Robert Epstein

The University of Texas at Austin

Tania Singer is one of the world’s most important empathy researchers, but her lack of empathy for her staff is endangering her career (Kupferschmidt, 2018a). Singer has apologized for mistreating her colleagues at the Max Planck institute.  Her lack of personal empathy, and global impact on our scientific knowledge of empathy create an ethical dilemma. Is her global impact so great that the scientific community should overlook her personal wrongdoing? To answer this question this essay will utilize a utilitarian and Kantian perspective to examine the ethical response of the scientific community to her wrongdoing.

Tania Singer is an extremely important researcher on empathy, ending her work in the field would negatively impact scientific advances. She considered to be one most important empathy researchers in the world (Kupferschmidt, 2018a). She has published 124 papers and is head of a prestigious laboratory in Berlin (Max Planck Society, 2019a). Her work has helped clarify neurological pathways for empathy and lead two large scale conferences with the Dali Lama on caring. Her work on caring helped to create a framework for caring economics. Caring economics creates a framework for understanding how to motivate socially beneficial economic decision making (Kiel Institute for the World Economy, n.d.). Her work has improved the world’s understanding of caring and empathy. Continuing her work has the potential to positively impact the world’s ability to empathize with others.

She has also created a harmful environment for her colleagues at the Max Planck Institute. When a member of her research team reported that she was pregnant, Singer did not respond with empathy. Complaints to a scientific review board included the claims that she was abusive and threatening to colleagues (Kupferschmidt, 2018a). According to the former pregnant researcher she “started screaming at me how she wasn’t running a charity, how I was a slacker and that I was going to work twice as hard for the time I would be gone” (Kupferschmidt, 2018a). The former pregnant researcher claims that instead of empathizing with her Singer responded in a hurtful manner. When the pregnant researcher reported to Singer she had a mischarge, Singer reportedly told that her she used poor judgment when she decided to go to the doctor rather than a lab meeting. Former colleagues describe bullying extending to individual lab meetings (Kupferschmidt, 2018). People often left meeting with her crying. They described being afraid of having meetings with her and being worried about sharing how they felt. Singer did not show empathy to research team even members of her team grieving a miscarriage.

Singer acknowledged many of the problems involving bullying in her lab. She admitted that due to her conduct “[m]y psychological and physical resources are exhausted and my reputation and my scientific career are severely damaged” (Kupferschmidt, 2018b). She blamed the difficulty of the study she was working on stating “[p]roblems associated to my exhaustion due to having to carry and be responsible for [a] huge and complex study” caused to make mistakes (Kupferschmidt, 2018a). She described part of the difficulty as “the conflict between the project’s need for long-term continuity and loyalty on the one hand and the researchers’ own divergent needs to move on with their own careers and lives” (Kupferschmidt, 2018a). Conducting a long difficult study required her to balance the needs of her research team, to grow as people and the needs of her study. She was having to balance accomplishing her end the scientific study with the means of using researchers with their own needs.

Members of the scientific community criticized the Max Planck Society’s response to the bullying scandal. In response to the scandal Singer was allowed to continue her work but on a much smaller scale. Some people felt this was not an appropriate response. The critics felt that the institute had valued the scientific process over the personal lives and the careers of the researchers (Kupferschmidt, 2018a). No one has accused Singer of producing bad science. Her only wrong doing was harming her colleagues. When critics argue that the institute should have done more they are implicitly making an ethical judgement. Their argument is that the ends do not justify the means. The remainder of this essay will examine the ethical dilemma involved in weighing the value of interpersonal means and scientific ends. The essay will examine this problem from the utilitarian, and Kantian framework. The author will then weight the insights of the two results and make a judgement on more useful ethical framework.

The utilitarian framework supports the Max Planck’s decision to allow Singer’s work to continue. Bentham argues that all decisions are about weighing the overall pleasure and pain that the decision creates (Sandel, 2010). A hostile work environment can create pain for the twenty people in Singer’s lab, while scientific research has the potential to improve the lives of all of humanity. Neuroscientific research has the potential to literally reduce the amount of pain people feel. The ReSource study aimed to find a way to improve empathy, compassion, mental health, and quality of life (Max Planck Society, 2019b).  Had the study found a clear method to achieve those outcomes, humanity would know how to be happier and kinder to each other. Large scale human kindness and empathy will clearly produce more pleasure than kindness and empathy for twenty researchers. From Bentham’s perspective it doesn’t matter that some moral systems would find cruelty to pregnant women to be immoral. The only thing that matters is that the net gain in pleasure is larger than the net gain in pain.

The Kantian perspective does not support the Max Planck Society’s decision to allow Singer’s work to continue. Their decision fails multiple tests of morality in Kant’s system. Kant believes that ethics should be a set of rules derived from reasoning (Sandel, 2010). He does not believe that individual circumstances should guide what rules we follow. For Kant Bentham’s perspective pleasure and pain arguments are irrelevant. Kant seeks a set of rules for how everyone should act in any situation. An action is moral if everyone could do an action without harming society. He describes two approaches to moral imperatives. In the hypothetical imperative one takes an action because what hypothetically will happen in this particular situation is good. In the categorical imperative one takes an action because everyone in this situation should act action a certain way. He argues the former is a weaker approach to morality than the latter. The categorical imperative is connected to reasoning and creates a universal rule, while the hypothetical imperative is case by case. Morality should not be case by case. He creates a test of this form of morality. To see if someone is following the categorical imperative someone should examine whether it would be moral for everyone to act the way they are acting.

