Dr Free-Ride has a good entry up about scientists and ethical behaviour. I have nothing to add to her basic point, which is that when ethics is seen as something imposed from outside, it is largely ignored; this idea will be entirely familiar to any researcher who has ever sat through the obligatory (!) ethics class or seminar or whatever their department requires.
Where I think Janet’s discussion is missing something is in how to deal with this issue (and to be fair, she was mostly pointing out the problem, not trying to solve it):
To get “buy-in” from the scientists, they need to see how ethics are intimately connected to the job they’re trying to get done. In other words, scientists need to understand how ethical conduct is essential to the project of doing science.
So OK, how exactly does that work? In a fairly straightforward sense, ethical conduct is demonstrably NOT essential to science or scientific progress. Science is being done now, often quite successfully (in terms of personal career advancement and, more importantly, in terms of real additions to the knowledge base), by unethical means. There is nothing about vivisection that makes it an inherently ineffective means of gathering information; many experiments that do not make it past IACUC would yield useful data. Further, if I successfully steal your ideas and publish them, I will have been doing science from the point of view of anyone (or anything, like the knowledge base itself) that doesn’t know or doesn’t care that I stole the ideas.
The trivial category here is unethical conduct like that of the Korean stem-cell team; this was dumb as well as wrong, because it produced bad data and was bound to be found out. The important category is unethical conduct that produces clean (useful, reproducible) data: what makes such conduct unethical, what aspect of its unethical nature makes it antithetical to doing science, and what is the mechanism of that opposition?
Within this category, we can distinguish between conduct that, if you get caught, will hamstring you within the scientific community (thieving) and conduct that, if you get caught, will cause the wider community to stop supporting you (vivisection). The key phrase here is “if you get caught”; that is, ethical judgement is community judgement. An individual cannot do much science without the scientific community; infrastructure needs alone make that clear. Neither, for even more obvious reasons, can the highly-specialized scientific community do anything without the support of the wider community. Unless you posit something like karma or divine retribution, I don’t think you can find an unethical behaviour that both produces clean data AND is in and of itself “anti-scientific”, that is, proof that ethical conduct is in and of itself essential to scientific progress — unless, that is, you take into account the reliance of scientific research on community support.
In other words: what is ethical conduct? Whatever the community decides is ethical conduct. Why is ethical conduct essential to the project of doing science? Because community support is essential to that project.
I have, of course, sidestepped the larger question of HOW the community — the scientific community, or society at large — decides what constitutes ethical conduct. It’s not true that vivisection is wrong only because if you get caught doing it your grant will be cut off (without anaesthesia, of course). Scientists are not just scientists, they are members of society at the same time. This is an enormous question, but a quick look at the scientific community will allow me to sketch my own view: why is it unethical for me to steal ideas? Because if everyone stole ideas, collaboration and other networks of trust would collapse. It’s far more efficient to act in good faith and initially to assume the same of others. The same holds true for the wider community: whatever benefit I derive from someone else’s disadvantage will eventually come back and bite me in the ass. On any but the short-term, immediate-future view, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is not a Divine Command but a sensible way to maximize one’s own preferences.