The appliance of ethical science

8th December 2006 at 00:00
What was once a pure subject has become a mass of sensitive issues. Michael Reiss shows how to steer a path through the moral minefield

There was a time when a science teacher could happily teach the pure subject, with perhaps an occasional reference to its useful applications.

But nowadays, there is an ever-increasing requirement to consider the wider aspects, including ethical issues. And with the changes at key stage 3 and advanced levels due from September 2008, this situation looks likely to grow.

So what should science teachers aim for when teaching the ethical aspects of topics such as GM food, global climate change or renewable energy?

First, get pupils discussing valid ethical arguments using a number of frameworks, such as weighing the costs and benefits against each other.

Suppose the topic was global warming. An ethical analysis of costs and benefits would try to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of spending money now on technologies to reduce future harmful consequences, which could mean there is less money to spend currently on healthcare, against perhaps reducing human suffering and unhappiness in the future. A second approach is to concentrate on rights and duties.

Do wealthy countries have the right to carry on increasing atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide or is any such right countermanded by our duty not to make life worse for others, either now or in the future?

A third framework is to look at what a good person or society would do, which is the approach of virtue ethics. Whichever framework pupils use, the aim is to get them to reason and to find evidence for their assertions.

Suppose there is a debate about intensive farming and some pupils say farm animals have rights and others say they don't. You might try to get both groups to defend their points of view.

Battery chickens don't have the right to freedom of speech, as we do, but do they have the right not to suffer by experiencing pain? Then get pupils to think about how they could establish scientifically whether or not chickens experience pain Michael Reiss is professor of science education at the Institute of Education, University of London, director of education at the Royal Society and a Church of England priest

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