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Tag: Feminism

Science and values with dawning virtue ethics

TSElosophers meeting 22.4.2021. Joonas Uotinen, Kari Lukka, Maija-Riitta Ollila, Milla Wirén, Morgan Shaw, Otto Rosendahl.

Hicks, Daniel J. (2014). A new direction for science and values. Synthese, 191(14), 3271-3295.


Which values influence science and in which ways? Which values may legitimately affect science, and which values have an illegitimate effect?

Daniel Hicks presupposes that values are an integral part of scholarly research. “Many philosophers of science now agree that even ethical and political values may play a substantial role in all aspects of scientific inquiry.” (p. 3271) Discussions on isolationism and transactionism are not very relevant anymore. (Isolationism believes that ethical and political values may not legitimately influence the standards for acceptance and rejection of hypotheses. Transactionism, the negation of isolationism, states that some ethical and political values may legitimately make a difference to the standards of acceptance and rejection.) Daniel Hicks thinks that there are both legitimate and illegitimate values affecting science, and we should be able to distinguish them from each other.

Values can affect science in different phases of the research process: the pre-epistemic phase, the epistemic phase, and the post-epistemic phase. Hicks states that the distinction among pre-, post-, and epistemic phases is useful for some analytic purposes but cannot be directly applied “to the concrete complexities of the real world.” (p. 3289) In this paper, Hicks uses an Aristotelian framework to capture these complexities of real life, in the footsteps of Alasdair MacIntyre and Philippa Foot.

Hicks compares two cases: feminist values in archaeology and commercial values in pharmaceutical research to make his point. In the Feminist Case, self-identified feminist scientists criticized the androcentric presuppositions and research agendas. This project brought about new contributions, which changed archeological practices and the understanding of the cultural past. The Pharma Case describes the impact of commercial values on science. One example deals with the results of a clinical trial of an antidepressant. The trial did not show the effectiveness of the drug. However, the results were presented in a way that suggested the drug was effective. In the preliminary sketch presented by Hicks, in the Feminist Case, the impact of values is legitimate while illegitimate in the Pharma Case. In the more detailed analysis that follows, Hicks deals with three major approaches to legitimacy vs. illegitimacy. In his conclusion, he outlines his own approach, which he claims to emphasize ethics besides epistemology.

Hicks presents useful theoretical tools for analyzing values – e.g. direct, indirect, and cultural impacts of values – and finds inadequacies in using these tools. He implicitly suggests an Aristotelian virtue-based ethical framework to supplement these theories with an ethical perspective. Hicks reaches beyond the discussion on science and values: researchers should emphasize the virtues of good scholarship and grow as scientists to full maturity.

Our discussion

Some TSElosophers were more sympathetic to the dawning virtue ethics in science than others and all agreed that this is surely thought-provoking – but far from unproblematic. In particular, Hicks’ position on the Feminist and Pharma Cases seems to be predetermined by his own values.

In general, Hicks claims to avoid “pernicious relativism” (p. 3291) but fails to provide argumentation for his claim (and openly admits as much). Relativism is apparent in Hicks’ own distinction between constitutive (e.g., seeking for truth in science) and contextual (e.g., profit-making in the Pharma Case) values that seem to allow the corruption of epistemic values. From the point of view of science, epistemic values are constitutive, while from Hicks’ point of view, the epistemic values were contextual for the agents in the Pharma Case. In contrast, TSElosophers insisted that epistemic values are, and should be, at the core of research in the epistemic phase.

The three different phases of the research process inspired a vivid conversation. At which stage do values impact the research process? In the Feminist Case, values influence the pre-epistemic phase. During the pre-epistemic phase, “research programs are chosen, hypotheses are formulated, and experiments are designed and conducted.” Initially, there is no evidence to back up the new paradigm, research program or theory, but it is produced in the course of the research process. In the Pharma Case, a severe problem arises when unwanted values influence the epistemological phase. In the epistemic phase, “hypotheses are evaluated in terms of their relationship to empirical evidence, among other things, and accepted or rejected.” (p. 3273)

For TSElosophers, the pre-epistemic phase turned out to be about paradigmatic or attitude-related matters and about engaging in everyday research practice. For instance, the currently ruling publish or perish -mentality encourages the instrumental interest in science. Researchers need to pay heed to, e.g., the paradigmatic or methodological tastes and values of journal editors and the potential referees of the papers. Researchers frame their research and articles in such a way that they might appeal to the publishers. If the effect extends to the epistemic phase, all the worse.

