What do we owe you, and who’s “we” anyway? Obligations of scientists (part 1)

Near the beginning of the month, I asked my readers — those who are scientists and those who are non-scientists alike — to share their impressions about whether scientists have any special duties or obligations to society that non-scientists don’t have. I also asked whether non-scientists have any special duties or obligations to scientists.

If you click through to those linked posts and read the comments (and check out the thoughtful responses at MetaCookBook and Antijenic Drift), you’ll see a wide range of opinions on both of these questions, each with persuasive reasons offered to back them up.

In this post and a few more that will follow (I’m estimating three more, but we’ll see how it goes), I want to take a closer look at some of these responses. I’m also going to develop some of the standard arguments that have been put forward by professional philosophers and others of that ilk that scientists do, in fact, have special duties. Working through these arguments will include getting into specifics about what precisely scientists owe the non-scientists with whom they’re sharing a world, and about the sources of these putative obligations. If we’re going to take these arguments seriously, though, I think we need to think carefully about the corresponding questions: what do individual non-scientists and society as a whole owe to scientists, and what are the sources of these obligations?

First, let’s lay some groundwork for the discussion.

Right off the bat, I must acknowledge the problem of drawing clear lines around who counts as a scientist and who counts as a non-scientist. For the purposes of getting answers to my questions, I used a fairly arbitrary definition:

Who counts as a scientist here? I’m including anyone who has been trained (past the B.A. or B.S. level) in a science, including people who may be currently involved in that training and anyone working in a scientific field (even in the absences of schooling past the B.A. or B.S. level).

There are plenty of people who would count as “scientist” under this definition who would not describe themselves as scientists — or at least as professional scientists. (I am one of those people.) On the other hand, there are some professional scientists who would say lots of the people who meet my criteria, even those who would describe themselves as professional scientists, don’t really count as members of the tribe of science.

There’s not one obvious way to draw the lines here. The world is frequently messy that way.

That said, at least some of the arguments that claim scientists have special duties make particular assumptions about scientific training. These assumptions point to a source of the putative special duties.

But maybe that just means we should be examining claims about people-whose-training-puts-them-into-a-particular-relationship-with-society having special duties, whether or not those people are all scientists, and whether or not all scientists have had training that falls into that category.

Another issue here is getting to the bottom of what it means to have an obligation.

Some obligations we have may be spelled out in writing, explicitly agreed to, with the force of law behind them, but many of our obligations are not. Many flow not from written contracts but from relationships — whether our relationships with individuals, or with professional communities, or with other sorts of communities of various sizes.

Because they flow from relationships, it’s not unreasonable to expect that when we have obligations, the persons, communities, or other entities to whom we have obligations will have some corresponding obligations to us. However, this doesn’t guarantee that the obligations on each side will be perfectly symmetrical in strength or in kind. When my kids were little, my obligations to them were significantly larger than their obligations to me. Further, as our relationships change, so will our obligations. I owe my kids different things now than I did when they were toddlers. I owe my parents different things now than I did when I was a minor living under their roof.

It’s also important to notice that obligations are not like physical laws: having an obligation is no guarantee that one will live up to it and accordingly display a certain kind of behavior. Among other things, this means that how people act is not a perfectly reliable guide to how they ought to act. It also means that someone else’s failure to live up to her obligations to me does not automatically switch off my obligations to her. In some cases it might, but there are other cases where the nature of the relationship means my obligations are still in force. (For example, if my teenage kid falls down on her obligation to treat me with minimal respect, I still have a duty to feed and shelter her.)

That obligations are not like physical laws means there’s likely to be more disagreement around what we’re actually obliged to do. Indeed, some are likely to reject putative obligations out of hand because they are socially constructed. Here, I don’t think we need to appeal to a moral realist to locate objective moral facts that could ground our obligations. I’m happy to bite the bullet. Socially constructed obligations aren’t a problem because they emerge from the social processes that are an inescapable part of sharing a world — including with people who are not exactly like ourselves. These obligations flow from our understandings of the relationships we bear to one another, and they are no less “real” for being socially constructed than are bridges.

One more bit of background to ponder: The questions I posed asked whether scientists and non-scientists have any special duties or obligations to each other. A number of respondents (mostly on the scientist side of the line, as I defined it) suggested that scientists’ duties are not special, but simply duties of the same sort everyone in society has (with perhaps some differences in the fine details).

