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IV. Difficulties with the Utilitarian Approach
PRACTICAL ETHICS IN AGRONOMIC RESEARCH
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
they do not agree with ours. If we do not report data honestly, we obviously do not
help ourselves or others get a better understanding of reality, which is what we are
It is not surprising that fabrication and falsification of data and plagiarism are
almost universally accepted as scientific misconduct and unethical behavior. In
fact, in my experience, these have been treated as unforgivable sins, even if committed by fledgling scientists. Punishment is permanent banishment from the scientific community. There is no practical mechanism of appeal and no effective program of rehabilitation. Once the faith has been broken, it is virtually impossible to
To illustrate the utilitarian nature of this analysis, however, most of us would
not think it unethical to falsify or fabricate data to be communicated to an enemy
who would use the real data to harm our nation, families, etc. In wartime, scientific subterfuge may represent the difference between victory and defeat (Brown,
1975). People who are able to refrain from telling the truth under extreme duress
or even torture are often regarded as heroes.
The military situation is described with chilling candor by Sir Garnett Wolseley
(as quoted by Brown, 1975) in the “Soldier’s Handbook” published in 1869.
We are bred up to feel it a disgrace ever to succeed by falsehood . . . we will
keep hammering along with the conviction that honesty is the best policy, and
that truth always wins in the long run. These pretty little sentiments do well for
a child’s copy book, but a man who acts on them had better sheathe his sword
forever. (p. 9)
Perhaps it is most accurate to say that the principle of honesty or other principles perceived as universal do not apply unless one is willing to take an uncompromising position and suffer the consequences. However, even those with the
courage and fortitude to hold to principles regardless of the consequences are usually reluctant to expose to those consequences their families, loved ones, and others for whom they may be responsible.
If there are no revealed truths, immutable principles, or even practical, utilitarian generalities, such as the importance of honesty and integrity, that apply to science, how can we determine what constitutes ethical behavior? How can we make
any ethical judgments? If there are no points of reference visible from the sea of
uncertainty, how do we find our way?
CODESAS RULESOF THE GAME
It seems to me the analogy of rules of ethics to rules of a game is appropriate
and useful in this situation. Ideally, a set of rules makes a game possible, enjoy-
PRACTICAL ETHICS IN AGRONOMIC RESEARCH
able, and interesting. It serves to bring out the best in the players while protecting
both players and observers from the consequences of unrestrained behavior.
Over time, the community of scientists adopted rules in the form of codes of behavior by which we conduct ourselves. Most of those rules are closely tied to the
concept of honesty, but the honesty-related rules are different for different realms
in which science is practiced. The differences are distinct in the realms of pure science, commerce, and the military.
1. Pure Science
As a community of scientists seeking to understand the structure and function
of the universe and all its parts, we have, in effect, agreed to “sheathe our swords
forever.” We have agreed to pursue an improved understanding of reality, pursue
the “truth,” as best we can ascertain it, through sound analysis, experimentation,
and rational discourse and not through force of arms or other means.
We have agreed that we will be honest in our pursuit of that truth, even and perhaps especially when dishonesty cannot be detected. In science, there are many
situations in which false or fabricated data will not be detected until substantial
damage has been done or there has been much wasted effort. The scientific community embraces honesty because being dishonest would prevent us from accomplishing our goals; this is a good utilitarian reason.
2. Commercial Realm
The principle of honesty holds when science is practiced in support of commerce. To fabricate or falsify data or plagiarize the work of others is definitely unethical in this realm. However, there are situations in the commercial arena when
it is both legal and ethical for a scientist to withhold information from other scientists or practitioners. This situation is manifested in such things as trade secrets
and, to a lesser extent, patents, which will be discussed later.
Most scientists in my acquaintance, especially those who understand and appreciate the concepts of markets, competition, and capitalism, accept the occasional need to withhold information in the commercial realm. They tend to see this
as a necessary evil. They would really rather share their findings with other scientists.
