Volume 44, 1998
Are There Things Which We Should Not Know?
It has been claimed that decisions concerning scientific research topics and the publication of research results are purely methodological, and that any moral considerations refer only to research methods and uses of acquired knowledge. The arguments advanced in favor of this view appeal to the moral neutrality of scientific knowledge and the intrinsic value of truth. I argue that neither is valid. Moreover, I show three cases where a scientist’s decision to begin research clearly bears moral relevance: (1) when starting an inquiry would create circumstances threatening some non-cognitive values; (2) when achieving a certain piece of knowledge would threaten the existence of the individual’s private sphere; and (3) when there are reasons to think that humankind is not prepared to accumulate some knowledge. These cases do not prove the existence of some intrinsically ‘morally forbidden topics,’ but show that the moral permissibility of any given inquiry is not a priori guaranteed but needs to be judged in the same way that its methodological soundness is judged. Judgments concerning research topics have both methodological and moral aspects and these two cannot be separated under the threat of distorting science. Making such judgments requires knowledge not only of scientific methodology, but also of its social and philosophical implications. Philosophy is necessary in order to do good science.