Some truths are very unpleasant. Some fields may even be unpleasant to research, because the researcher may wind up discovering something very disconcerting about the world.

Should we investigate questions whose answer will possibly be harmful to people?

For example, imagine researching whether dogs care about their owners, vs purely exploiting the relationship for food and shelter. A particular conclusion to this question would cause many people great unhappiness.

We can certainly imagine other examples which carry more weight.

If a scientist has conclusively determined something through research, but this conclusion will immediately sink thousands of people into depression when they hear it, should that scientist share what they've learned with the world?

Which philosophers have investigated this question, and what are some of their powerful insights?

  • 1
    (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigration_and_crime) Notice that the results of immigration are usually: either mixed or reductive to crime! I am posting this as a comment as it may serve as a starting point to anyone interested in this question. It is possible to provide an analytical/objective answer to the OP's question. Nov 12, 2019 at 15:41
  • 1
    We really don’t know today what genes or gene complexes we will need for the future. We can’t mistake present time for all time. Also this whole issue may be easily curable not too long from now as long as we keep records and tissue of where we started. Just looking at AI, the assumption is, for instance, robots will take over only manual labor. This is laughable in the sense that this technology could also take over such things as medicine, accounting and programming.
    – Gordon
    Nov 13, 2019 at 19:03
  • Everything is dragged down in capitalism. There are no fine or better things. Only the exchange is important and not the use value. To call anything a true “profession” today is a joke. Everything is a business, because the only thing that counts is the exchange. So all people could become irrelevant and capitalism could chug right along. No one should privilege themselves above another.
    – Gordon
    Nov 13, 2019 at 19:26
  • I mean they are already reversing aging in certain systems at Harvard, certain tissues, the optic nerve. And reversal of aging is in sight. So whatever intelligence we want is plastic 50 years from now. There will always be Limits but the limits are more expansive. But looking more broadly at other technology, all people are expendable.
    – Gordon
    Nov 13, 2019 at 19:44
  • 1
    the most racist research there has been into intelligence was a 15 point drop for black americans. factor in 1] how much is genetic 2] how biased 'iq' is due to a. its racist history, b. society's, c. that it cannot by definition capture all of 'intelligence', and d. how much intelligence is taught, and you just won't get the same difference as there is between white europeans and chinese people. people like their small differences i guess
    – user38026
    Nov 13, 2019 at 20:24

5 Answers 5


The expected response from a scientist would be that the truth is of value in itself, that it does not harm people, only its abuse by people does (an adage familiar from "guns don't kill people, people kill people"), etc. But a look at reception of race related research quickly reveals that things are not so straightforward. Any finding that links cognitive abilities to genetic markers, especially race related ones, is subjected to far more scrutiny and contention of methods employed than a comparable study of fruit flies. The subliminal message is unmistakable, and explains academic aversion to this sort of research. As Pinker notes in Groups and Genes:

"In recent decades, the standard response to claims of genetic differences has been to deny the existence of intelligence, to deny the existence of races and other genetic groupings, and to subject proponents to vilification, censorship, and at times physical intimidation."

A concrete example is the reaction to Wilson's Sociobiology, for which he was called a fascist and a racist, harassed and heckled.

A divergence between epistemic and ethical values was noted already by Nozick, who distinguished between X being a rational thing to believe vs believing X being a rational thing to do. Beliefs can and do enable actions, just as guns do. The truth is a value, it is not the only value, it can clash with individual or social well-being, for example. Darwin once intimated to Hooker that publishing his faith shattering evolution theory was "like confessing a murder". The weighing of harms and values naturally places the ethical question into the utilitarian framework. In the case of Darwin, the immediate harm of making many people unhappy was eventually outweighed by the biological and medical advances of the modern age.

