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III. Ethics of Choosing Research Subject Matter

III. Ethics of Choosing Research Subject Matter

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sustainable agriculture advocates maintained that some kinds of research, even if

conducted properly, lead to technologies that damage the environment, consume

inordinate amounts of natural resources, andor render small, family farms less

able to compete in highly competitive markets.

Many agricultural scientists were taken aback when accused of being unethical

because their research addressed a certain subject matter. They had neither fabricated nor falsified data nor committed plagiarism, the sins usually associated with

scientific misconduct. They thought they had performed a valuable service by creating new or improved technology that was adopted in practice. One of my colleagues, a soil fertility specialist, said, “I feel like they are trying to nullify my

whole career.”

I do not remember a time when agronomic scientists were not occasionally criticized by people who thought they were unduly influenced by private sponsors of

research, especially when such sponsors were suppliers of inputs for production,

including fertilizers, pesticides, seed, etc. Some of these critics suggested that

agronomic researchers actually falsified or contrived data to please their sponsors

and assure continued support. Such behavior, of course, would be unethical.





People trained in philosophy and ethics became interested in agriculture and

have written extensively about agricultural ethics, especially in the past decade.

No attempt was made to review that extensive literature here. I find the aforementioned article by Thompson (1988) to be a useful summary of broad ethical

issues in agriculture. I drew heavily on it for the perspectives provided in this


Thompson (1988) identifies productivity as the ethical theme of traditionakonventional agriculture and agricultural research and lists three other themes favored

by critics. Critics argue that new technology is developed and implemented in conventional agriculture without sufficient concern for its externalities, that is, its potential effects on environment, international justice, and agrarianism. I generally

use a slightly different classification of the cross-cutting issues or themes, namely, environment, food and worker safety, natural resources, and social impacts.

The externalities are, by definition, effects that are not measured or accounted

for in R&D leading to new technology. Some critics of traditional agricultural

R&D are skeptical of attempts to internalize externalities by adding additional dimensions to R&D efforts. Others would go so far as to require an economic and

social impact study before a research project could be launched. Most researchers

would agree that in many research situations it is impossible or impractical to evaluate all the possible externalities.






Some critics oppose the traditional agricultural research paradigm, rooted as it

is in systematic analysis, experimentation, and statistical analysis. They argue

that this approach inevitably ignores important nontechnical issues, does not

place enough value on indigenous and intuitive knowledge and practical experience, and fails to anticipate or provide quantitative and qualitative estimates of


The tendency toward reductionism, that is, reducing a system to its component

processes and focusing research on individual components, is frequently criticized

(Busch, 1989). Critics argue that when the systems are reconstituted by practitioners, changes in component processes cause unforeseen and deleterious

changes in the system as a whole.

To some extent, reductionism is the result of increasing specialization among

scientists. A component of a system can be researched by an individual specialist.

Studying the whole system, which is the sum of its component processes plus the

interactions among them, almost always requires a team. Critics maintain that current university culture and protocols favor individualresearch and discourage team




I know few if any people who do not want agricultural technology to be productive, environmentally sound, safe, resource conserving, and socially benign or

positive in its impact. The disagreements lie in the relative degree of importance

to be attached to these themes, especially in situations in which there are potential


People also disagree as to how these differences might be resolved. Some favor

absolute legal or regulatory constraints. For example, some would prefer that no

research be conducted on chemicals or biotechnology. They view these things as

being potentially dangerous because they are not “natural” or because they have

potential to disadvantage some categories of producers. Others attribute religious

(or at least deep philosophical significance) to one or more of the themes and thus

would wish those themes to be overriding considerations in any decision-making

process, including decisions on the subject matter of research.

Some people try to influence the research agenda andor research outcomes by

labeling the attitudes, philosophies, or theologies of researchers or advocating certain philosophies. Elmore (1996) identifies a theocentric philosophy of nature as

one more likely to lead to a truly sustainable agriculture than a geocentric, acentric, or anthropocentric view.



Several years ago there was a symposium on ethics at the annual meetings of

the American Society of Agronomy. The moderator got my attention immediately

when he stated that people who adopted the philosophy that “farming is a business’’ were likely to conduct research in the context of competition. This would

probably lead, in his view, to the development and implementation of new, productivity-enhancing technology that benefitted those who adopted it but disadvantaged those who could not or would not adopt it.

The moderator went on to postulate that research predicated on the concept of

farming as a business would be especially harmful to farmers in undeveloped nations. He used this as an example of scientists failing to face the fact that decisions on the subject matter of research were value laden. He strongly implied that

espousing and even entertaining the concept of farming as a business was unethical.

I believe that farming is a business. In fact, I think that agricultural researchers

who do not at least consider the business implications of their research may very

well obtain results that are at best irrelevant and at worst misleading to their constituents. I agree, however, that research sometimes leads to dislocations and

stress, especially among those who are unable or unwilling to apply research results in practice. This is an example of how two people looking at the ethics of the

same research situation may arrive at much different conclusions.

