Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 20, Issue 4, pp 1045–1063 | Cite as

Scientific Research and Human Rights: A Response to Kitcher on the Limitations of Inquiry

  • Elizabeth VictorEmail author
Original Paper


In his recent work exploring the role of science in democratic societies Kitcher (Science in a democratic society. Prometheus Books, New York, 2011) claims that scientists ought to have a prominent role in setting the agenda for and limits to research. Against the backdrop of the claim that the proper limits of scientific inquiry is John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle (Kitcher in Science, truth, and democracy. Oxford University Press, New York, 2001), he identifies the limits of inquiry as the point where the outcomes of research could cause harm to already vulnerable populations. Nonetheless, Kitcher argues against explicit limitations on unscrupulous research on the grounds that restrictions would exacerbate underlying social problems. I show that Kitcher’s argument in favor of dissuading inquiry through conventional standards is problematic and falls prey to the same critique he offers in opposition to official bans. I expand the conversation of limiting scientific research by recognizing that the actions that count as ‘science’ are located in the space between ‘thinking’ and ‘doing’. In this space, we often attempt to balance freedom of research, as scientific speech, against the disparate impact citizens might experience in light of such research. I end by exploring if such disparate impact justifies limiting research, within the context of the United States, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or under international human rights standards more generally.


Applied ethics Civil rights Human rights Limitations on inquiry Research ethics Scientific freedom 



For their helpful comments on this article I would like to thank, without implicating, Rebecca Kukla, Andrea Pitts, Michele Merritt, the participants at the 2011 Society for Analytical Feminism's Group Session at the American Philosophical Association Central Division Meeting, and an anonymous reviewer.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyGrand Valley State UniversityAllendaleUSA

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