NON-THERAPEUTIC RESEARCH

It is possible for persons to be respected as ends in themselves and voluntarily participate in non-therapeutic research. According to a typical interpretation of Immanuel Kant, however, this combination is not achievable because the researcher violates the categorical imperative (CI) by treating the research subject as a means to an end and the research subject violates the CI by treating herself as a means to an end. In this paper I argue that this standard interpretation of Kant is incorrect so, in fact, Kantian theory does not prohibit the use of voluntarily consenting persons in non-therapeutic research.

What is non-therapeutic research? The Free Dictionary defines non-therapeutic research as “research unlikely to produce a diagnostic, preventive, or therapeutic benefit to current subjects, which might benefit patients with a similar condition in the future”. The controversial nature of non-therapeutic research is based on the fact that patients who participate in such protocols are put at risk of physical, mental, or emotional harm but cannot (or only have an extremely remote opportunity to) derive direct personal gain.

Kant does not specifically address the issue of non-therapeutic research in his writings, but the following form of his CI is commonly cited by bioethicists when analyzing such protocols: “So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only.” Based on the typical interpretation of this CI formulation, many experts have claimed that Kant argued that a person should never treat another or herself as means to an end. In the non-therapeutic research context this means that the researcher violates the CI by exposing the research subject to irrational and/or unreasonable risks and the research subject violates the CI by exposing herself to irrational and/or unreasonable risks.

The problem with this typical interpretation of the CI is that it fundamentally misreads Kant. Note that Kant ends his declaration of this form of the CI with the word “only.” The qualifying word “only” at the conclusion of the sentence means that Kant does not argue that a person should never treat another or herself as means to an end; instead, Kant argues that a person should never treat another or herself exclusively as a means to an end. This atypical (yet accurate in my opinion) interpretation of this form of Kant’s CI clearly alters the expectation regarding the philosopher’s view of non-therapeutic research. If I am correct, then Kant’s theory does not prohibit the use of voluntarily consenting persons in non-therapeutic research because the researcher and the research subject not only treat the research subject as means to an end, but also treat the research subject “as an end withal,” for the research subject autonomously chooses whether or not to participate in the study (based on the moral duty to help others if rational analysis reveals that the risk to herself is negligible) and the researcher provides the research subject with detailed information to facilitate a risk-benefit analysis (based on the moral duty to treat rational actors with dignity and respect).

In conclusion, even Immanuel Kant, when interpreted correctly, asserted that persons can be respected as ends in themselves and voluntarily participate in non-therapeutic research.