To some of the more credulous and suspicious of our nation, the idea that someone would possess and hide the cure for cancer is not so far fetched. There have been conspiracies and whispers of such a misdeed on the internet dark web and even in popular social media sites claiming that Big Pharma, the Food and Drug Administration, and/or other shady organizations are hiding the cure for personal gain pointing to the theory that they make so much off of treatment, they will never release the cure (Bilfield, 2019). It should be noted that this myth has been debunked numerous times and can be shelved neatly between anti-vaxxers and alternative medicines. Not only would one not make more money by hiding a cure, it would be so incredibly difficult to hide a cure due to the nature of medical research and the many who have worked on the research, that a situation where a group of people can keep it under wraps is close to null (Maessen, 2016).
So what would a situation where a private group of research scientists discovered and concealed a cure for cancer look like ethically? Some would go as far as to say, in our society, what one discovers, creates, or produces should be solely their property and they can therefore decide what they want to do with it. One could, if foolish enough, make the argument that there is nothing illegal in this. What the party could not claim in good conscious is that their decision is in any way, manner, or form ethical, fair, or just. To reason to this conclusion, we must review the underlying basis of ethics, the definition of fairness and justice, and cover the various points of views of different ethical theories. What the question really comes down to is: why ought people be altruistic?
Ethics, at its very core, shapes how people view right and wrong and how to judge and act accordingly. Humans, “as a species of social primates, have evolved a deep sense of right and wrong to accentuare and reward reciprocity and cooperation and to attenuate and punish excessive selfishness and free riding. On the constitution of human nature are built the constitutions of human societies” (Shermer, 2011). Because people did not evolve in a vacuum and even to this day do not act within a vacuum, we value altruism and treating each other and our community ethically. “The ultimate basis for ethics is clear. Human behavior has consequences for the welfare of others” and because we have the innate and natural ability to “put ourselves imaginatively in the place of others” we can sympathize and know if something we do is right or wrong (Paul and Elder, 4). Of course, there is greed, jealousy, and other narrow-minded and egocentric ways people can think too. This is also natural. People must think of themselves in order to ensure their own survival, but our evolutionary past has ensured that most people, most of the time, in most situations behave the right way because of their innate ability to sympathize and cooperate. In this way, we know – and even feel that keeping the cure to a tormenting and disastrous disease is unethical and immoral in the sense that is creates unnecessary suffering and deprives other of the resources they need to live.
Fairness is best defined as “treating all sides the same without reference to one’s own feelings or interests” or “the ability to make judgements that are not overly general but concrete and specific to a particular case” (Paul and Elder, 45) (Velasquez, et al., 1). Because it is impossible or impractical to treat everyone exactly the same or to completely resist man’s cognitive biases, we have come to understand that, as Aristotle phrased it, “equals should be treated equally and unequals unequally” – that is, everyone should be treated the same or relevant to the situation at hand (Valesquez, et al. 1). The decision for a small group to keep a cure for an illness to themselves for personal gain is, by this very definition, unfair.
Justice, in this situation, is much more complex than fairness. In general, justice can be defined as our ability to judge right and wrong. But this is far too general. There are plenty of reiterations of the definitions including that it is when someone gets what they deserve or what they are due. Justice is the determination of “who should receive benefits and burdens, good or bad things of many sorts, given that others might receive these things” in similar situations (Honderich, 433). Justice is often divided into different sorts. Thomas Aquinas, for example, divided justice between commutative and distributive justice. The former is a precise and obvious in its estimation of justice where “the crime, the perpetrator, and the victim are all identifiable to everyone” (Oswald, 2011). Distributive justice, on the other hand, is much more “loose, vague, and indeterminate” because it involves positive liberties such as aid, sustenance, and healthcare – so if someone dies of, let’s say cancer when there is a cure, that is a violation of distributive justice (Oswald, 2011). And because distributive justice depends on resources, the scale of justice must be inframe with the size of the society or community in which the justice is operating. Everyone would claim they are in favor of justice just as they would claim they are in favor of good – but the debate is not if there should be justice, it is the level and method of help that should be given. And so the debate of traditional versus progressive members of society continues.
Throughout history, it is clear that the level of help and justice has shifted ever so slowly toward a more egalitarian, altruistic, and humanistic society. This is moral progress of a sort, that people can constantly look back and be ashamed of the level of justice that was achieved in our past – but the changing frame has not and can not stop. The same opinions of distributive justice are at work in our current society and, like before, will be dragged consistently onward. Within this moral frame of justice, generally the same stances percist: Strict egalitarianism, Difference principle, luck egalitarianism, and desert-based principles. Strict egalitarianism demands a completely equal share of goods to all members of the community or society. The difference principle utilizes a utilitarian world view and addresses the inequalities that would “make the least advantaged in society materially better off than they would be under strict quality” – additionally, this principle sees “no intrinsic value” in goods and materials themselves, “only in so far as they increase welfare” of the community (Lamont and Favor, 2017). Luck egalitarianism has a role in the current case because it holds that “traits such as a person’s gender or race” or even health “are elements over which people have no control” and supporting a system where people are penalized for their misfortune or luck would be immoral and unjust (Levine and Pannier, 2005).