The main arguments for scientists having special duties tend to turn on scientists being in possession of special powers. This is the scientist as Spider-Man: with great power comes great responsibility. But whether the scientist has special powers may be the kind of thing that looks very different on opposite sides of the scientist-non-scientist divide; the scientists responding to my questions don’t seem to see themselves as very different from other members of society. Moreover, nearly every superhero canon provides ample evidence that power, and the responsibility that accompanies it, can feel like a burden. (One need look no further than seasons 6 and 7 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to wonder if taking a break from her duty to slay vamps would have made Buffy a more pleasant person with whom to share a world.)

Arguably, scientists can do some things the rest of us can’t. How does that affect the relationship between scientists and non-scientists? What kind of duties could flow from that relationship? These powers, and the corresponding responsibilities, will be the focus of the next post.

Posts in this series:

Questions for the non-scientists in the audience.

Questions for the scientists in the audience.

What do we owe you, and who’s “we” anyway? Obligations of scientists (part 1)

Scientists’ powers and ways they shouldn’t use them: Obligations of scientists (part 2)

Don’t be evil: Obligations of scientists (part 3)

How plagiarism hurts knowledge-building: Obligations of scientists (part 4)

What scientists ought to do for non-scientists, and why: Obligations of scientists (part 5)

What do I owe society for my scientific training? Obligations of scientists (part 6)

Are you saying I can’t go home until we cure cancer? Obligations of scientists (part 7)

“Forcing” my kids to be vegetarian.

I’m a vegetarian, which is probably not a total surprise.

I study and teach ethics. I’m uneasy with the idea of animals being killed to fulfill a need of mine I know can be fulfilled other ways. In the interests of sharing a world with more than 7 billion other people, and doing so without being a jerk, I’d rather reduce my toll on our shared resources. And, I never liked the taste of meat.

My kids are also vegetarians, and have been since birth — so they didn’t choose it. I have imposed it on them in a stunning act of maternalism.

OK, it’s actually not that stunning.

Why am I imposing a vegetarian diet on my children? For the curious, here are my reasons for this particular parenting choice:

  1. The family dinner table isn’t a restaurant. The choices are to eat what I’m serving or not eat it. This was the deal, at least when I was growing up, in omnivores’ homes (including the one in which I grew up). I may encourage my offspring to try dishes of which they are skeptical, but I don’t view feeding them as an activity that ought to push my powers of persuasion to their limits, nor do I view it as an opportunity with which they should build the capacity of their free will. I’m cooking, and what I’m serving has no meat. That’s what’s for dinner.
  2. I’m in no position to do good quality control on a meat meal. I haven’t cooked meat in about 27 years, so I’ve pretty much forgotten how. I’m not going to taste a meat dish to adjust the seasoning. My paranoia about food-born pathogens is such that I’d probably cook the heck out of any piece of meat I had to cook … and my concerns about carcinogens are such that I wouldn’t even be doing it in a potentially appealing way like blackening it. Plus, aesthetically, I find meat icky enough to handle (and see, and smell) that actually preparing a meat dinner would cost me my appetite, and possibly my lunch.
  3. Meat is expensive.
  4. Meat production uses a lot of resources … as does raising a child in the U.S. Having opted for the latter, I prefer to opt out of the former. This is not to suggest that I look at other people and do a mental audit of their impact — I swear, I don’t — but I do look at myself that way. Bathing and hydrating my offspring and washing their clothes uses water, getting them places frequently uses gas, and the computer and TV/DVD/computer axis of entertainment (and homework) uses electricity. Their homework uses paper (and we sometimes lean on them to use more paper to show their damn work). Call the vegetarian diet a do-it-yourself partial offset of our other impacts.
  5. Meat consumption is not a requirement for human health. I checked this very early in the game with our pediatrician. My kids’ diet is providing them more than adequate amounts of all the nutrients they need for their physical and cognitive development.
  6. A parent-imposed vegetarian diet enables a satisfying range of (non-lethal) options for teen rebellion. Think of how convenient it would be if, as a teenager, you could defy a parent’s values by simply buying a can of chicken soup, as opposed to having to wrap a car around a tree or to figure out how you can get someone to buy you beer. Yes, this is meant mostly in jest, but consider how many young people do make a transgressive act of challenging their parents’ values as embodied in their diet — whether embracing vegetarianism, choosing to stop keeping Kosher, or what have you.

