A. Briggle & C. Mitcham, Ethics and Science: an Introduction, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012

I don’t know if this qualifies as a conflict of interests, but I must admit I volunteered to review this book because I am teaching a course on ethics and science and there are not many comprehensive textbooks available. A strength of Briggle and Mitcham’s volume that immediately caught my eye is that it brings together an updated introduction to ethics, philosophy and the political sociology of science.  Chapters 2-7 cover ethical concepts and theories, research ethics (codes, investigation with humans and animals), norms in science and recent naturalist approaches to ethics. Chapters 9-10 deal with the main issues in science policy. Chapter 11 discusses the broader connections between science and culture and the 12th and final chapter analyzes ethics and engineering.

The structure of the chapters is clear: they all open with a quick case presentation, followed by several sections and a final summary, plus a closing case study with questions and readings for further reflection. There is a general list of references at the end, together with a complete subject index and addresses for ethics codes and declarations. All in all, Briggle and Mitcham’s volume has everything one would in principle expect from a textbook. However, I am not quite sure about how to make the best of it in class. 

The authors do not take anything from granted, so their presentations are as introductory and accessible as possible. This should make it particularly accessible to science and engineering students, their most likely target. In order to make it even easier to read, the authors often adopt an informal narrative tone, in which the case is presented as it unfolded historically, highlighting landmarks, often in a casual manner. Briggle and Mitcham rarely take an opinionated stance: we find the standard account on most topics. But it is sometimes simplified to a point that I was left wondering what use we can make of it in order to assess real world dilemmas. For instance, on page 45, we learn how virtue ethics is relevant for science. First, through an analogy between virtue ethics and virtue epistemology. Then, virtue ethics would also highlight “the importance of training processes and mentor–mentee relationships”, so often neglected in Big Science. Finally, virtue ethics can be used to object against “the wisdom of pursuing certain physical or cognitive enhancements”.

But, in fact, there is no other mention in the book of virtue epistemology and I guess most uninitiated readers won’t make much sense of its relevance for science in just one paragraph. I was left wondering why training processes are more defensible (or interesting) from virtue ethics than from any other approach, or why would virtue ethicists would be more opposed to cognitive enhancement than, for instance, a deontologist. I am not saying that such tenets cannot be defended, but rather that we do not find full-fledged arguments for any of them. 

This is just an instance of a problem I found throughout the book: the reader gets acquainted with plenty of interesting topics, but we rarely find a detailed discussion of any of them. This might just be the expression of my own preferences, but I think that the ultimate goal of a course on ethics and science would be to make the student capable of arguing his/her case as thoroughly as possible. For Briggle and Mitcham, I would say that the goal is rather to increase the student’s awareness about every contentious point in the intersection of ethics and science (and these are many). It is interesting to notice that chapters do not have exercises targeting directly their core points, but rather sets of questions on the closing case studies. The questions are often very open (e.g., “to what extent was this morally justified?”) and no template is provided to answer them. 

I guess that my concern might be shared both by the analytic philosopher and the STS scholar: if the former would care about the arguments not being fully developed, the latter would surely miss the many details that articulate the best case studies in STS. The many vignettes illustrating each chapter are certainly engaging, but I think it would have been instructive to present more thoroughly some cases, showing in detail how we can address them from various perspectives. 

Despite this concern, I think that the material provided in this book is so rich and updated that it may be worth trying it in class, at least as a starting point. Given how quickly this field evolves, I guess it is better to make the most of a textbook now that it is fresh and test it as thoroughly as we can, in order to see if anyone comes up with a different alternative. It is probably not easy.

{May 2013}

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