What’s the Ethical Responsibility of Academics to Society?
The journal Science has published a valuable summary of a scandal in the American Psychological Association that threatens to undo the organization’s reputation. While the presidential administration of George W. Bush pursued a policy of torturing people it had detained without conviction, a trial, or even charges, rank-and-file members of the APA began voicing concern at indications that psychologists had been hired to help make torture techniques more torturous. In public, leadership of the APA responded by creating a committee to inquire into any such practices and ensure that psychologists did not act to condone or support torture. In private, that committee was stacked with members dependent on government grants and contracts who helped ensure that the government could continue to rely on psychologists to support the practice of American torture.
This is a scandal for psychologists, who are as a profession supposed to help people, but who instead helped themselves to government largesse and in return acted to hurt people. It is tempting to focus on the American Psychological Association and its failings as a particular academic organization, or perhaps a bit more broadly to focus on the academic discipline of psychology and to ask how it might be reformed. But perhaps we should expand our focus. The scandal of torture and psychology came to light once and again, after all, because principled groups of psychologists refused to let the issue drop and demanded that psychology be maintained as a discipline that strives to do no harm. But how many other academic disciplines are there in which the issue of harm to people is not resolved, and indeed not even raised? The academic fields of physics, chemistry, mathematics, computer science, and robotics (to name just a few) are sustained by huge government contracts and huge sums of outright grants. The results of these grants create and sustain advances in the technology of killing people and destroying human infrastructure. What is the ethical standard for a chemist? Is it ethically proper for a roboticist to accept funds to develop autonomous killing machines? While we rightly focus on the ethical crisis in psychology, these questions for other fields have not been raised above the volume of a whisper in a tornado of activity. Such questions need a louder voice.