Original Paper

Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 13, Issue 4, pp 523-580

First online:

Ethical and Philosophical Consideration of the Dual-use Dilemma in the Biological Sciences

  • Seumas MillerAffiliated withCentre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, Charles Sturt UniversityThe Australian National University
  • , Michael J. SelgelidAffiliated withCentre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, Menzies Centre for Health Policy, and National Centre for Biosecurity, The Australian National University Email author 


The dual-use dilemma arises in the context of research in the biological and other sciences as a consequence of the fact that one and the same piece of scientific research sometimes has the potential to be used for bad as well as good purposes. It is an ethical dilemma since it is about promoting good in the context of the potential for also causing harm, e.g., the promotion of health in the context of providing the wherewithal for the killing of innocents. It is an ethical dilemma for the researcher because of the potential actions of others, e.g., malevolent non-researchers who might steal dangerous biological agents, or make use of the original researcher’s work. And it is a dilemma for governments concerned with the security of their citizens, as well as their health. In this article we construct a taxonomy of types of “experiments of concern” in the biological sciences, and thereby map the terrain of ethical risk. We then provide a series of analyses of the ethical problems and considerations at issue in the dual-use dilemma, including the impermissibility of certain kinds of research and possible restrictions on dissemination of research results given the risks to health and security. Finally, we explore the main available institutional responses to some of the specific ethical problems posed by the dual-use dilemma in the biological sciences.


Dual-use Dual-use dilemma Ethics Bioterrorism Biological weapons Censorship Academic freedom Synthetic biology Mousepox