My PhD requires we take a 9-hour course called “responsible conduct of research.” Here are some notes I jotted down during the first session.

Perhaps we ought to approach ethics empirically, rather than rationally? What is ethically acceptable in certain cultures is not in others (i.e. cannabalism). Viewing ethics through the evolutionary lens might be productive here. Cultures with beneficial religious, moral, or ethical frameworks tend to persist longer than cultures we’d consider to be “amoral,” the same way organisms with beneficial genes tend to have more progeny. This is basically the “selfish gene” idea from Richard Dawkins.

Ultimately, ethics is a product of the collective conscious… as a scientist I want to study it in the framework of psychology or neuroscience as another natural phenomenon. After all , any non-empirical appeal I make to some ethical system would necessarily be based on my personal culture, feelings, and experiences. Objective ethics are hard to pin down.

“It’s ok to shoot them, Morty, they’re just robots.” - Rick Sanchez

But perhaps we should get past early Wittgenstein and move on to later Wittgenstein; namely, that the meaning of the word “ethics” can simply be something we all agree on in an operational, working sense.

So if we have to agree on something, it should be in service to our shared goal: the non-dogmatic pursuit of truth (i.e. finding regularities and predictive power in the universe) via empirical observation. We can consider the scientific community as a distributed system (or organism) for truth seeking and design rules that make the system efficient and robust. As we acquire more knowledge, necessarily these rules will change.

Glaringly, we omit any reference to how science should be disseminated to the non-scientific community. But within this framework, which views the scientific community as an organism subject to the rules of evolution, it’s apparent that this organism needs to secure sustenance (in the form of funding from non-scientific communities) and shelter (by maintaining the health of the planet).

Interestingly, this mindset does not require that we tell the general public the exact truth… only if it supports the maintenance of our truth-seeking machine. At the present moment, however, publishing the truth in papers and tweeting lies to the public seems unwise.

Perhaps the best long term strategy does not to focus on convincing the public of any one truth (vaccines, climate change, etc.) but instead on indoctrinating people to the scientific mindset (children especially). Eventually, we would want all of humanity to be a part of our “truth-seeking machine,” eliminating potential competition.

This turns my stomach a bit, though, because it feels like religious proselytizing or fascist brain-washing. The only difference is now the cause is mine. What right do I have to imprint my mind on others? Many people don’t care about the truth; they want to feel good in their life, have children, and die contented. Shall we deny them their happiness?