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The Ethics of Altruism in Clinical Research

Those who seek to justify clinical research often point to the possibility that participants in clinical trials might have altruistic motives for participating. And for good reason. Altruistic motives can explain why rational people with full understanding would agree to participate in trials that offer little or no direct therapeutic benefit and expose them to significant risks of harm. Altruistic behavior, moreover, is virtuous. However, it is not clear how the presence of certain motives, altruistic or otherwise, on the part of research participants could make an ethical difference to a clinical trial. My main purpose in this article is to present a general account of how altruistic motivation could be ethically relevant to clinical research. Defenders of clinical research are right to think that altruistic motivation makes it is easier to justify imposing a risk of harm on research participants. However, determining that a given research participant is indeed altruistically motivated to participate in a given trial is not by any means a straightforward matter. The mere possibility that the participant has altruistic motives, I argue, is not itself ethically significant.

Those who seek to justify clinical research often point to the possibility that participants in clinical trials might have altruistic motives for participating. And for good reason. Altruistic motives can explain why rational people with full understanding would agree to participate in trials that offer little or no direct therapeutic benefit and expose them to significant risks of harm. Altruistic behavior, moreover, is virtuous. However, it is not clear how the presence of certain motives, altruistic or otherwise, on the part of research participants could make an ethical difference to a clinical trial. My main purpose in this article is to present a general account of how altruistic motivation could be ethically relevant to clinical research. Defenders of clinical research are right to think that altruistic motivation makes it is easier to justify imposing a risk of harm on research participants. However, determining that a given research participant is indeed altruistically motivated to participate in a given trial is not by any means a straightforward matter. The mere possibility that the participant has altruistic motives, I argue, is not itself ethically significant.

Lynn A. Jansen, "The Ethics of Altruism in Clinical Research," Hastings Center Report, 39 no. 4 (2009): 26-36. 
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