Contextualizing Science: Examining Science’s Moral and Social Dimensions Using Virtue Ethics and the Humanities

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Science and society share considerable relationships, with each shaping course of the other. Because of this, scientists have a responsibility to reflect upon their work’s social and moral dimensions when producing knowledge. Placing science within a virtue ethics framework highlights critical features for developing a contextualized and reflective science. Virtue ethics focuses on cultivating character, drawing attention to the role of the scientist’s character when producing scientifically sound knowledge and contextualizing her work. Phronêsis, or practical wisdom, helps the scientist discern a virtuous path through the multitude of options, emphasizing the importance of examining the situation from multiple perspectives and attending to the situation’s particular nuances. Reflective practice and moral imagination elaborate upon phronêsis. Reflective practice discusses how practitioners reflect upon their work by noticing small details, taking the context into account, and adjusting accordingly. In seeing the situation from other perspectives and in discerning a virtuous path, the scientist exercises moral imagination. The humanities can serve as a rich resource for cultivating these skills and exploring science’s contexts. Examining figures of the scientist begins to outline features of the public’s contradictory relationship with science and how scientists are positioned within that contested space. The figure of the ordinary scientist shows how frameworks can color how scientists approach and interpret their work. The mad scientist highlights how the scientist’s reflection on his work’s consequences is a critical factor in evaluating whether it is acceptable or not. And the heroic scientist demonstrates the need for closely reading how the characters are constructed, with the heroic scientist sharing many characteristics with the mad scientist, but are presented favorably. Taken together, these figures illustrate some features of the public’s relationship with science and demonstrate how the scientist’s character is a critical factor for practicing a contextualized and reflective science. Recent developments suggest science’s movement towards incorporating these issues into scientific practice. Translational science, which emphasizes interdisciplinary teams and community engagement, coupled with the requirement for trainees receiving federal funding to take responsible conduct of research courses highlight this shift. Developing a humanities-informed training program can further cultivate a contextualized science.

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Science and society, research ethics, virtue ethics, character, science and humanities, images of scientists
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