Thursday, September 10, 2020

Against Prudish Research Ethics

We're all familiar with prudishness as it applies to sexual ethics: the prude thinks certain sex acts are immoral, even between happily consenting adults.  They also hold that sex work is inherently degrading, and that others should not be allowed to offer monetary compensation in exchange for one's sexual labour.  The prude is not willing to tolerate others engaging in consensual and mutually beneficial exchanges in this arena if they don't stem from what the prude regards as the "right" motivations and take place within "approved" institutional arrangements (e.g. marriage).  It's a deeply illiberal perspective that has thankfully fallen out of favour in recent decades.  We may, of course, have reasonable concerns about the exploitation of sex workers in practice.  But it's increasingly recognized that the best response to such practical concerns is to improve the options available to those in desperate circumstances, not to deprive them of (what they evidently regard as) their current best option.  So I think it's fair to say that liberals have won out over sexual prudes in our current cultural milieu.

Sadly, the reverse appears true within the arena of research ethics.  Research prudes think that certain kinds of medical research (e.g. involving voluntary infection) are unethical, even when all involved are happily consenting adults.  They disapprove of offering monetary compensation to research participants, to make participation worth one's while when it otherwise would not be.  They are not willing to tolerate others' engaging in consensual and mutually beneficial research arrangements if participation doesn't stem from what the research prude regards as the "right" (i.e. non-financial) motivations.  It's a deeply illiberal view that unfortunately still predominates, with cultural bastions like the New York Times routinely dismissing controversial ("queer") research possibilities as "unethical", without argument.  We may, of course, have reasonable concerns about the exploitation of research participants in practice.  But it's depressing how hastily people assume that the best response to such concerns is to paternalistically deprive others of an option that they might well have reasonably preferred over their available alternatives.

Perhaps the most important difference between the two arenas is that the research prude's illiberalism is vastly more harmful.  Medical research has immense positive externalities.  So preventing it has immense negative externalities.  You're not just harming the would-be research participants (not to mention undermining their autonomy), you're also harming all those who end up suffering from medical conditions that could have been cured or prevented had the research gone ahead.  Missed opportunities are rarely salient, and so do not provoke the outrage that they truly deserve.  But on any reasonable estimate, the death toll of research prudishness is surely monstrous.

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