, Volume 3, Issue 1, pp 75-77,
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Date: 20 Mar 2009

Tempting Fate: The Ethics of Dual-Use Research

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There are two basic stories when it comes to the human pursuit of knowledge, one cautionary and one intrepid. Since Kant defined the Enlightenment with the dictum “Dare to know,” the latter kind of story has been in ascendance. Take the tale of Faust as an iconic example. Traditionally a tragedy about the dire consequences of hubris, Faust became through Goethe’s pen a saga of noble striving, in which the unfettered pursuit of knowledge brings great reward. The presumption in contemporary liberal democracies is that knowledge is a fundamental good and the freedom to pursue it is a basic human right.

But now consider a non-fiction story. In 1951, a doctoral student in microbiology named Johan Hultin dug through six feet of tundra and permafrost in Alaska. He then dug into the well-preserved bodies of four victims of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. Hoping to recover live flu virus, he transported tissue samples to his lab in Iowa and exposed ferrets to them. The animals did not get sick an ...