Researchers create new possibilities and potentials. Typically these possibilities

have the potential to have both good and bad consequences. Research itself does

not assure that the new possibilities will be realized in practice. The “acid” test of

a new technology is whether or not it is successful in the practical environment. In

that environment, a new technology not only has to “work” technically but also

must work economically and politically. It has to work initially for the producers,

processors, etc. and ultimately for the consumers.

The ethical problem arises when a new technology works to improve conditions

within one so-called ethical theme but causes harm in the context of one or more

other themes. To prevent this by precluding certain areas of research, however, prevents both good and bad outcomes. Often, the extent of good and bad cannot be

estimated accurately until much of the research is accomplished. The appropriate

response to this dilemma, in my opinion, is to internalize as many as possible and

practical of the externalities.

Thompson ( 1988) describes a “pragmatically modified” utilitarian approach to

ethical decision making in the food and agriculture arena. In general, this involves

seeking, through R&D, to optimize benefits. The word optimize is used here instead of maximize, recognizing that not all objectives in a multiobjective situation

can be maximized simultaneously. There are inevitable trade-offs. Thompson

would entertain the imposition of some absolute constraints, if a sound philosophical basis for such constraints were established.








Although I believe strongly in the utilitarian approach to ethical decision making, I realize that there are great difficulties associated with it. It is often very difficult and costly to assess accurately the goodness and badness of outcomes.

Whether outcomes are perceived as good or bad often depends on who is perceiving them.

The benefits to individual consumers of any particular new agricultural technology may be small, but because so many individuals are affected the aggregate

benefit may be enormous. Of course, if a new technology harms consumers, even

marginally, the aggregate harm can be great. Typically, successful new agricultural technology marginally benefits a large number of people, most of whom are consumers, and severely disadvantages a relatively small number of people, most of

whom did not or could not adopt the technology.

This situation presents challenges to those who weigh good and bad outcomes

of research. DDT prevents malaria and harms raptors. Bovine somatotropin conserves resources, makes milk cheaper, and puts smaller, less efficient operators out

of business. The mechanical tomato harvester kept the tomato processing industry

in California, greatly expanded the processing industry there, but eliminated thousands of stoop-labor jobs that sustained migrant workers.

Good short-term outcomes may be associated with bad long-term outcomes and

vice versa. Only recently has there been strong disciplinary focus on assessing impacts of research. At best, it is very difficult to predict outcomes. Thus, there is inevitably a great deal of uncertainty associated with the utilitarian approach to ethical analyses. This uncertainty is indeed frustrating and drives many toward a more

authoritarian approach.


In Atherton’s (1961) book, “The Cattle Kings” (third Bison Book printing), he

quotes a “noted” theologian who was supposedly “addicted” to reading western

novels. He says,

If just once I could stand in the dust of frontier main street facing an indubitably

bad man who really deserved extermination, and with smoking six-gun actually exterminate him-shoot him once and see him drop dead. Just once to face

real and unqualified evil, plug it and see it drop. (p. 250)



Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1973) expresses similar frustration in “The Gulag

Archipelago.” He says,

If only it were all so simple. If only there were evil people somewhere, insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from

the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through

the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy apiece of his own

heart. (p. 168)

Many years ago, I participated in a discussion with several scientists, campus

ministers, and philosophers and a representative of the Creationist Society. When

asked why he always appealed to the authority of the Bible when discussing scientific issues associated with evolution, the young Creationist said, “If you don’t

accept the Bible as absolute truth on all issues, you are launched on the sea ofuncertainty.” What the young man said is obviously true. In fact, I gave serious

thought to titling this chapter “Navigating on the Sea of Uncertainty.”

It was particularly interesting to me that in this conversation it was the scientists and philosophers who became emotional during the debate. They were very

frustrated with the young man, who steadfastly refused to engage in rational discourse on the issue of creation versus evolution. With red faces, loud voices, and

scathing sarcasm, the scientists and philosophers berated their opponent for what

they regarded as his anti-intellectual stance.

The young man, obviously serenely confident in his beliefs, admonished the

group to be patient and held forth a biblical promise that the scales would fall from

our eyes and we would fully understand, as was experienced by St. Paul (Acts

9: 17-19). Needless to say, this merely provided more fuel for the fire. The sea of

uncertainty was stormy that day.

In many ways, science is a method of navigating on the sea of uncertainty. Scientists generally accept the fact that they will not, in their lifetimes, know or understand anything with complete certainty. We try to estimate the level of uncertainty or probability associated with our hypotheses but recognize that even that

estimate is fraught with uncertainty. The best we can do is be committed to the

truth as Senge described that commitment. However, that will not carry us through

all the ethical dilemmas we may encounter.




One might hope that at least one principle of ethics, e.g., honesty, would be universal in application, thus simplifying ethical evaluation. Recognizing that it is extremely difficult to be objective in interpreting data, we try to be scrupulously honest in reporting our observations so that others may draw their own conclusions if

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III. Ethics of Choosing Research Subject Matter

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