I was thinking about something in the neighborhood of research ethics and thought that I should make a short blog post about it. I realized that the point I had in mind depended on a bunch of context, so I wrote the following screed:

Several years ago, I worked on The Responsible Conduct of Research with Mike Kalichman. (RCR is a euphemism for research ethics, with the caveat that it never recommends violating official regulations.) My duties were largely editorial. Mike had written a book that he wanted cut apart and restructured as material for a website.

In addition to discussing rules and official regulations, each topic contains separate sections for Principles and Guidelines. The Principles are middle level ethical claims about the domain (eg, Authorship). The Guidelines are more specific, raising issues relevant to specific kinds of decisions within the domain.

I do not recall how much of this was Mike's original framework and how much was my contribution, but I think that this was the structure of some sections but not others when I started work. In fleshing out the framework, I had to formulate principles for every topic. Moreover, I had to write explanatory justifications for each principle.

These justifications proceeded along three familiar lines: (1) Don't cause suffering. (2) Respect people. (3) Try to generate knowledge and dispel ignorance.

If I had written the Ethics page for the RCR website, I would have made these higher principles explicit. They can be elaborated in the usual way. One feature of them that I rather like is that they correspond to the Peircean categories of Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness.

A defense of the higher principles is beyond the scope of most discussions of RCR. It is philosophers' business, important if we want to justify the principles-- and any such business can embrangle us in details and difficulties from which we might never emerge.

For some purposes, it may be essential to revisit the ethical underpinnings of the principles. For example: (1) is often taken to include the suffering of animals, but (2) may or may not include respect for animals. Why? And what about fetuses? What about animal fetuses? Plants and spores?

One strategy is to show that many differing ethical theories can agree on the principle even when they disagree on its justification. Failing that, if each interlocutor accepts them for their own private reasons, then we can take them as more-or-less given. This makes applied ethics tractable without waiting for the more abstract questions to be resolved.

The RCR website breaks this down further, by suggesting that the higher level principles overdetermine some lower level principles. The lower level principles provide common ground even if there is disagreement as to exactly how they should be justified. Intermediate levels may be introduced as much as required, incrementally moving from abstract considerations down to brass tacks.

The Ethics page was written by Mary Devereaux, after I left the project. She lists something like the three principles I had in mind and adds a fourth, calling for "A commitment to the use of scientific knowledge and its applications to promote the social good." This is not a consequence of the principles I had in mind, and I am not sure it belongs on the list. Several reasons: The first three are directly relevant to how one should conduct oneself once involved in a research project; this other principle comes into play only when considering what job to take or-- if one is in a position of authority-- which research projects to pursue. The first three clearly make demands on any scientist; the fourth may be supererogatory. (Is it? Maybe.) There is no Peircean Fourthness; a fortiori there can be no fourth principle.

Nevertheless, the fourth principle seems like an important thing for scientists to think about. It belongs on some list, somewhere in the neighborhood of RCR.

(Having finished the screed, I've lost track of the original point.)

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Today I have a blog 
Footnotes on Epicycles received its first piece of comment spam today. I guess that makes it an official blog. Now I just need to stop posting for a month and return only to post an apology for not posting.

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Anticipations of revolutions 
In the same vein as my remark about Peter Winch: Today I ran across another anticipation of the Kuhnian distinction between normal and revolutionary science.

In his 1960 introductory text Philosophy of Science, Stephen Toulmin discusses what it means for a theory to count as 'fundamental.' He argues that a fundamental theory would explain all of the things that need explaining. These standards are, as he puts it, "something with which scientists grow familiar in the course of their training, but which is hardly ever stated" [p. 117]. Sometimes, he adds, they change in non-incremental ways: "From time to time... the ideal changes in a way which cannot be described so simply, and these are occasions when disputes of a philosophical kind arise" [p. 117-8].

This is consonant with Winch's remark about the "accepted view" among philosophers at the time. Although I don't have much sense of Toulmin's intellectual biography, I suspect that he was led to this kind of thinking-- as Winch was-- by way of Wittgenstein.

I don't know if Wittgenstein ever read Ludwik Fleck who, as Greg commented in the previous thread, practically wrote The Structure three decades before Kuhn.

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Demon. Theories 
I just uploaded a new version of my induction paper. This draft rectifies a systematic problem with terminology. Although I still think that the arguments have implications for what John Norton calls material theories of induction, they most readily apply to demonstrative theories of induction.

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Kierkegaard and the sermon problem 
Academic philosophers typically write for a philosophical audience. There are problems that are understood, more or less, and you write to address them. If you want to reconstrue the problem, then you say as much.

This fact becomes a problem when academic philosophers write in response to one another until no one but the participants in the debate really care-- and even they only care for the next publication. Issues of substance can be tenderized into rarified word games by logic chopping.

Yet this fact is also the advantage of contemporary philosophy. Articles take place in the context of an ongoing conversation. Authors can begin by talking about what they mean to say.

I am teaching Kierkegaard now, and he is not like this. His writings-- almost all of them-- suffer from what I think of as the the sermon problem.

The sermon problem arises in church services in this way: The occasion of the sermon or the programmatic theme of the service require the preacher to begin with some motif. Yet the preacher wants to make some spiritual or religious point. For example, it is the special music service-- so the preacher begins with what is ostensibly a meditation about music, but steers it around to a more hifalutin topic like the human community. Typically, there is a rhetorical discontinuity along the way. The audience is left thinking that things would have been much clearer if we could have talked about God or the human community directly, rather than trying to find our way there through the laborious preamble.

The sermon problem can arise in contemporary philosophy, of course. Papers for themed conferences start out with a prescribed topic, and then often head off towards someplace the author cares to be. Papers in a Festschrift must begin with some eulogy for the honoree, but then seek after a more engaging topic. Sometimes authors are forced to begin talking about some hot topic, so as to be published, when in fact their aim is to talk about something less popular. However, these are not the usual cases. Typically, one means to write about X and so one does; X is in the abstract, the article is indexed for X, and so on.

Not so with Kierkegaard. The works that are billed by scholars as fine introductions or encapsulations of Kierkegaard's thought all suffer from the sermon problem. Fear and Trembling is a meditation on the Abraham story, but Abraham doesn't quite illustrate what Kierkegaard has in mind. The Present Age was written as a book review, and so at least a third of the essay is about issues that aren't Kierkegaard's real target. Kierkegaard's journals are filled with philosophy, but mixed indiscriminately with details of how his man servant left him, how he has been to see the king, and whatall else.

I have students reading Sickness Unto Death now-- not because I think it is the clearest thing he wrote, but because I think it is the among the most direct. The first few pages especially are written in a mock-Hegelian style, so I have been trying to explain how we can understand sentences like, "The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation's relating itself to itself in the relation." The claim is right to the point, however, once carefully parsed.

So, sermon problem or crypto-philosophy? I actually opted for some of both-- last week I had them read The Present Age.

As a caveat, I don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of Kierkegaard. There may be some other text that neither suffers from the sermon problem nor is rendered in mock-Hegelian locutions. If so, leave a comment; I'll take it under advisement for next time I teach existentialism.

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