When it comes to the race/intelligence correlations, Anomaly gives an interesting ethical cost/benefit analysis in Race Research and the Ethics of Belief. On the one hand, research backed racial biases and stereotypes can and do lead to justifying prejudice, unfair treatment and discrimination based on racial profiling, conscious and unconscious, along the classical lines of the fallacy of division. They can also act as a psychological turnoff for people belonging to groups statistically less likely to excel in some areas, turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand, the suppression of race related genetics leads to prejudices of another type, like "explaining" the success of Jews by cheating and manipulation, impedes medical diagnoses and other potential benefits. To negotiate this dilemma, Anomaly advocates a cautious fine line based on Mill's harm principle:

"I’ll argue that it is morally defensible to hold socially consequential beliefs for which there is imperfect evidence only if doing so is unlikely to impose significant, uncompensated harm on other people. [...] In the absence of compensating benefits, the harm principle would seem to condemn believing in racial differences, and this would suggest a moral argument for spurning research into racial differences (Kitcher 2003, 105). But there are many reasons to think that, in spite of these risks, refusing to accept evidence for conclusions we’d prefer not to believe carries its own risks — including the forgone opportunity to know the truth, the ability to make rational generalizations, and the ability to use this information for socially beneficial purposes."

As always with utilitarianism, the next question is how to apply it, "calculating" costs and benefits on a case by case basis, or as a meta-principle, to figure out the rules for the best course of action "on average". History shows that the former strategy is hopelessly intractable given the limitations of our knowledge and foresight. In the case of race/IQ, as in the case of Darwin's theory, the harms are immediate and highly visible, while the potential benefits are more remote and diffused. As a guide to practical action, the harm principle endorses due caution in evaluating imperfect evidence of race/intelligence correlations, as e.g. in the rules proposed in the open letter of Stanford faculty The ethics of characterizing difference: guiding principles on using racial categories in human genetics. However, this does not extend to emotional knee-jerk reactions to, very real, discomfort and harms. As Anomaly remarks:

"we should remove the social stigma that currently goes along with research into the genetic basis of group differences. If research is likely to be done anyway, it is better to have findings that can withstand scrutiny than to stay silent while crackpots generate dubious data that reinforces existing prejudice."

Pinker's conclusion is similar:"If an idea is true, we had better accommodate our moral sensibilities to it, since no good can come from sanctifying a delusion".

  • 1
    A splendid answer... For the race angle at least. But the question is more general ain't it? Consider Oppenheimer saying he felt the true nature of sin. And arguably Hiroshima only initiated the benefits of his researches. More immediately a climate-change "scientific" sceptic may say that best way of checking out the alarmists is to see whether the earth flips to a Venus 400 deg centigrade. Should we conduct this experiment in vivo?
    – Rushi
    Nov 12, 2019 at 14:56
  • Not so fast... the problem with applying Mill's principle to racial research is that a dedicated racist has a different notion of what "people" are, and might suppose that if it may be proven that some animals have been mis-classified as people, then there's no harm to "people". See previous two centuries for examples.
    – agc
    Nov 13, 2019 at 16:23
  • 1
    @agc That racists will apply it differently is a given, but the question is how the rest of us should act. It is genuinely difficult to decide, and it is meant to be a guide to action in good faith.
    – Conifold
    Nov 13, 2019 at 18:36
  • @Conifold, It seems less certain to me whether, for examples like this, if there ever can be any "rest of us". The racists don't consider themselves racists -- or not in any bad way; all bigots consider themselves moderate and virtuous. Given the history, these lines of research come with major ethical burdens. It's the results of the thing that tell, not a researcher's feckless optimism.
    – agc
    Nov 15, 2019 at 2:55
  • 1
    @agc Whatever people consider themselves to be, those who do wish to act in good faith still need direction on how to act. And delusion of necessity is different from delusion by choice. It is one thing when we lack means to fathom definitive answers, it is another when we willfully refrain from looking for them. It may be that racial research will be inconclusive, and then the ethical burdens should take precedence, but we won't know unless we try. Otherwise, there will be no results to tell.
    – Conifold
    Nov 15, 2019 at 10:21

Significant work was done to look into the risks of creating a blackhole at CERN, though far higher energy cosmic rays hit the Earth all the time. It was thought seriously possible the first nuclear weapon could set fire to the atmosphere killing everything in a chain reaction, that risk was taken. Perhaps a more philosophical example, is work like Cambridge Analytica's on manipulating elections, and in future perhaps deeper aspects of human behaviour and nature (Yuval Noah Harari has great comments on this https://youtu.be/g6BK5Q_Dblo), this has been considered unlawful, unethical, but in future may be inevitable. Like AI, it may be that good research is needed to fight the threats from unethical research/innovation.