Have I hemmed in my kids’ ability to exercise their autonomy by raising them vegetarian? Absolutely.

Even at the relatively advanced ages of 14 and 12, they still need us to hem in their autonomy to keep them alive and in reasonably good mental and emotional shape to exercise their autonomy more fully as adults. This is just part of parenting. My “forcing” a vegetarian diet on the kids is of a piece with my “forcing” them to eat meals that aren’t composed entirely of candy, “forcing” them to go to school, to do their homework, to bathe, to wear sunscreen, and to sleep at least a few hours a night. I don’t believe it is an outrageous imposition (as indeed, they seem to LIKE most of what I feed them).

We live in a community where there are many different dietary customs in play, whether for religious, cultural, or ethical reasons, so they have plenty of friends who also don’t eat particular things. (Of course, there are kids with allergies, too.) They have learned how to enquire politely about the available options, to decline graciously, and to graze effectively at potlucks.

My kids haven’t ever begged me for meat (although they occasionally express sadness that restaurants have so many fewer options for vegetarian diners than for meat eaters). They also know that when they are adults, they will be able to make their own decisions about their diets. (Same as with tattoos.) They understand that there are some rules they have in virtue of their being members of a household, but that those are subject to change when they establish their own household.

Occasionally someone brings up the possibility that, having been fed a vegetarian diet from birth, my children won’t have adequate enzymes for the digesting of meat should they try to become meat-eaters later. I have no idea if this concern has good empirical grounding. Anecdotally, I know enough long-term vegetarians who have fallen off the (meat) wagon without developing any inability to scarf down a burger and digest it like a champ that this possibility doesn’t keep me up at night.

I haven’t indoctrinated my kids to believe that meat-eaters are evil, or that they’ll go to hell if animal flesh ever crosses their lips, in large part because I don’t hold those views either. They are simply part of a household that doesn’t eat meat. Given that, what beef could anyone have with it?

An ancestor version of this post was published on my other blog.

Questions for the non-scientists in the audience.

Today in my “Ethics in Science” class, we took up a question that reliably gets my students (a mix of science majors and non-science major) going: Do scientists have special obligations to society that non-scientists don’t have?

Naturally, there are some follow-up questions if you lean towards an affirmative answer to that first question. For example:

  • What specifically are those special obligations?
  • Why do scientists have these particular obligations when non-scientists in their society don’t?
  • How strong are those obligations? (In other words, under what conditions would it be ethically permissible for scientists to fall short of doing what the obligations say they should do?)

I think these are important — and complex — questions, some of which go to the heart of what’s involved in scientists and non-scientists successfully sharing a world. But, it always helps me to hear the voices (and intuitions) of some of the folks besides me who are involved in this sharing-a-world project.

So, for the non-scientists in the audience, I have some questions I hope you will answer in the comments on this post.*

1. Are there special duties or obligations you think scientists have to the non-scientists with whom they’re sharing a world? If yes, what are they?

2. If you think scientists have special duties or obligations to the rest of society, why do they have them? Where did they come from? (If you don’t think scientists have special duties or obligations to the rest of society, why not?

3. What special duties or obligations (if any) do you think non-scientists have to the scientists with whom they’re sharing a world?

Who counts as a non-scientist here? I’m including anyone who has not received scientific training past the B.A. or B.S. level and who is not currently working in a scientific field (even in the absences of schooling past the B.A. or B.S. level).

That means I count as a scientist here (even though I’m not currently employed as a scientist or otherwise involved in scientific knowledge-building).

If you want to say something about these questions but you’re a scientist according to this definition, never fear! You are cordially invited to answer a corresponding set of questions, posed to the scientists with whom non-scientists are sharing a world, on my other blog.
* If you prefer to answer the questions on your own blog, or in some other online space, please drop a link in the comments here, or point me to it via Twitter (@docfreeride) or email (dr.freeride@gmail.com).

Teaching chemistry while female: when my very existence was a problem.