3. Military Realm
I believe it is ethical for scientists working for or within the military to withhold, and in certain circumstances, fabricate and/or falsify data. Certainly, plagiarizing the enemy’s data would not be considered unethical in the military arena. In
that situation, the scientific community within which honesty is mandated is de-
fined more narrowly. It is “our” scientific community. It may only include the scientists working on a certain project. There may not be full information exchange
even among them.
If we accept dishonesty as ethical behavior for our military, we must also accept
similar dishonesty on the part of our enemies as ethical behavior. Like us, they see
it as a necessary evil that will somehow diminish bad consequences. Of course,
that recognition does not prevent either us or our enemies from punishing that behavior severely so as to deter it.
E. ABIDINGBY THE RULES
Members of the scientific community abide by certain rules if they wish to remain within the community. The rules are not defined as clearly and specifically nor
are they documented as thoroughly as, e.g., the rules of basketball and baseball.
Much is left to judgment and, at the margin, there is considerable disagreement.The
rules are always subject to scrutiny and, by common agreement, can be changed.
Nevertheless, the rules have been adequate to allow the “game” of science to be
played successfully for several centuries-to the great benefit of mankind.
I do not want to take the analogy of ethical principles to rules of the game too
far. I would not favor a force of officials looking over our shoulders to assure that
we behaved ethically. Ethical behavior needs to become a habit for researchersa commitment to truth, integrity, fairness, and service as described previously. It
needs to be internalized. It is the mark of a professional and an emotionally welladjusted human being. It needs to be manifested in everything he/she does. We
need to cultivate it in the young people we train to be scientists.
V AGRICULTURAL ETHICS AND THE WORLD
I believe the world situation now renders most of the broadly focused ethical
debates of the past decade moot. That is one reason I devoted little effort to trying
to detail those debates here.
Associated with the debates about appropriate themes for agricultural research
is an apparent understanding that legislative and regulatory activity, manifested in
government programs and influenced by public opinion, drives changes in the food
PRACTICAL ETHICS IN AGRONOMIC RESEARCH
and agriculture sector (Flora, 1986). Those who lament the increasing industrialization of agriculture, especially advocates of environment, natural resource, and
social impact themes, attribute that change to government influence, manifested
through various programs including research.
The word industrial as I use it in this context connotes scale and scope economies, vertical coordination, customer focus, and differentiated products. It does
not connote mass production, top-down management, or supply-driven strategy.
Many groups seem to believe that if they can “educate” the public and the public’s representatives, their preferred themes will emerge as the dominant driving
forces and appropriate changes will be implemented by legislation and regulation.
They work hard and expend resources to persuade the body politic that theirs is
the most ethical approach, compelling need, forceful argument, and sound philosophy. The various themes are constantly reinforced by public statements of government and organizational leaders.
It seems to me, however, that agriculture moves ever more rapidly toward the
industrial model despite all the debate. The trend strongly suggests that changes
in agriculture are being driven by other forces. I think the driving force operates
as follows. Urbanization changes the logistics of feeding large, relatively affluent
populations. To meet those demands, production and marketing enterprises grow
in scale, scope, customer focus, productivity, and efficiency. Information becomes
of paramount importance.
Relatively affluent consumers go into large, modern grocery stores and select
from a very large number of diverse products. The products are carefully arranged
on the shelves and well labeled so that consumers can make price, quality, and other comparisons. As they check out, the automated inventory system collects and
analyzes information on their choices.
Based on this information, powerful messages go back down the value chain.
The messages state, in amazing detail,
We want a very diverse selection of high quality, safe, convenient, and affordable food and agriculture products and services. We want them in very large
quantities and we want them available close to our homes. If you can’t provide
what we want, we will find somebody who can. PS: We prefer that you would
not destroy the environment or consume all the nonrenewable resources to produce these products, but we have a hard time evaluating that from here.
Urbanization, affluence, and demand in the populous parts of the world continue to grow rapidly. The populous nations are entering global food markets, especially markets for animal products and feed grains, making these markets larger
and even more global. As more consumer’s around the world gain access to modern grocery stores and their automated inventory systems, even more powerful and
detailed messages will be sent. The food and agriculture sector will respond with
even more rapid industrialization.