Should some knowledge not be sought on ethical grounds?

Though the question of whether or not some knowledge should not be sought on ethical grounds is a matter of debate, it might be argued that knowledge is valuable and should be sought out but that once discovered, it should be used carefully.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The answer to this question depends in part on your own point of view. It also depends in part on the type of knowledge being sought and the context in which it is being sought.

One might argue that some knowledge should not be sought because it could do more...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

The answer to this question depends in part on your own point of view. It also depends in part on the type of knowledge being sought and the context in which it is being sought.

One might argue that some knowledge should not be sought because it could do more harm than good to society. For example, many people are concerned about research into nuclear weapons because if the weapons fall into the wrong hands they might be used to intentionally cause harm to innocent people. Although those seeking the knowledge are not necessarily those doing unethical things with what they discover, proponents of this point of view might argue that the right thing to do would be to avoid seeking out this knowledge altogether so there is not even a chance someone could use it to do bad things.

Similarly, one might also argue that some knowledge should not be sought because it would require an invasion of people’s right to privacy. For example, many workers in the field of international development confront this issue. Often their reports might benefit from having access to people’s personal medical data or by researching the migration patterns of populations vulnerable to violence. However, there are many in the field that would argue that they should not seek out such data because it would be unethical to expose personal information that might increase people’s vulnerability.

On the other hand, some people argue that restricting the pursuit of knowledge is unethical in and of itself. Proponents of such an argument might claim that knowledge should be pursued as far as possible and that concerns about how the knowledge will be used should be addressed in different ways, like limiting who has access to it or preparing for situations in which it is misused.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This is a very interesting question because of the wide range of different opinions on this matter. Most people tend to focus on areas of research that might be questionable or dangerous when debating this question. For example, they might argue that perhaps certain research shouldn't be conducted on moral grounds if it can lead to heightened danger to mankind in the long run.

However, another important aspect of your question to consider is the way in which research is undertaken. For example, there are a lot of very interesting medical questions that are still not answered today because answering them would involve hurting or killing people in the process of this research. The Nazis infamously performed experiments on humans to find out the effects of hypothermia, for example. They used concentration camp prisoners for these experiments, and sadly, many of these prisoners died as a result of these experiments. Clearly, trying to seek knowledge in this way was morally wrong and should not have been done.

Nowadays, medical experiments, like the testing of new drugs, are often performed on animals before they are deemed safe for a human trial. Though the ultimate goal of such experiments is generally to discover how a medication affects humans, a direct human experiment is avoided; instead, the experiment is performed on an animal first, as it would be morally wrong to put a person's life or health at risk in the name of science.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

If some knowledge should not be sought on ethical grounds, it ought to be possible to specify the type of knowledge that should not be sought and why. One example sometimes cited in discussions of this area is the research into human intelligence conducted by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, the results of which were published in their book, The Bell Curve. Herrnstein and Murray found that intelligence was, to some extent, correlated with race.

Herrnstein and Murray's findings have been disputed by other scientists, but some who accept their findings argue that, even if there is a link between race and intelligence, it is not good to know or investigate this. People with racist agendas are likely to seize on this research to cause trouble, and it has no useful application.

You may be persuaded by this argument, but there is a strong case against it: the problem here is too little knowledge rather than too much. For instance, it could be true that all the discrepancies in intelligence between races (which, to be clear, are not very large) may be explained by environmental factors. Without the initial knowledge on which to build, this explanation could not be discovered.

The strongest case for knowledge that should not be sought on ethical grounds relates to knowledge that might have a devastating practical impact. For instance, should one seek knowledge of technologies that could destroy the human race? One might argue that this knowledge saves lives in the right hands, as it did during the stalemate of the Cold War. However, the danger grows as the knowledge in question becomes more widely available.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This question has been the subject of an ongoing debate, especially among scientists and others who are responsible for seeking out knowledge: just because we are technically capable of figuring something out, does that mean we should attempt to do so?

For many people, the answer is no. As is often said, knowledge is power, and power in the wrong hands can be dangerous. It’s a double-edged sword—it can be used to help people, but it can also hurt people. The sad reality is that there are those in the world who would use knowledge to help themselves, even if others were harmed in the process. True, it is not knowledge on its own that does damage—rather, it is the application of knowledge that can cause trouble—but it is difficult to have knowledge without applying it.

The answer to this question comes down to personal discretion in specific situations. If you yourself are faced with an opportunity to gain knowledge and later apply it, you must decide whether the potential benefits are worth any harm that may be done as a result. When carefully considered and regulated, knowledge is an incredible asset, and the pursuit of knowledge is extremely worthwhile. It is what we choose to do with this knowledge that creates the real ethical dilemma.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team