Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 20, Issue 2, pp 445–467 | Cite as

Moving Life Science Ethics Debates Beyond National Borders: Some Empirical Observations

  • Louise BezuidenhoutEmail author
Original Paper


The life sciences are increasingly being called on to produce “socially robust” knowledge that honors the social contract between science and society. This has resulted in the emergence of a number of “broad social issues” that reflect the ethical tensions in these social contracts. These issues are framed in a variety of ways around the world, evidenced by differences in regulations addressing them. It is important to question whether these variations are simply regulatory variations or in fact reflect a contextual approach to ethics that brings into question the existence of a system of “global scientific ethics”. Nonetheless, within ethics education for scientists these broad social issues are often presented using this scheme of global ethics due to legacies of science ethics pedagogy. This paper suggests this may present barriers to fostering international discourse between communities of scientists, and may cause difficulties in harmonizing (and transporting) national regulations for the governance of these issues. Reinterpreting these variations according to how the content of ethical principles is attributed by communities is proposed as crucial for developing a robust international discourse. To illustrate this, the paper offers some empirical fieldwork data that considers how the concept of dual-use (as a broad social issue) was discussed within African and UK laboratories. Demonstrating that African scientists reshaped the concept of dual-use according to their own research environmental pressures and ascribed alternative content to the principles that underpin it, suggests that the limitations of a “global scientific ethics” system for these issues cannot be ignored.


Ethics Life sciences Developing countries Contextualization Education H. T. Engelhardt Jr. 



Many thanks to Prof Brian Rappert at the University of Exeter for his comments on this manuscript. The fieldwork presented at this paper was sponsored by the Welcome Trust.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Sociology, Philosophy and AnthropologyUniversity of ExeterExeterUK
  2. 2.Department of Philosophy, WITS Centre for EthicsUniversity of WitwatersrandJohannesburgSouth Africa

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