Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Giving Back: What Is Our Moral Obligation?

Over at Adventures in Science and Ethics, Dr. Free-Ride, back from a science bloggers' conference, asks an interesting question, well, interesting for those in the academic world,

"Will tenure and promotion committees -- especially in the sciences -- come to see blogging as a valuable professional activity? When? What will it take to bring about this change?"
I'd like to broaden this question a bit.

Blogging is one way to be a public intellectual, to participate in wider conversations about topics in which you have training and background and therefore could hopefully make substantive contributions. Scientists are technicians in a largely scientifically illiterate society in which science and technology play more and more central roles. They already have professional obligations to do research and advance their field and to teach students (training some to be the next generation of scientists and teaching the large majority the basic foundations of their field). As it currently stands there is virtually nothing in the professional reward structure to encourage this third service component to the wider society. By virtue of having specialized expertise, do scientists take on a special obligation to be significant contributors to the general discourse around matters that have scientific components? Should we see those scientists who don't so participate as having failed to live up to social expectations? Or are the advances they make to their science and the teaching itself their contribution?

But this is not merely a question about academic scientists. Lawyers have ethical guidelines that include taking on pro bono work. Pro athletes are always trotted out for their contributions to the communities in which they play. Do other occupations, or perhaps all occupations, also come along with moral imperatives to contribute to the broader society? Do philosophers have an obligation to write op-eds on ethical issues? Should contractors be expected to help out on Habitat for Humanity projects? Is doing your job enough or should we all be expected to give back? Sure, it's wonderful if you do, but is it required of us or above and beyond the ethical call of duty? Is the extra obligation something that only affects those vocations with higher social standing? Do you have to pay society back for the extra prestige?