The Hippocratic Oath and its younger relatives

By Fabiana Kubke 15/12/2009

I came across this blog post by Alex Madrigal on Wired Science the other day: ‘Should earth scientists take a Hippocratic Oath’? In his post he argues that such an oath would

’[…] provide a set of agreed-upon ethical norms for geoscientists, at a time when they are increasingly being called upon to pass judgment on massive human alterations to the Earth’s carbon, nitrogen, and water systems.

Many of you may not know that the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina requires all graduates of all professions to take an Oath that is appropriate for their degree, without which a degree will not be conferred.

The Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences from which I graduated has currently 4 different formulae, which primarily differ on whether the oath is made in the name of god, the scriptures, the country, or your honour. The common text in all 4 formulae is

’[…] to put to the service of society and your equals the art and the science of your profession’

The new text for the oath in the science faculty

I entered the University when Argentina was still under dictatorship, and witnessed the discussion, soul searching and changes that accompanied the transition to democracy. In 1988 (the year I graduated) a new optional text (which is non-legally binding) was introduced to the graduating oath as the result of a symposium on ’Scientists, Peace and Disarmament’.

I had the honour to be among the first graduates that had the option to make this oath. I opted in.

Loosely translated, this is the text:

Being conscious that science and its results can cause harm to society and to human beings when ethical controls are not in place,

Do you swear that the scientific research and technology that you will develop will be in the benefit of humanity and in favor of peace, that you are firmly committed in your scientific capacity to never serve aims that will harm human dignity, guided by your professional convictions and beliefs, seated in an authentic knowledge of the circumstances that surround you and of the possible consequences of the outcomes that can result from your work, and not to put remuneration or prestige first, nor subordinate yourself to the interests of your employers or political leadership?

If you weren’t to do so, let your conscience be your judge.

If you can read Spanish, the original texts can be found here.

0 Responses to “The Hippocratic Oath and its younger relatives”

  • While I’ve in the past agreed to a statement very similar to your university’s, doing so didn’t make me any more compliant with the ideals. MIT had a similar, student-initiated and optional oath available at times, but I failed to drum up support for its renewal while I was there. I think it’s fair to ask what use such oaths actually have, particularly in light of reasonable ethical relativity. Perhaps it is just to serve as a reminder for those already warm to the idea. As for the earth science oath in Eos, I can anticipate it coming into conflict with the Scientist as Honest Broker ideal, if the practitioner isn’t careful.

    • At my uni, the standard oath is legally binding (or so I understand). The optional one is not (so you can not have your degree revoked for not following it). Whether one follows up on it or not, well it is up to each individual really. As it is up to each individual to define what it means with respect to their own (relative) ethics. I, personally, think of it a lot. Perhaps because I was within the generation of students that pushed to see it through and also to add a non-religious based binding oath, but also because it was established following a long and painful dictatorship which pretty much defined what was meant by it and why it was needed. My understanding is that most students continue to choose the optional oath. If nothing else, in deciding to choose it (or not) there is some level of introspection as to what your role as a scientist in society is. (And that cannot be bad.)