A blog from the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)

Ethics before the event

It is easy to be wise after the event. This easily accessible form of wisdom is also a painful accusation: you should have been wise before the event.

If you are extremely sensitive to the pain of these attacks, you might want to become someone who always is “wise before the event.” If you let your life be governed by such an ideal, you’ll become an ethical perfectionist.

Ethical perfectionism may seem like the most demanding form of ethical attitude. If it derives from oversensitivity to the pain of being wise after the event, however, which is ridiculously easy, I’m more doubtful about the value of this attitude.

The ethical perfectionist runs the risk of avoiding life altogether, until even the slightest chance of moral complexity has been eliminated. “Postpone life; I’ve discovered another possible ethical problem!”

My reason for bringing up this subject is that research ethics seems to be in continual danger of succumbing to problematic forms of ethical perfectionism. The dependence on research scandals in the past and the demand to avoid them in the future makes it especially vulnerable to this strange ideal.

Don’t for a moment believe that I recommend living without reflection. But ethical problems must be confronted while we live and develop our activities: “as we go along.” We cannot postpone life until all ethical complexity has been eliminated.

The risk is that we fancy ethical problems without reality and postpone urgent research initiatives on the basis of derailed demands, while we fail to face the real ethical challenges.

Pär Segerdahl

We think about bioethics : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se


  1. Paul Bryson

    This is why it is so important to teach and think about ethics early and often. It gives one a chance to rehearse and train so that one may become wise before the event. If one has contemplated a situation from an ethical perspective, that person has a chance to consider her conduct before the stress and time pressures of the situation are fully upon her. Then, when the circumstances arise in reality, the person can lean on that “experience.”

    • Pär Segerdahl

      Thank you for that beautifully written comment. I certainly was not arguing for an unreflective way of living. And I admit that “being wise before the event” can function as an important ideal, although it is unattainable. I was thinking of a problematic attitude to the ideal, where the ideal is turned into a bureaucratic demand. As an institutional demand, the ideal becomes problematic and profoundly comical, I think.

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