What about the values of the epistemic phase? Is it possible that different epistemic values conflict? Or can there be important cases of epistemological underdetermination? For example, scientists choose methodologies with quite a lot of epistemological underdetermination in long-term prediction models of complex phenomena, such as climate change. Epistemological uncertainties make elbow room for other decision-making procedures. In those cases, should one for example exaggerate the effects of climate change if the evidence is ambiguous? The suggested solution was to communicate the unknown or the degree of uncertainty more effectively, e.g. with a scenario analysis. In sound science, we report the range of uncertainty. Another beacon of hope is the self-correcting process of science.

Finally, TSElosophers scrutinized the issues related to the third phase of the scientific process, the post-epistemic phase, “during which accepted hypotheses are utilized in other research (whether to produce more knowledge or new technology or both); this phase also includes the impacts of the accepted hypotheses on the broader society.” (p. 3273) For the sake of argument, let us assume that there might someday be research that could fuel racism. For example, we might have studies that corroborate the hypothesis of races based on biological differences, for instance, regarding IQ. Should we refrain from publishing such research or even conducting it, pre-shadowing the likely ensuing, problematic public discourse or cultural processes? Another tricky example is the Manhattan Case, the project that resulted in creating the nuclear bomb. It would not have been possible without Einstein’s theory of relativity. Should we stop doing any research that might lead to disastrous applied science and technology?

TSElosophers concluded that ethics are embedded in the scientific process and tend to be included in all three phases. That said, in the epistemic phase, precisely epistemic values should be kept as dominant as possible – this is the very lifeline of scholarly work, without which it ceases, sooner or later, to be meaningful. However, the results and the ethically justified research process need to be taken into account. An example of an unethical process is the utterly dehumanizing studies on human subjects by Josef Mengele.

TSElosophers wrapped up by realizing that science is both a logical process and a historical one. The cultural context has an impact on the concepts we use and the values we employ. However, epistemic values are the inalienable core of science: Prioritizing the truth, in the sense of a purpose of well-grounded scholarship, is the right procedure in the ethics of science. It is also pragmatically the most prolific policy: in the long run, trustworthiness pays off. Truthfulness is the basis of reliability – and it can be often communicated most effectively by direct reference to the epistemic phase and epistemic values, even though Hicks is correct in that advanced scholarship does well to analyze the entire research process with a broader ethical framework.

Meeting the universe halfway

TSElosophers meeting 15.5.2020. Ekaterina Panina, Erkki Lassila, Kari Lukka, Milla Wirén, Morgan Shaw, Otto Rosendahl, Toni Ahlqvist

Barad, K. (1996). Meeting the universe halfway: Realism and social constructivism without contradiction. In Feminism, science, and the philosophy of science (pp. 161-194).


Inspired by the philosophy-physics of Niels Bohr, Karen Barad introduces the new notion of realism, which she calls agential realism. She positions herself in relation to scientific realist and feminist-constructivist approaches, and argues for inseparability of ontological and epistemological issues. Barad’s insightful reading of Bohr’s understanding of quantum physics preludes the introduction of the onto-epistemological framework of agential realism. By considering such broad philosophical issues as the role of natural and cultural factors in scientific knowledge production, conditions for objectivity and the efficacy of science, Barad proposes a framework that is widely applicable across disciplines.
The framework of agential realism consists of four clearly drawn-out points.

  1. Agential realism grounds and situates knowledge claims in local experiences: objectivity is literally embodied.
  2. Agential realism privileges neither the material nor the cultural. The apparatus of bodily production is material-cultural, and so is agential reality.
  3. Agential realism entails the interrogation of boundaries and critical reflexivity.
  4. Agential realism underlines the necessity of an ethics of knowing.

