Past responsibility: History and the ethics of research on ethnic groups.

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Past responsibility: History and the ethics of research on ethnic groups.

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Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences


Fossheim, Hallvard J

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The article argues for the possibility of researchers' historical responsibility vis-à-vis ethnic groups. Such responsibility for a discipline's past transgressions is often attributed to anthropology, human genetics, parts of archaeology, and medicine, but without a clear conception of the nature of a responsibility supposedly going beyond the individual's own actions. Two concretizations are presented in order to show the fruitfulness and challenges of what I shall call a continuity approach: first, the case of the reburial of Sami human remains in Neiden, Norway; second, the use of the race concept in ethical and scientific contexts following the so-called New Synthesis in biology, which according to many marks a break with a racist past. Since no theory of researchers' historical responsibility towards ethnic groups exists, two partly relevant theories are brought in to provide a basis: Jenna Thompson's theory of nation states' responsibilities for past transgressions against peoples and a stance in political theory arguing that the beneficiary should pay even in cases where the beneficiary was not to blame for the original transgression. On this basis I sketch a continuity theory of historical responsibility, without which a notion of historical responsibility would be inapplicable in most actual cases.


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