Not quite 20 years ago, I was between graduate programs.

I had earned my Ph.D in chemistry and filed my applications to seven Ph.D. programs in philosophy. (There were some surreal moments on the way to this, including retaking the GRE two weekends after defending my chemistry dissertation — because, apparently, the GRE is a better predictor of success in graduate school than is success in graduate school.) In the interval between the graduate stipend from the chemistry program from which I was now a proud graduate and the (hypothetical) graduate stipend from the philosophy graduate program on the horizon, I needed to earn some money so I could continue to pay my rent.

I pieced together something approximating enough earnings. I spent a few hours a week as a research assistant to a visiting scholar studying scientific creativity. I spent many hours a week as an out-call SAT-prep tutor (which involved almost as many hours on San Francisco Bay Area freeways as it did working one-on-one with my pupils). I even landed a teaching gig at the local community college, although that wouldn’t start until the summer session. And, I taught the general chemistry segment of a Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) prep course.

Teaching the MCAT prep course involved four meetings (each four hours long, with three ten-minute breaks interspersed so people could stretch their legs, use the bathroom, find a vending machine, or what have you) with a large number of students planning to take the MCAT and apply to medical school. The time was divided between providing a refresher on general chemistry concepts and laying out problem-solving strategies for the “passage problems” to which the MCAT had recently shifted. I was working with old-school overhead transparencies (since this was 1994), with key points and the problems themselves in permanent ink and the working-out of the problems in transparency markers that erased with a damp cloth. The screen onto which the transparencies projected was very large, so I’d have to make use of the long rubber-tipped wooden pointer that was resting on the ledge of the chalkboard behind the screen.

During hour two of the very first meeting of the very first session I taught this MCAT prep course, as I retrieved the pointer from the chalk-ledge, I noticed that a single word had been written on the chalkboard:


I was pretty sure it hadn’t been on the board at the beginning of the session. But I still had three hours worth of concepts to explain and problems to work before we could call it a day. So I ignored it and got down to business.

The second meeting with this group, I made a point of checking the chalkboard before I pulled down the projections screen, fired up the overhead projector, and commencing the preparation of the students for the MCAT.

Before the four hour session began, the chalkboard was blank. By the end of the four hours, again, there was a single word written on it:


The same thing happened in our third session. By then it had started to really bug me, so, at the beginning of our fourth and final meeting together, I resolved at least to flush out whoever was doing the writing on the chalkboard. I collected all the chalk from the ledges and put it in the sink of the lab counter at the front of the room (for I was lecturing in a proper laboratory lecture hall, with sink, gas jets, and such). And, I brought a water bottle with me so I wouldn’t have to leave the lecture hall during the ten minute breaks to find a water fountain.

At the very first break, one of the young men in the prep course followed a path between the projection screen and the chalkboard, paused as if lost (or in search of chalk?), and then exited the room looking only a tiny bit sheepish.

On the board, appearing like a film negative against the light residue of chalk dust, he had written (I presume with a moistened finger):


I still have no idea at all what provoked this hostility. The structure of the MCAT prep course was such that all I was doing was giving the students help in preparing for the MCAT. I was not grading them or otherwise evaluating them. Heck, I wasn’t even taking attendance!

What on earth about 25-year-old me, at the front of a lecture hall trying to make the essentials of general chemistry easy to remember and easy to apply to problem-solving — something these students presumably wanted, since they paid a significant amount of money to take the course — what made me a “bitch” to this young man? Why was it so important to him that not a single meeting we had passed without my knowing that someone in attendance (even if I didn’t know exactly who) thought I was a bitch?

When it happened, this incident was so minor, against the more overt hostility toward me as a woman in a male-dominated scientific field (soon to be followed, though I didn’t anticipate it at the time, by overt hostility toward me as a woman in male-dominated academic philosophy), that I almost didn’t remember it.

But then, upon reading this account of teaching while female, I did.

I remembered it so vividly that my cheeks were burning as they did the first time I saw that chalk-scrawled “bitch” and then had to immediately shake it off so that we could cover what needed to be covered in the time we had left for that meeting.

And I ask myself again, what was I doing, except a job that I was good at, a job that I did well, a job that I needed — what was I doing to that particular young man, paying for the service I was providing — that made me a bitch?