Douglas Murray is a modern exemplar of how stumbling into the area of race and IQ is problematic. I see the problem with his approach, and more recently Sam Harris' defence of it, as lack of critical thinking about terms and methodology.

Genes for adult lactose tolerance have spread very quickly around the world, across ethnic groups. How could that not happen with genes for intelligence, if there are genes with a simple correlation to intelligence?

Skin colour, especially in the USA, is a terrible proxy for lineage, which is a much more meaningful term than race - shared lineage. A significant fraction of African-American DNA there is from European lineages, as a result of the oppression of slavery. How could that population not have had the same selective pressures?

Murray glosses over high IQ people who have unsuccesful lives, saying because they are clever they choose a wide range of lifestyles. One of my favourite pieces of commentary on Murray's duscussion with Harris, suggested intelligence is more like the health of an ecosystem: we might take the concrete measurable 'biomass' as a proxy for abstract 'health', analogously to IQ for intelligence. It would be very good at picking up the main kinds of unhealthy ecosystems: where there are few niches, few biological strategies active. But it would rate some kinds of unhealthy, fragile, & unresilient ecosystems very highly - like where algae has choked out everything else, or where a small number of species dominate. Truly healthy resilient ecologies are diverse, self-stabilising, have many niches and a wide range of strategies - including ones unique to that ecosystem. This is like intelligence, and problem solving, generating unique answers is like generating fittedness of a species to a niche, and it requires an ecology that developed during the right mix of stability & challenge to really develop the most capable creatures/insights.

One of Murrays arguments for the validity of IQ is it's correlation with earnings. But what about lack of correlation at the highest extremes of IQ, with deep insight, or significant scientific achievement?

If there were no consequences to accepting a simplistic definition of intelligence fine, leave the details for academia. But there are many problems, especially denying people's ability to grow and flourish and develop their intelligence. It seems obvious also, that extreme intelligence requires a culture of respect for it, and special dispensations toward odd people, for communities to fully benefit - and in the West we are increasingly terrible at that. I'm thinking of the mathematician Ramanujan who had a cultural framework and support to totally dedicate himself to mathenatics as a form of religious devotion. Or Einstein (who's developmental language delay would probably see him diagnosed as autistic now) and Jewish heritage of rich families considering it a religious service to marry exceptional scholars into their family despite their lack of prospects financially. In short, intelligence occurs within a social ecology, as well as being comparable to a mental ecology.


The truth shouldn't hurt anyone. Or if it does, it would be a "good" hurt, one that they learn and benefit from.

What does hurt is sensational misinterpretation or misrepresentation of the truth.

To take something similar to your IQ example, suppose it is statistically proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that Koreans are .6cm (¼ inch) shorter than Japanese. No matter how true it is, in reality it makes no difference. Vast numbers of Koreans will still be taller than vast numbers of Japanese. There is no practical use for this truth.

Or to use your example, suppose it can be proven that Jews are over-represented in the top 1% of intelligent people (e.g. Nobel prize winners). That could be true at the same time as it being true that the average Jew is below average intelligence. One doesn't preclude the other. And either way, this truth makes no practical difference with respect to the vast majority of people. Again, there is no practical use for this truth (except perhaps when directly related to the top 1%).

But either of these examples could make sensational headlines if the press wanted them to. And millions of people would read those headlines and think they actually meant something.