The final and most contrary would be desert-based principles which holds that people are responsible for their actions and work within their environments and should be rewarded or punished based on their actions. The benefit to this seemingly harsh principle is that, as John Locke pointed out, “people deserve to have those items produced by their toil and industry, the products (or value thereof) being a fitting reward for their labor – the toil and industry most commonly includes one’s contribution, effort, and compensation. This principle falls apart when one considers the members of society who are active and helpful, but do not produce a good – including stay at home moms and the elderly who contribute to society, but are valued at $0 for their efforts. But regardless for its faults, the principle holds that we should be the owners of what we produce. So in that sense, how can forcing the group in the case to share the cure for cancer be just? Shouldn’t they be allowed to keep what is theirs?
To continue to add to the types of justice, there are two more that are of value here. Comparative justice holds that relevantly similar cases should be treated the same way and, likewise, dissimilar cases should be treated in different ways. But this concept falls apart because it leaves one with two options: either everyone is valued by their production and market value without concern for their situation and effort, or everyone is assumed to have intrinsic value as a human being. So in the case of stay-at-home parents, who definitely provide extraordinary work to society, would have at least the same intrinsic value as anyone else just because they are a person. In this way, “noncomparative justice presupposes that every person possesses intrinsic value and that actors are obligated to respect that intrinsic value by treating that person as she truly deserves” (Levine and Pannier, 2005). American philosopher Robert Nozick plays off of John Locke’s idea of ownership and asserts that “everyone ‘owns’ themselves and, by mixing one’s labour with the world” or society or community, “self-ownership can generate ownership of some part of the material world” (Lamont and Favor, 2005). In a way, the effort of everyone contributes to the wellbeing of the whole – painting a picture of the evolutionary tribes within which people have evolved the vary values that determine what we think of as just.
So, the argument that a troupe of scientists somehow have an exclusive right to a cure at the expense of the community fails to take into account that they live in a society with a vast amount of moving parts that created the environment within which it was possible to craft the cure. The argument that the markets are allowed to decide the fate is also flawed in that the markets are determined by the people with in it. Adam Smith asserted that people act with primary and lower virtues and that sympathy, basic to human nature, above all is the basis for morality and shapes the market with which we trade. This phenomenon, guided by innate sympathy, “is an application of natural law and natural justice doctrines” and utilizes free trade, which “requires reciprocal or commutative justice” (Youkins, 3). It is also central to Smith’s philosophy that the laws of the marketplace are the laws of an organized society and those laws and values do not act within a vacuum, but rather, cooperate for what is best for the society it operates in. In this sense, the ones with the cure for cancer could be reciprocated in the market, but the market and by relation the society, would demand that the cure be released. Denying it would not only be unfair, but now unjust.
As far as ethical theories go, consequentialism (judging right and wrong by focusing on the consequences of actions) is most dominant in this situation because releasing the cure for cancer for profit to the public would not only result in more compensation, prestige, and historical importance to the group who discovered it, it would also benefit the uncountable members of society who are suffering and often dying from the disease. Utilitarianism, especially since the overall welfare of the general population – and more so for the poor who, even under the current environment, suffer more from the disease – would be greatly maximized and the pain be greatly alleviated. Without a doubt, utilitarianism and consideration for the consequences for all parties, leads to the best ethical solution and sees the action of the group hiding the cure as unethical by it’s very consequence of greater pain and suffering.
Deontology judges right and wrong by the actions themselves and pays little regard to the consequences would also assert that there is a duty to act and in positions of power, there is a greater obligation to act in favor of the general public (Constantin, 2014). Immanual Kant, fammed philosopher and deontologist, enhanced deontology with his categorical imperative that maintains one ought to “act only on that maxim which you can at the same time will to be a universal law” (Honderich, 436). Kant and deontologists likewise frown on the act of obscuring a cure from the public eye.
Virtue ethics, the principle popularized by Aristotle, can be described as habits or character that “enable us to pursue the ideals we have adopted.” They are values that people learn through practice and perseverance and “a person can improve his or her character by practicing self-discipline, while a good character can be corrupted by repeated self-indulgence” (Valesquez, et al., 1). Even though virtues can often be subjective to the society one is raised, there is a sense of universal ethics which guides human action beyond culture or society. Because all people possess the lowly footprint of evolution, they all hold that group cooperation is ethical. In this way, virtues across culture lines (and especially with Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics) would assert that the cure should be shared and the benefits of the cure should be resisted.
What is left of the defense besides pure hedonism within which the group can revel in the greedy pleasure and riches of the cancer cure? But even hedonism has its limits. As Epicurus, a labelled hedonist, explains, “nothing is sufficient for the person who finds sufficiency too little” and considering that “every man departs this life as though he had just been born”, most people and indeed hedonists can see that altruism and alleviation of pain is far more pleasurable to people on a deep-seated and natural level (Epicurus, 183). Epicurus’s hedonism is one that merges virtue with utility in the mitigation of pain and the “pledge of men not to harm each other” which is the basis for justice in his view (Epicurus, 178).
So, from this reasoning, on every level examined, it is unfair and unjust to keep the cure to oneself. It is additionally unethical. The best way to reason in this case ethically is hedonistic utilitarianism in that the greatest number of people can benefit from the cure. Not only would the team be rewarded with wealth and prestige, but members of society can live. But this case cannot be reasoned fully without considering the fact that people have rights to property, but they also have a stake in the society in which they live by the contributions beyond mere production. In all contexts, it is best to spread inventions and innovations which, fortunately, is the current method of medical, scientific, and academic research as well as the system of economics. There is no way such an invention could or should be kept from the public because we live in a society with the value to create, share, and collaborate. Collaboration and altruism is in our very DNA.
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