From a utilitarian point of view research is of benefit to the future population and so (if considering future generations) performing it would take precedent over some discomfort.

However some research is avoided because it is taboo (and you can't get funding so easily) but should it be?

For example: Different races have evolved clear physical differences (nose shape, skin colour, average height..etc) and it would be odd to assume the differences are only skin deep but people are less likely to research such things because of racist connotations.

I don't want the above example to define the answers so other topics include: Anything that implies less free will (effects of advertising etc), determining factors in sexuality, anything seen as 'crackpot' ideas (like perhaps there is an unknown creature in loch ness or perhaps there is a bigfoot.

The question is: Some research is avoided because it goes against social norms. Ethically should we accept this slight set back in these areas of research or should more effort be made to support them?

  • Welcome to Philosophy.SE FreeElk. Are you asking which is more valid - the feelings of those who might be offended by research or the feelings of those in the future who might benefit? If so this just depends which type of utilitarianism you pick. Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 15:40
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    the issue with 'intelligence' and 'race', whch i'm fairly sure is what you are alluding to, is that at least one of those concepts has a history of reification and confusion, and anyone who is unaware of that ought not be getting any funding in the 1st place. those who do, may be a little shy of it
    – user6917
    Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 16:20
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    @MATHEMETICIAN So I believe this assumption is why there are so many minus votes on this but this is precisely what I meant. Any research into differences between races will be tainted by association with the issue of intelligence and race but what if some other research would be beneficial to humanity but is being held back by this association? Also could those people who leave minus votes also leave comments as to why they did so?
    – FreeElk
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 10:09
  • I'm not sure I understand your examples. We know that people of African descent are more likely to carry sickle-cell syndrome. We know that people with pale skin are more vulnerable to skin cancers. We know that East Asians tend to be lactose intolerant. I'm not seeing the taboo you describe, except when the question is set up to be inherently racist - in which case, there's no credibility to the claim (by the definition of racism).
    – commando
    Commented Feb 12, 2017 at 19:40

2 Answers 2


I read your question as indicting taboos as, in some sense, arbitrary. So consider the following possiblities:

  1. An arbitrary taboo holds back research into a field that would/could provide significant human benefit.
  2. An arbitrary taboo holds back research into a field that will cause significant human harm.
  3. An arbitrary taboo holds back research that is just a waste of time (i.e. the only cost is an opportunity cost one, we could have used the resources better)

In terms of act utilitarianism, these three cases represent different moral outcomes. Given that all three of these possibilities seem possible at the outset, it is hard to try to formulate the decision in a more rule-based (rule utilitarianism) way.

Now, for some topics the "taboo" is actually not just arbitrary but instead reflects a reasoned basis for eschewing certain research topics.

  1. An incorrect rational taboo holds back research into a field that would/could cause significant benefit; i.e. we think that we have a good reason to forego research into X, but in fact we're wrong.
  2. A correct rational taboo holds back research into a topic that would cause harm.

Again, as a general matter, it is hard to tell where any specific case lies.


Investments (of which the investment of time and resources into research is an example) of any sort are weighed on two things generally: risk and opportunity.

Taboo is relevant only insofar as it MIGHT open risks to which the investor may have to account for. When an investor sees opportunity outweighing risk (e.g. likelihood of a significant finding or development), the decision tends to make itself.

If someone is interested in taboo for the sake of taboo but not for a weighted probability for reward, there tends to be no motive for an investor to place resources towards that. The key in is always in demonstrating a solid basis, logic and grounding for the research.

  • This doesn't answer the question, I was asking about ethics, not investment.
    – FreeElk
    Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 10:11
  • My response is that taboo is generally irrelevant to such endeavors. People approach these concerns from the perspective of risk/reward and if there was some taboo in the way it wouldnt be in the way for long IF it was the right question or area of research to go into. Ethics is always there in the concept of risk. But with risk/reward one is presented with outcomes. When you discuss taboo one easily focuses on moralities which can become an obstacle in understanding what is at stake in ones endeavours. Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 13:28
  • To take your race example. IF we were to assume that genetics didn't completely do away with social conceptions of race (which it has) then the risk might be limited to "offenses" felt by the desire to reify difference between populations along racial lines and whatever is led to by those offenses. This has parallels with stem cell research. But here taboo was merely a social framing waiting to be reframedwith a sufficient number of people. Utility vs a non-universal morality. The debate wasn't to be had intra-particular moralities but to pluralize and reframe how we thought about ethics. Commented Jan 26, 2017 at 13:48

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