  • The practical part comes in when you make statistics.
    – Overmind
    Nov 12, 2019 at 8:28

Is it ethical to investigate questions whose answers may inspire harm? It seems like the best way to examine that might be to look at the extreme, ideas that cause suffering and death. Some insight might be found in the philosophy of Tom Regan who approached such questions from the general direction of the behemoth in philosophy, Immanual Kant. In the introduction to the essays Matters of Life and Death: New Introductory Essays in Moral Philosophy, Regan on page 4 raises the usual questions regarding the ethics of dying and death. "If we are doing nothing to prevent [suffering and death], are we then just as guilty as someone who would let a small baby drown when he or she could prevent it?" It may seem extreme to suggest that ideas kill people, but the Armenian genocide could not have happened with ideas since the collective actions to exterminate require "institutional facts", as John Searle would call them.

How to answer such a question philosophically, according to Regan, requires meta-ethics. From WP:

Meta-ethics is the branch of ethics that seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties, statements, attitudes, and judgments. Meta-ethics is one of the three branches of ethics generally studied by philosophers, the others being normative ethics and applied ethics.

And therefore while there be no universally accepted answer regarding an ethics of harmful ideas, certainly the question raises a number of other questions regarding exactly what is universal to all human ethics that can tease apart some possible choices.

Peter Singer, in his Writings on an Ethical Life declares on page 9 "I shall deny... that ethics is relative or subjective", and challenges the idea that ethics is not rooted in a human universal characteristic. He throughout the following passage originally an excerpt from his Practical Ethics goes on to show how relativism in weak and narrow forms does not fare well in the face of reason. Singer, of course, is supported by the science of Frans de Waal who in his Primates and Philosophy reflects on morality given his understanding of chimps and bonobos, the closest relatives to human. He says on page 161:

"I would never speak of 'discontinutities.' Evolution does not occur in leaps: new traits are modifications of old ones so that closely related species differ only gradually. Even if human morality represents a significant forward, it hardly breaks with the past.

So, can the question about the ethics of ideas be answered objectively? It seems that it can and that if it is, that one might take the position that it is unethical not to investigate all ideas since it is not clear which may be harmful to people.

The danger of ideas is not ideas in themselves, but the presentation of those ideas in a framework intended to harm others. Hence, no idea is free from being harmful, including even logical contradictions; George Orwell in 1984 wrote of a world where war could be defined as peace. Noam Chomsky in his Manufacturing Consent on page 107 states that "A propaganda system will consistently portray people abused in enemy states as worthy victims..." and it seems any idea may be the means by which we portray people poorly. It is not exploring the link between race and IQ that is the danger, but the misrepresentation of the findings by bad actors that is the real threat. This isn't a problem of the idea per se, but of those who would set aside their morality and obligation to critical thought in order to be a part of a social movement organized by bad actors. Both Dan Ariely in his Predictably Irrational and Daniel Kahneman in his Thinking, Fast and Slow show that even the individual is prone to make choices based on powerful emotional forces that go beyond logic and exemplary forms of reason.

The True Believer by Eric Hoffer, recognizes that the power isn't so much in words and ideas, but those who wield them. Any idea which can contribute to hatred, imitation, persuasion and coercion, support leadership, lead to action, and drum up suspicion serves to unify true believers and movements that lead to harming others. It's hard to imagine that Eric Hoffer conceived of the true believer as someone who would always see the moral message in the literal one. Even followers of Jesus who preached love and forgiveness, after all, became infamous for great cruelty during the Spanish Inquisition.

Intellecuals love to inflate words to a form of power, as Gilbert Ryle noted in his Concept of the Mind. But perhaps it is a conceit to think that "new" ideas are any more dangerous than old ones given the deep roots of apathy, fear, and violence inherent in our inherited psychologies. Alice Miller in both her Drama of the Gifted Child and For Your Own Good laid bare the mechanisms that tend to cause suffering in the world when considering how people treat each other, and those forces at play that appear to make ideas dangerous are just an extension of the same old psychological forces that underlie ethical decisions. Frans de Waal shows with clarity in his Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes that the evils in society are just as much a part of chimp culture as they are of the human kind. Perhaps the insistence that some ideas are inherently dangerous is a continuation of the anthropodenial he claims is widespread: mankind pretending to be further from genetic kin than is true, hiding behind a facade that ideas separate our actions substantially, and are somehow to blame for great harms instead of men and women who commit bad acts. If this is the case, that people aren't that greatly removed from chimpanzees despite their words, then it might be unethical not to explore all ideas to show that ideas are indeed not at the bottom of the wellspring of harm after all. All too often are great evils are committed among the echoes of even benevolent ideas, after all.

