John Harris' argument for a duty to research

Bioethics. 2007 Mar;21(3):160-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8519.2007.00539.x.


John Harris suggests that partcipation in or support research, particularly medical research, is a moral duty. One kind of defence of this position rests on an appeal to the past, and produces two arguments. The first of these arguments is that it is unfair to accept the benefits of research without contributing something back in the form of support for, or participation in, research. A second argument is that we have a social duty to maintain those practices and institutions that sustain us, such as those which contribute to medical knowledge. This argument is related to the first, but it does not rely so heavily on fairness. Another kind of defence of the duty to research rests on an appeal to the future benefits of research: research is an effective way to discharge a duty to rescue others from serious illness or death, therefore we have a duty to research. I suggest that all three of Harris' lines fail to provide a compelling duty to research and spell out why. Moreover, not only do the lines of argument fail in their own terms: in combination, they turn out to be antagonistic to the very position that Harris wants to defend. While it is not my intention here to deny that there might be a duty to research, I claim that Harris' argument for the existence of such a duty is not the best way to establish it.

MeSH terms

  • Biomedical Research*
  • Humans
  • Moral Obligations*
  • Philosophy, Medical*