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

Month: September 2020

An ideology that is completely foreign to my ideology

I read a newspaper editorial that criticized ideological elements in school teaching. The author had visited the website of one of the organizations hired by the schools and found clear expressions of a view of society based on ideological dogmas of a certain kind.

The criticism may well have been justified. What made me think was how the author explained the problem. It sounded as if the problem was that the ideology in question was foreign to the author’s own ideology: “foreign to me and most other …-ists”.

I was sad when I read this. It made it appear as if it was our human destiny to live trapped in ideological labyrinths, alien to each other. If we are foreign to an ideology, does it really mean nothing more than that the ideology is foreign to our own ideology?

Can we free ourselves from the labyrinths of ideology? Or would it be just a different ideology: “We anti-ideologues call for a fight against all ideologies”!? Obviously, it is difficult to fight all ideologies without becoming ideological yourself. Even peace movements bear the seeds of new conflicts. Which side for peace are you on?

Can we free ourselves by strictly sticking to the facts and nothing but the facts? Sticking to the facts is important. One problem is that ideologies already love to refer to facts, to strengthen the ideology and present it as the truth. Pointing out facts provides ammunition for even more ideological debate, of which we will soon become an engaged party: “We rationalists strongly oppose all ideologically biased descriptions of reality”!?

Can the solution be to always acknowledge ideological affiliation, so that we spread awareness of our ideological one-sidedness: “Hello, I represent the national organization against intestinal lavage – a practice that we anti-flushers see as a violation of human dignity”!? It can be good to inform others about our motives, so that they are not misled into believing what we say. However, it hardly shows a more beautiful aspect of humanity, but reinforces the image that conflicting forms of ideological one-sidedness are our destiny.

However, if we now see the problem clearly, if we see how every attempt to solve the problem recreates the problem, have we not opened ourselves to our situation? Have we not seen ourselves with a gaze that is no longer one-sided? Are we not free?

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

This post in Swedish

Thinking about thinking

What is required of an ethics of artificial intelligence?

I recently highlighted criticism of the ethics that often figures in the field of artificial intelligence (AI). An ethics that can handle the challenges that AI presents us with requires more than just beautifully formulated ethical principles, values ​​and guidelines. What exactly is required of an ethics of artificial intelligence?

Michele Farisco, Kathinka Evers and Arleen Salles address the issue in the journal Science and Engineering Ethics. For them, ethics is not primarily principles and guidelines. Ethics is rather an ongoing process of thinking: it is continual ethical reflection on AI. Their question is thus not what is required of an ethical framework built around AI. Their question is what is required of in-depth ethical reflection on AI.

The authors emphasize conceptual analysis as essential in all ethical reflection on AI. One of the big difficulties is that we do not know exactly what we are discussing! What is intelligence? What is the difference between artificial and natural intelligence? How should we understand the relationship between intelligence and consciousness? Between intelligence and emotions? Between intelligence and insightfulness?

Ethical problems about AI can be both practical and theoretical, the authors point out. They describe two practical and two theoretical problems to consider. One practical problem is the use of AI in activities that require emotional abilities that AI lacks. Empathy gives humans insight into other humans’ needs. Therefore, AI’s lack of emotional involvement should be given special attention when we consider using AI in, for example, child or elderly care. The second practical problem is the use of AI in activities that require foresight. Intelligence is not just about reacting to input from the environment. A more active, foresighted approach is often needed, going beyond actual experience and seeing less obvious, counterintuitive possibilities. Crying can express pain, joy and much more, but AI cannot easily foresee less obvious possibilities.

Two theoretical problems are also mentioned in the article. The first is whether AI in the future may have morally relevant characteristics such as autonomy, interests and preferences. The second problem is whether AI can affect human self-understanding and create uncertainty and anxiety about human identity. These theoretical problems undoubtedly require careful analysis – do we even know what we are asking? In philosophy we often need to clarify our questions as we go along.

The article emphasizes one demand in particular on ethical analysis of AI. It should carefully consider morally relevant abilities that AI lacks, abilities needed to satisfy important human needs. Can we let a cute kindergarten robot “comfort” children when they scream with joy or when they injure themselves so badly that they need nursing?

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Farisco, M., Evers, K. & Salles, A. Towards establishing criteria for the ethical analysis of Artificial Intelligence. Science and Engineering Ethics (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-020-00238-w

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We want solid foundations

Unethical research papers should be retracted

Articles that turn out to be based on fraudulent or flawed research are, of course, retracted by the journals that published them. The fact that there is a clearly stated policy for retracting fraudulent research is extremely important. Science as well as its societal applications must be able to trust that published findings are correct and not fabricated or distorted.

However, how should we handle articles that turn out to be based on unethical research? For example, research on the bodies of executed prisoners? Or research that exposes participants to unreasonable risks? Or research supported by unacceptable sources of funding?

In a new article, William Bülow, Tove E. Godskesen, Gert Helgesson and Stefan Eriksson examine whether academic journals have clearly formulated policies for retracting papers that are based on unethical research. The review shows that many journals lack such policies. This introduces arbitrariness and uncertainty into the system, the authors argue. Readers cannot trust that published research is ethical. They also do not know on what grounds articles are retracted or remain in the journal.

To motivate a clearly stated policy, the authors discuss four possible arguments for retracting unethical research papers. Two arguments are considered particularly conclusive. The first is that such a policy communicates that unethical research is unacceptable, which can deter researchers from acting unethically. The second argument is that journals that make it possible to complete unethical research by publishing it and that benefit from it become complicit in the unethical conduct.

Retraction of research papers is a serious matter and very compromising for researchers. Therefore, it is essential to clarify which forms and degrees of unethical conduct are sufficient to justify retraction. The authors cite as examples research based on serious violations of human rights, unfree research and research with unacceptable sources of funding.

The article concludes by recommending scientific journals to introduce a clearly stated policy for retracting unethical research: as clear as the policy for fraudulent research. Among other things, all retractions should be marked in the journal and the reasons behind the retractions should be specified in terms of both the kind and degree of unethical conduct.

For more details on the policy recommendation, read the article in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

Bülow, W., Godskesen, T. E., Helgesson, G., Eriksson, S. Why unethical papers should be retracted. Journal of Medical Ethics, Published Online First: 13 August 2020. doi: 10.1136/medethics-2020-106140

This post in Swedish

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