questionsDoubt is an important part of acting ethically.  Doubt is what causes us to stop and ask ourselves –

Is this really such a good idea?

Doubt motivates us to seek the information we need to make an informed decision when faced with an ethical dilemma. In this way, to quote a Persian proverb, Doubt is the Key to Knowledge. It causes us to question what we think we know.

Yet unresolved doubt is toxic. Unless doubt is addressed, one feels like a boat being tossed at sea – driven first one way and then another by the waves.  One feels unsettled and unfocused. A decision needs to be made in order to move forward.

The role of codes of ethics is to help us resolve doubt. Codes of ethics provide rules to help professionals make ethical decisions in the face of doubt and uncertainty.

Here is a blog post discussing the role of doubt in making informed decisions on emerging technologies.

We all know that there are consequences to asking some questions – “do you really think that’s a good idea?”, “did you turn off the stove?”, “is your partner sleeping with someone else?” Sometimes these consequences are good. Sometimes they are not. But in each case the mere act of asking a question can influence decisions that are made as a result – irrespective of whether the question is based in evidence.

There are tacit rules within society concerning which questions – or doubts – are acceptable, and which are probably not. Asking someone whether they turned the stove off might be OK – asking them whether their partner is sleeping with someone else probably isn’t. But do these or similar rules apply in other areas?

Take emerging technologies, for example, where the potential benefits and impacts can be highly uncertain. Some articulated doubts might prevent disasters from occurring; others might quash a potentially life-saving innovation. Once again, the possibility arises for decisions to be heavily influenced by doubts that are raised, irrespective of the evidence-base for these doubts. Which raises the question: do we need rules to guide which doubts are appropriate, and which are not, under such conditions? In other words, do we need an “ethics of doubt” to support the responsible development of emerging technologies?

-Andrew Maynard, Director, University of Michigan Risk Science Center

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