I was thinking about the connection between ethics and epistemology. I understand there is a whole sub-field of philosophy (moral epistemology) that concerns itself with how epistemology affects our ethical choices, e.g. "how do we know that this action is moral", but I was more interested in the other direction: how our ethics influences our ability to know things.

Here is an example:

As a scientist, there are scientific norms that you can interpret as an ethical code. You are not supposed to fudge your data, you should be open to having your ideas disproved by experiment, etc. The reason we have these norms is that if we don't follow them, it interferes with our ability to discern scientific truth. For example, if you let a conflict of interest undermine your objectivity, you may end up designing a flawed experiment that leads you to believe something that isn't true.

Basic "be kind to others" ethics also affect a scientist's ability to know truth. If you are a jackass scientist you are going to have a hard time finding good collaborators, postdocs and grad students, and this will affect your ability to perform good experiments and discover scientific truths.

Is there a broader philosophical discussion on how ethics affects epistemology in this way? I couldn't find anything with a few minutes of googling. This workshop seems somehow related to what I am looking for.

On their website it says:

This workshop aims to explore the possibility of an internal relation between ethics and epistemology. Ethics and epistemology are usually considered as two distinct philosophical domains. Ethics is seen as a source of external constraints on different domains of epistemic activity, and as providing an external model for the development of virtue epistemology. But when epistemology appeals to the traits of character of epistemic agents, such as courage or open-mindedness, as conditions for the formation of knowledge, is the image of two separate domains still appropriate? Wouldn’t the idea of an intrinsic contribution of ethics to epistemology be more relevant? Could ethical commitments then function as a productive component of the epistemic process? Seeing ourselves as epistemically responsible agents presupposes that our epistemic commitments involve choices for which we can be held responsible and which condition the acquisition of knowledge and may influence its content. To what extent do ethical commitments pertain to the choices that make us epistemically responsible?

The abstracts of the talks in this workshop don't seem to be that related to what I want.

Can anyone point me to any philosophical writing about this topic?

  • I find it counter-productive to separate ethics and epistemology in this way. Both are part of metaphysics and I'd argue they are not separate domains. Neither can be sorted out in the absence of a global or fundamental theory. For this reason I struggle with the question. To me it doesn't seem to make sense. Not helpful I'm afraid but others will have more useful things to say. .
    – user20253
    Apr 27, 2018 at 11:51
  • Recently there was much deeper questioning of the influence of values on science. A landmark book is Putnam's Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy (Ch. 2 especially), that marked his turn from scientific realism to pragmatism and motivated much literature on the role of epistemic values in shaping and selecting scientific facts. Fuller's Social Epistemology and Longino's Science as Social Knowledge are in the same vein.
    – Conifold
    Sep 10, 2018 at 3:11

2 Answers 2



One way in which ethics can constrain knowledge arises when knowledge has been obtained so unethically that scientists refrain from using it from that source. There was a practical instance of this when Allied doctors refused to use medical information gained from German concentration camp experiments. Much of the 'information' was rubbish, but not all of it; yet it seemed wrong to use any of it because of its provenance. If the same knowledge could be obtained by ethically acceptable methods, these were used.


The case above concerned coerced research participants. Another ethical barrier to scientific research, to the pursuit of scientific knowledge, can arise from a research institution's concern to protect the institution's interests by avoiding research activities that will attract moral criticism. Such criticism may occur if, for instance, a research programme involves animal experimentation to test the human risks of cosmetics. The institution may or may not care about animal welfare; but it does not pursue certain forms of research in order to avoid the ethical backlash.


Synthetic biology is capable or soon will be of generating organisms de novo - from synthetic genomes and programmed for certain behaviours. Some but not all scientists and ethicists have qualms about this work as 'playing God' or 'interfering with nature' in ways that can have unforeseen and undesirable consequences. Such qualms can also rein-in the acquisition of scientific knowledge.

The topic is vast and diverse but these ideas might help - might be something along the lines you are looking for.


Stephen G. Post, 'The Echo of Nuremberg: Nazi Data and Ethics', Journal of Medical Ethics, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Mar., 1991), pp. 42-44.

Marilys Guillemin, Lynn Gillam, Doreen Rosenthal & Annie Bolitho, 'Human Research Ethics Committees: Examining their Roles and Practices', Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics: An International Journal, Vol. 7, No. 3 (July 2012), pp. 38-49.

Thomas Douglas & Julian Savulescu, 'Synthetic biology and the ethics of knowledge', Journal of Medical Ethics, Vol. 36, No. 11 (November 2010), pp. 687-693.

Annika Forssén, Eivind Meland, Irene Hetlevik & Roger Strand, 'Rethinking scientific responsibility', Journal of Medical Ethics, Vol. 37, No. 5 (May 2011), pp. 299-302.

  • That's not the fact that German "knowledge" has been rejected because of evilness, much knowledge has been taken from Germany in other fields.
    – rus9384
    Sep 10, 2018 at 11:16
  • 1
    I was referring to specific medical facts that were disclosed in concentration camp research - e.g. by Mengele - and the refusal of at least certain scientists to use the research because of the means by which it was obtained. How can you possibly think I am denying that 'much knowledge has been taken from Germany in other fields' ? I am not an ignoramus.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Sep 10, 2018 at 11:37

Geoffrey, Great and quite pertinent question. In contemporary thinking partitioning of academic areas is commonplace and acceptable. Without going into the whys and wherefores and the acceptability of all of this, let's just focus on your query. Philosophers like Spinoza insisted that Ethics and Epistemology not only inform one another but are in fact inseparable. For him the essential nature of any human being consists in an ingrained biological/psychological urgency to persist in existence. This 'urge' exhibits itself in 'desire' and 'appetite' which combine to inform our needs and wants. The recognition that we cannot exist without the combined efforts of a like-minded community to produce the security and products to survive compels us to form rationally founded states which are led by an authority that has power over all citizens. The 'contract' which authorizes the leadership to act on their behalf, if abrogated in tyranny or despotism must be revoked by the citizenry. There is much more to it than this summary can spell out.

These recognitions for forming a 'state' derive from our quest for knowledge about the right way to live and to persist and to achieve a measure of peace of mind by living and thinking what we will ; driven by the ethical recognition that 'right' behavior and accommodation to our neighbors needs and wants, that this reciprocity must become the cornerstone of our lives.

So Ethics enfolds Epistemology to conduce towards an enlightened 'civitas'. Knowledge and ethics come together in support of life.

Research- Spinoza his Ethics and Epistemology and you will find more. C. Saunders

  • 1
    Thanks, but it is not my question but Darren Ong's. I merely edited - changed some wording, probably. I welcome you as a new member and hope that you will have a rewarding experience here.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Mar 26, 2019 at 19:16

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