Paternalism and Utilitarianism in Research with Human Participants
In this article I defend a rule utilitarian approach to paternalistic policies in research with human participants. Some rules that restrict individual autonomy can be justified on the grounds that they help to maximize the overall balance of benefits over risks in research. The consequences that should be considered when formulating policy include not only likely impacts on research participants, but also impacts on investigators, institutions, sponsors, and the scientific community. The public reaction to adverse events in research (such as significant injury to participants or death) is a crucial concern that must be taken into account when assessing the consequences of different policy options, because public backlash can lead to outcomes that have a negative impact on science, such as cuts in funding, overly restrictive regulation and oversight, and reduced willingness of individuals to participate in research. I argue that concern about the public reaction to adverse events justifies some restrictions on the risks that competent, adult volunteers can face in research that offers them no significant benefits. The paternalism defended here is not pure, because it involves restrictions on the rights of investigators in order to protect participants. It also has a mixed rationale, because individual autonomy may be restricted not only to protect participants from harm but also to protect other stakeholders. Utility is not the sole justification for paternalistic research policies, since other considerations, such as justice and respect for individual rights/autonomy, must also be taken into account.