Published on January 17, 2008
Buddhist Attitude toward Research Ethics: Buddhist Attitude toward Research Ethics Soraj Hongladarom Department of Philosophy Chulalongkorn University Presented at the International Workshop on Dialogue and Promotion of Bioethics in Asia, Manila Diamond Hotel, The Philippines, 14-16 October, 2002 Outline of Talk: Outline of Talk What is research ethics? An example The essence of Buddhist teaching What does Buddhism have to say about research ethics? Do guidelines on research ethics have to vary due to different religions? What is research ethics?: What is research ethics? Consideration of research ethics grew out of the atrocities committed by scientists in World War Two. The search for knowledge has to take into consideration dignity of human beings and their rights. There is the set of norms and the justification of the norms. An Episode from Star Trek: An Episode from Star Trek A ranking crew member on the starship Voyager has contracted a deadly form of alien virus. The onboard holographic doctor cannot find a cure for the virus from his vast store of database. However, he knows another holographic doctor who has the way to cure this virus on his database. Star Trek: Star Trek The problem is that the second doctor’s database is obtained by injecting this virus to millions of a species of alien beings in a planet, causing a huge number of deaths and untold miseries. Every ethical consideration had been violated to obtain this piece of information in the database. Question: Question The question is: Should the first doctor obtain the information from the second doctor to help cure the crew member? This crew member is a very strict upholder of principle: She would rather die than being cured by using the knowledge. How this helps us see the complexity of the issue in research ethics. The essence of Buddhist teaching: The essence of Buddhist teaching Once the venerable Assaji, who was a disciple of Lord Buddha, was asked by the young Sariputra, who at that time was a follower of another master, to give the essence of Lord Buddha’s teaching in a most succinct manner. Buddhist teaching: Buddhist teaching Assaji answered: The Lord taught that all dharmas have a cause, and when the cause of a thing ceases, so does the thing. The emphasis on natural connection of things and causation. Buddhism and research ethics: Buddhism and research ethics The ultimate goal of a Buddhist is to become liberated and free from ‘suffering.’ ‘Suffering’ also refers to the metaphysical notion of things that are liable to change as well as the subjective feeling (such as frustration) one has when things do not go the way one wants. Buddhism and research ethics: Buddhism and research ethics Buddhism can ground norms in research ethics by showing that following the norms (such as respect others as worthy of dignity) is rightful because doing so means that one is not attached to one’s egocentric desires. Principles in research ethics can be understood by this emphasis on non-attachment and letting go of the ego. Buddhism and research ethics: Buddhism and research ethics The key to understanding the attitude of Buddhism toward problems in research ethics is that Buddhism pays more attention to the motifs behind the act rather than the act itself. But this does not include the case of the perverse scientist who sincerely desires to help cure the virus even though he has to kill millions. Buddhism and Star Trek: Buddhism and Star Trek The Buddhist would say that it is rightful for the first doctor to use the knowledge obtained by the second to cure the crew member. This is because by helping others one instills a kind and refined frame of mind which is conducive for liberation in the future. Buddhism and Star Trek: Buddhism and Star Trek The fact that the knowledge was obtained by really vicious methods does not trump over the decision to use the knowledge to help others because the act had already been committed. If the knowledge were not used, these people would have died in vain. This does not mean that it is permissible to kill wantonly for the sake of research. Ethical Guidelines and Their Justification: Ethical Guidelines and Their Justification This is a very difficult topic. Philosophers are typically concerned with justification. The problem is how to justify the set of norms that is now commonly accepted. For Thailand, it is better to justify the set in Buddhist terms.