The first point involves one of the central themes of feminist philosophy – the idea of embodiment. This idea refers to a constitutive relationship of the lived body to thought, contrary to Cartesian mind-body duality. Hence, in agential realism objective knowledge is situated knowledge.

The second point emphasizes the absence of opposition between materiality and social construction. Barad introduces the concept of intra-actions, which are contextually decided and enacted in-phenomenon. This concept describes reality as being in-between, and the inseparability of nature-culture, physical-conceptual and material-discursive.

According to Barad’s philosophy, a phenomenon is an instance of a wholeness, which includes both an object and agencies of its observation. However, there is no agential reality without constructed boundaries. The definition of theoretical concepts happens within a given context, which is specified by constructed boundaries, necessary for developing meanings. In addition, the described human conceptual schema becomes itself a part of a phenomenon.

Finally, agential realism emphasizes that constructed knowledges have real material consequences, which introduces the topics of accountability, responsibility, and ethics of knowing.

Our discussion

Overall, TSElosophers really liked the ideas represented in this paper and could buy almost all the arguments for reconciling realism and social constructivism approaches. Participants particularly took notice of the pragmatic approach to science, the view that knowledge systems should be a reliable guide to action. Agential realism seems to underline the efficacy of science and establish the direction towards which the knowledge is created, taking into account the constructive nature and ethical issues of scientific activity.

TSElosophers appreciated Barad’s development of an argument at the broadest level, being applicable to all scientific fields. Many in our group noticed similarities with other approaches, such as Actor-Network Theory (Latour), Social Systems Theory (Luhmann), and Process philosophy (e.g. Rescher, Chia). We discussed that this notion of the inseparability of nature and culture could be a more ‘natural’ and widely accepted principle in social, business and organizational studies, than in natural sciences. However, TSElosophers considered the discussion on ontological issues still relevant today, despite the article dating back over 20 years.

The majority of the discussion centered around the first point of Barad’s framework: agential realism grounds and situates knowledge claims in local experiences. Does the notion that knowledge is embodied and local impede theorizing? Some of the participants felt that agential realism has similar limitations in theorizing as ANT, while others emphasized that in agential realism theorizing happens in the detailed description of physical apparatus, as a description of the agentially positioned constructed cut between the object and the agencies of observation. One of the interesting points of agential realism is its emphasis on the agency of the material, as well as the interlinked agencies of the object and the observer. In addition, the locality of knowledge does not necessarily mean its spatial position, but relates to the constructed boundaries, so theorizing also happens in the boundary-making. Framing and focus matter, and they also have real-life implications. According to the third point of the framewor
k, the theorizing also happens in-phenomenon, and hence detailed descriptions and framing become a part of theory building.

Another issue that has brought interesting discussion is Barad’s notion of objectivity as reproducible and unambiguously communicable (in contrast to Newtonian objectivity indicating observer independence). TSElosophers wondered if even this conception of objectivity might not be suitable for social science. When the object of research are humans with their own subjective meaning-structures, the question of reproducibility becomes a difficult one. Developing on Heraclitus’s thought: “no man ever steps in the same river twice”, one can wonder if even with unambiguous communication the reproduction of social phenomena is impossible and hence objectivity is impossible to reach. The subjectivity of the researcher and the concepts seem to be underexplored in this paper, perhaps due to the fact that some of the starting points of paper are in physics. As a counterargument, TSElosophers emphasized that the significance of differences in the object of study should be questioned and included in the description of the boundaries. What are the consequences the differences in the reproducible object of study make? What matters? The objectivity here relates to the description one is making, to drawing the boundaries. Objectivity in terms of unambiguous communication and critical reflexivity is more important here than perfect reproducibility.

Finally, TSElosophers returned to the fourth point of Barad’s framework – the implications of knowledge. We discussed the ethics of knowing and importance of considering material consequences of knowledge production.

Further reading

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Duke University Press.

Kakkuri-Knuuttila, M. L., Lukka, K., & Kuorikoski, J. (2008). Straddling between paradigms: A naturalistic philosophical case study on interpretive research in management accounting. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 33(2-3), 267-291.

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