Richard G. Petty, MD

Why Ethics Matter

I was thrilled and delighted to see an extremely important article by Paul Root Wolpe, one of my former collaborators at the University of Pennsylvania. What was so heartening was that the article appeared in the journal Cell, which is without question one of the very best biomedical journals in the world.

Paul is a bioethicist with very broad interests: He is a Professor in the Departments of Psychiatry, Medical Ethics, and Sociology, and senior fellow at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also Chief of bioethics at NASA. Paul also has a great interest in the ethics of complementary and alternative medicine. He has a remarkably keen mind that let’s him get to the bottom of even the most knotty problems.

I am going to quote a couple of lines from the paper, before summarizing Paul’s main points:

“Science is a powerful force for change in modern society. As the professionals at its helm, scientists have a unique responsibility to shepherd that change with thoughtful advocacy of their research and careful ethical scrutiny of their own behavior.”

He goes on to identify the eight top reasons scientists cite to avoid thinking about ethics and then offers substantive responses to invalidate these excuses. These are the eight reasons why many scientists don’t consider the ethical implications of what they are doing are:

"I’m not trained in ethics."
"My work has little to do with ethics."
"Ethics is arbitrary."
"Others will make the ethical decisions."
"Ethicists mostly say ‘no’ to new technologies."
"The public does not know what it wants."
"Knowledge is intrinsically good."
"If I don’t do it, someone else will."

The point that Paul makes in the article is that none of these points is actually true. In the same way that we cannot divorce your physical body from your mind and your emotions, science is intensely value-laden. We bring our beliefs and our prejudices to science, and we have to consider the practical consequences of what we are doing.

There have been some great blogs written in response to the article. One that particularly caught my eye was by Janet D. Stemwedel from San Jose State University. Well worth reading both the original article and Janet’s blog.

I have always thought it essential that those of us working in academia should remain fully engaged in the debate about the meaning of our work, and its moral and ethical implications. Many of us have been criticised for popularizing what we do, but I think that we have a responsibility to let the public know what we are doing, what we have discovered, and how it will impact them.

After all, they are paying the bills!

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About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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