A Problem with Societal Desirability as a Component of Responsible Research and Innovation: the “If we don’t somebody else will” Argument

NanoEthics 10 (2):215-225 (2016)

Abstract
The implementation of Responsible Research and Innovation is not without its challenges, and one of these is raised when societal desirability is included amongst the RRI principles. We will argue that societal desirability is problematic even though it appears to fit well with the overall ideal. This discord occurs partly because the idea of societal desirability is inherently ambiguous, but more importantly because its scope is unclear. This paper asks: is societal desirability in the spirit of RRI? On von Schomberg’s account, it seems clear that it is, but societal desirability can easily clash with what is ethically permissible; for example, when what is desirable in a particular society is bad for the global community. If that society chose not to do what was desirable for it, the world would be better off than if they did it. Yet our concern here is with a more complex situation, where there is a clash with ethical acceptability, but where the world would not be better off if the society chose not do what was societally desirable for itself. This is the situation where it is argued that someone else will do it if we do not. The first section of the paper gives an outline of what we take technology to be, and the second is a discussion of which criteria should be the basis for choosing research and innovation projects. This will draw on the account of technology outlined in the first section. This will be followed by an examination of a common argument, “If we don’t do it, others will”. This argument is important because it appears to justify acting in morally dubious ways. Finally, it will be argued that societal desirability gives support to the “If we don’t…” argument and that this raises some difficulties for RRI.
Keywords RRI  Societal desirability  If we don’t  Ethical acceptability  NEST ethics
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DOI 10.1007/s11569-016-0258-1
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The Republic of Science.Michael Polanyi - 1962 - Minerva 1 (1):54-73.

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