When knowledge has been acquired at a horrific price, is it more ethical to use it or ignore it?
Imagine the following:
Tomorrow, a bureaucrat in Berlin discovers a massive cache of documents, videos, and photos from a secret Nazi science lab. The lab was charged with the most heinous and unethical of Nazi research programs wherein human test subjects were abused and violated in the most inhuman ways possible. After reviewing the documents, it is discovered that the lab was a death camp unto itself, with over 250,000 people dying in the name of progress for the Third Reich.
The lab was, however, also highly successful. Discoveries in genetics, medicine, psychology, and prosthetics decades ahead of current, modern day research are found to have been made. Due to precise, German record-keeping, it would be easy for modern day scientists to apply these discoveries and use them to improve nearly every avenue of human health within a few years.
The addition of these documents to general scientific knowledge would provide substantive benefits to the quality of life of billions of people, but the information came at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives. What is our obligation to those whose rights were violated, and what is our obligation to science, when it comes to the data collected as a result of these unethical experiments?
First, the scary part: the Naziswere pretty good at doing science. Often, the atrocities permitted during their research was normalized as just an everyday part of the job. The scientist needed to test hypothesis X, the easiest way to do that was with a huge population of test subjects, which were ready-to-hand thanks to Hitler’s war-machine. Germany was already a scientific powerhouse before the war, so it is no surprise it utilized that built-in asset throughout. When something needed to be tested, a collection of subjects was gathered, experimented upon, discarded, and the results were written up as a paper to be submitted to a journal for the benefit of the Reich – cool, precise, demonic. But, as far as we know, there were no truly awful experiments on a massive scale the way we see portrayed in comics like Hellboy. Nazi science was also often wasted on pursuing the occult, the farcical, and the extreme. Instead of trying to increase fuel efficiency in bombers by 10%, the scientists were trying to find a serum to create super-soldiers. That sort of resource allocation becomes problematic in the real world very quickly. The chances of a discovery on the scale I’m imagining are so implausible as to be effectively impossible.
But we’re in the world of thought experiments, so again I ask, What if the best of the best of Nazi Germany’s scientific elite succeeded, but that success never made it to the Reich? What is our ethical obligation to those who were butchered in the process of gaining that knowledge? Our first duty is to the dignity of those harmed by these experiments and ensuring that justice is met. The best response here seems to use the data to help humanity as we now construct it. For the Nazis, humanity was limited to a set range of individuals with specific heritage. For modern globalized civilization, the category of humanity circumscribes all Homo sapiens sapiens. To abandon the data as tainted by “evil” is to conflate the results with the means of attaining it. Note, the beneficial results of such knowledge do not justify the methods used in attaining it. Thus, while I argue we have an obligation to utilize the secret Nazi lab discoveries to better modern science, we also have an obligation to ensure that such ethical research violations are vigorously prevented on a global scale. In the case of the secret Nazi lab, both the means and the ends were unethical.
Furthermore, for modern science to ethically use the data derived from the Nazi discoveries, we would have to test and verify the results using ethical means in modern clinical trials. That is, we must not only ensure the data is used for the benefit as many people as possible, but ensure that the discoveries from the data are, in fact, beneficial by confirming they are safe and efficacious. Finally, as the discoveries are not the result of anyone company, any such discoveries would be unacceptable for patent and the results of clinical trials would necessarily be public domain. Only by reinforcing the importance of modern clinical safety and efficacy trials as well as making the results as readily and affordably available as possible can we do justice to those who were abused in the process of collecting the data.
But aren’t we then complicit in the horrors? We say, well, we didn’t do the research, but we’ll reap the benefits? The problem here is that, unlike other crimes such as theft, it is impossible to “give back” or “take away” the knowledge. In a sense, we would be unable to undo the damage by ignoring the results of the unethical experiments. In fact, it would be unethical to not utilize the data in that more lives would potentially be lost in the search for the discoveries that had already been made. Thus, we have an obligation to those who had their human rights violated by unethical experimentation to do the most good possible with the results of the experimentation.
I ask this question in part because it helps me understand how we should react to future discoveries in countries that may share our level of scientific advancement, but possess different moral and ethical foundations than we do and are, therefore, more inclined to violate our ethical codes. For example, should South Korea clone a human being or China discover a gene-therapy treatment to dramatically extend human youthfulness, the question of what to do with those breakthroughs will be a difficult one for the scientific world. The answer seems to be that we should honor those harmed by acting to prevent further violations and ensuring that the ill-gotten results benefit as many human beings as possible by ensuring the results of those discoveries are safe, effective, and affordable.
Kyle Munkittrick, IEET Program Director: Envisioning the Future, is a recent graduate of New York University, where he received his Master's in bioethics and critical theory.
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