  • But the very terms 'race' and 'IQ' are problematic.. Don't we know from experience, that chemical and biological weapon arms-races should be avoided if possible? That unchecked ethno-nationalism leads to genocide and ethnic cleansing? Are there good ethno-nationalists that make it ok to pursue thinking on those lines, regardless of it's wider influence?
    – CriglCragl
    Jul 9, 2021 at 5:46
  • 1
    @CriglCragl The term 'IQ' is not problematic. Traditional measures of IQ do a very good job correlating to other facts, such as wealth accumulation and academic performance. Perhaps people abuse and misuse IQ scores, but as a scientific psychological measure, they are solid descriptors of a relatively culturually neutral factor, the G factor.
    – J D
    Jul 18, 2021 at 23:49
  • 1
    'Race' is problematic in the sense it's somewhat meaningless, except in the use of 'human race', however, it is not entirely useless. People of contemporary African descent do exhibit differences in DNA compared to Australian aborigines and Scandanavians. I don't know that the argument that there is no utility in brinkmanship holds anywater.
    – J D
    Jul 18, 2021 at 23:51
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brinkmanship
    – J D
    Jul 18, 2021 at 23:52

The example resembles the riddle: "Is it legal for a man to marry his Widow's sister?" -- the riddle begs the question. It's impossible for a man to marry his Widow's sister, because if his wife is a widow, then that man is dead.

Similarly the example "Is it ethical to scientifically research the relationship between race and intelligence?" -- If it's impossible, then ethics don't enter into it. And it may well be impossible to scientifically research this, because the abstractions of race and intelligence are extremely biased and partisan, so that whatever comes out of the attempt would not be scientific so much as garbage numbers and deluded models ultimately demonstrating researcher hubris and sponsor malevolence. As science it seems akin to seriously researching telekinetic spoon-bending -- the purported seriousness of the researcher becomes more interesting than what's claimed to be research.

Exceptions to seemingly futile forms of research are more likely to be useful side-effects pertaining to the topic indirectly resulting from researching something else. Alchemists seeking lead to gold formulas found nothing -- but centuries later studying particle accelerators really did provide a method, albeit an unfeasibly expensive one.

As for dangerous research that isn't impossible, it's a question of just how much the harms outweigh the good of it. Asimov's essay "The Sin of the Scientist" addresses the present question, and concludes by trying to find an unambiguous example of scientific sin.

For a scientist to commit a sin, I would have him devise something or uncover knowledge which can only do harm and cannot do good. What's more, we would have to be reasonably certain that he knew it could only do harm and not good, and that he advanced the knowledge or the device in order to do harm.

Asimov reviews examples up to and including the 20th century, and gives almost everything a pass, (as atomic research has had many benign applications), excepting research into military applications of Poison Gas, which he argued has zero good uses.

  • Keep in mind that race vs iq is just an example of a "potentially harmful topic"
    – Gershy
    Nov 13, 2019 at 14:23
  • @GershomMaes, Thanks, see revised answer.
    – agc
    Nov 13, 2019 at 17:12
  • I would assume he would add the research of Mengele, which produced still potentially useful results, that were decided to not be made accessible to the scientific community, or to be acceptable as part of research, even though no further humans woukd be harmed by doing so. In fact, they might be saved.
    – CriglCragl
    Nov 13, 2019 at 17:59
  • 1
    @CriglCragl, Asimov didn't weigh in on that one, at least not in that essay. As to "no further humans" being harmed, we should not forget the moral harm to the vivisectors, to say nothing of the victims' families, and the host nation's reputation.
    – agc
    Nov 14, 2019 at 20:20

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .