Ethics and the Dual-Use Dilemma in the Life Sciences

Seumas Miller, Michael J. Selgelid

Research output: Book chapter/Published conference paperChapter


The 'dual-use dilemma' arises in the context of research in the biological and other sciences as a consequence of the fact that one and the same piece of scientific research sometimes has the potential to be used for evil as well as for good. Consider as an example of this kind of dilemma recent research on the mousepox virus.3 On the one hand, the research program on the mousepox virus should have been pursued since it may well have led to a genetically engineered sterility treatment that would have helped combat periodic plagues of mice in Australia. On the other hand, this research project should not have been pursued since it led to the creation of a highly virulent strain of mousepox and the possibility of the creation-by, say, a terrorist group contemplating a biological attack-of a highly virulent strain of smallpox able to overcome available vaccines. A dual-use dilemma is an ethical dilemma, and an ethical dilemma for the researcher (and for those who have the power or authority to assist or impede the researcher's work, e.g., governments). It is an ethical dilemma since it is about promoting good in the context of the potential for also causing harm, e.g. the promotion of health in the context of providing the wherewithal for the killing of innocents. It is an ethical dilemma for the researcher not because he or she is aiming at anything other than a good outcome; typically, the researcher intends no harm, but only good. Rather, the dilemma arises for the researcher because of the potential actions of others. Malevolent non-researchers might steal dangerous biological agents produced by the researcher; alternatively, other researchers-or at least their governments or leadership-might use the results of the original researcher's work for malevolent purposes. The malevolent purposes in question include bio-terrorism, bio-warfare and blackmail for financial gain.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPhysicians at War
Subtitle of host publicationThe Dual Loyalities Challenge
EditorsFritz Allhoff
Place of PublicationNetherlands
Number of pages17
Edition12 (section 3)
ISBN (Print)9781402069116
Publication statusPublished - 2008


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