experimental ethics and self-experimentation

Via Marginal Revolutions, i again found Seth Roberts’s blog on self-experimentation (i had previously been subscribed but, not having any weight problems, i found most posts rather irrelevant). Now self-experimentation is nothing new (wikipedia) and i do not intend to go into its particulars. As the name suggests, it is the act of performing scientific experiments upon oneself in order to gain information.

It should be clear that experimental ethics is thus a type of self-experimentation. However, within moral science, these self-experiments take on a novel twist in that their goal is not to gather knowledge (figure out how the brain works, e.g.) but the result produced by the experiment is itself the goal. Moral self-experimentation is not only a quicker way of obtaining data – it is a quicker way of using that data, of immediately implementing the acquired information by bypassing the distinction between newly acquired information and implementation of that information (the self-experimenting scientists might gain info about how the memory works, but that needn’t mean he actually improved his own memory in the process).

Moreover, the moral scientist cannot employ any other type of experimentation except self-experimentation! It is the special nature of a moral science (ethics) that you cannot experiment upon other people because every experiment must be intentionally carried out by people who will be changed in the process: thus even if a professor could ask a group of volunteers to test a moral hypothesis and then solicit their responses, the volunteers must knowingly implement the experiment and themselves assess its moral benefit – they are thus self-experimenting, though at another’s behest. To be clear: you can test a vaccine on yourself (self-experimentation) or on others (standard experimentation) and then objectively assess how it worked – did they get sick or not?; but you cannot objectively assess a moral experiment performed on another person because you must ask them Did it work? You are only recording the data concerning their self-experimentation, not experimenting yourself.

As an aside, Seth Roberts’s fame comes from his self-experimenting Shangri-La Diet, which is in fact a type of experimental ethics (and not biology) because you are experimenting upon yourself not in order to gain knowledge of something, but in order to improve your life.

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