The Ethics of Inquiry, Scientific Belief,
and Public Discourse
by Lawrence Torcello
This paper builds on a developing movement to determine what, if any, ethical
constraints ought to be exercised in the process of intellectual inquiry, and
what, if any, ethical burdens fall upon professional researchers regarding the public
explication of scientific matters. In particular this article will focus on how an
ethics of inquiry connects to, and ought to inform, an ethics of public discourse
among researchers and laypersons alike, particularly when scientific findings are
relevant to public policy. One framing issue, which has been discussed by Philip
Kitcher, is whether or not there are paths of scientific investigation so potentially
harmful that pursuing them is morally irresponsible.
Kitcher advances the view that in the context of particular cultural milieus,
certain scientific investigations are not worth the social harms they might engender.
Kitcher argues, for example, that racial prejudices are held in place by what
he deems “political and epistemological asymmetries.” Political asymmetries are
the consequences of ideological prejudices specific to one’s cultural history. For
instance, the United States’s long history of institutional racism and its accompanying
tensions remain influential despite the official political condemnation of
all institutional and public discrimination. Epistemological asymmetries result
from the widespread tendency people have to inflate inaccurately the level of
evidential support available for their personal beliefs.