on other countries for defensive or agressive goals. Another dilemma for scientists!

But, let’s not be naive! A completely passive country would be easy prey for predators. And dissuasive weapons are mandatory—even if not sufficient—for preserving peace. Remember the Latin adage: “Si vis pacem, para bellum”. Still, a dilemma!

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