From Kant’s perspective it appears that harming the careers of individual researchers is immoral. If all researchers harmed the careers of their junior researchers, no one would be promoted to senior positions. Science needs people in senior positions. Senior researchers eventually retire and need to be replaced. In order to advance science, junior researchers need training and letters of recommendations to new institutions. Allowing researchers to move to new labs allows them to create new discoveries and advance the field. She prevented her colleagues from moving on to new labs. Her actions violated the categorical imperative by not acting in a way that everyone should act.  To help science everyone including her should help her their colleagues’ scientific careers. She also bullied pregnant women. Society needs women to become pregnant without pregnant women there would be no children. If everyone bullied pregnant women fewer women would want to become pregnant harming society. Bullying pregnant women and bullying colleagues violates the categorical imperative. Kant would not consider her bullying moral even if it produced better scientific outcomes.

Kant provides a second way of understanding reason for morality. All human beings have reason. Kant believes morality is based on respecting reason (Sandel 2010). Morality must respect any being that has the potential for reason. Using a human as a means rather than an end does not respect that person as being with reason. That person is treated like a valueless object. When the institute valued scientific output over the lives of the researchers, they were viewing the researchers as mere ends to achieve a scientific outcome. They were not respecting the researchers as ends in themselves. Returning to Singer’s frame of her error she described “the conflict between the project’s need for long-term continuity and loyalty on the one hand and the researchers’ own divergent needs to move on with their own careers and lives” (Kupferschmidt, 2018a). The project’s need for long term continuity is tied to the project’s end of advancing science. The researchers’ needs for their lives and careers are a description of their own personal ends. Singer’s bullying can be viewed from the Kantian perspective as a failure to empathize with her team as people with their own ends. Kant would view this failure as immoral.

The author of this paper supports the Kantian perspective rather than the utilitarian perspective. The Kantian perspective considers a wider set of consequences than the utilitarian perspective. The Kant perspective asks if an action is good if all people do the action while the utilitarian perspective asks if this individual action produces more harm than good. In this example the Kantian perspective can speak to whether this moral choice effects the health of the field of neuroscience and a woman’s willingness to have children. The utilitarian perspective can only examine the value of having this study or having a happy set of researchers. The utilitarian perspective avoids complex questions with complex implicants for science. This perspective is short-sighted resulting in it being unable to address the needs of an entire field and of humanity. 

The Kantian and Utilitarian approach to this ethical dilemma comes to very different conclusions, both of which have supporters. The Max Planck Institute is taking a more utilitarian stance while critics of the institute and even arguably Singer are taking a more Kantian perspective. This contrast illustrates an important point when evaluating ethics. There is not a single consensus view of the right ethical system. Often different groups even within the scientific community have divergent ideas about what is ethical. Some groups focusing on outcomes and others process. This question has been at the heart of ethics of science for a long time. Some very important discoveries in medicine came out of unethical experiments. The field continues to grapple with what to do about these discoveries. Some believe that using the results of unethical experiments is also unethical. They argue that continuing to use the results of these experiments means that people are also treating the experiment participants as a means rather than an end. Other argue that not using the experiments just reduces the good that can come from a bad process.

Singer’s wrongdoing was relatively mild when compared to some of the atrocities committed by scientists. The mild nature of her moral failing creates a valuable thought experiment. When the harm and the gain are not so large as sciences greatest failures what perspective is most ethical? Most ethical dilemmas are not nearly as dramatic as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study (Royce, Thyer, and Padgett, 2010). In the Tuskegee experiment African American men were denied treatment for syphilis for decades, even though a treatment existed. They were lied to by scientists to better understand the disease. This ethical failure is unambiguously horrifying. Scientists are often taught about this experiment when they are learning about scientific ethics. Most ethical dilemmas are much closer to Singer’s dilemma. Singer’s dilemma is one that every manager will encounter, every manager must ask themselves is my project’s outcome or my employees happiness more important. Deepening one’s understanding of one’s opinion on the best management practice has the potential to improve the day to day operation of most laboratories.

Science has formalized ethical processes in the last few decades. In response to the Tuskegee experiment American research now requires the use of institutional review boards and has a set of agreed upon ethical principles. The National Research Act was passed in 1974 and the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects in Biomedical and Behavioral Research created formal ethical standards in 1979 (Royce, Thyer, and Padgett, 2010). Many important research discoveries occurred before these reforms. Scientists will need to decide whether they feel it is ethical to use research from before the 1970s. These ethical standards do not focus on the treatment of employees. Gender and racial discrimination occurred in American research before the 1970s as well. Raising the questions surrounding staff treatment during research. Science is in the process of evaluating its past. Clarifying its ethical standards will be an important part of the evaluation process.

            Singer did important work improve the world’s ability to be empathic, but she did so at the cost of empathy to her own staff. The utilitarian perspective supported this judgement while the Kantian perspective did not. The author sides with Kantian perspective because of its ability to examine a wider set of issues. This examination is important because of the potential significance of this case. This case touches on an important issue at the heart of the ethics of science. Do you the ends justify the means? Should we slow down scientific progress to make sure we are doing science correctly. The author of this article sides with the Kantian perspective scientific advances should not happen at the cost of the future of science or our birthrate.


Kiel Institute for the World Economy (No Date). Project from Homo Economicus towards a Caring Economics. Retrieved November 17, 2019 from

Kupferschmidt, K. (2018a, August 8th) She’s the world’s top empathy researcher. But colleagues say she bullied and intimidated them. Science Magazine. Retrieved November 17, 2019 from

Kupferschmidt, K. (2018b, December 5th). Empathy expert resigns as head of Max Planck institute after report confirms bullying allegations. Science Magazine. Retrieved November 17, 2019 from

Max Planck Society (2019a). Publications. Retrieved November 17, 2019 from

Max Planck Society (2019b) The ReSource Project. Retrieved November 17, 2019 from

Royse, D., Thyer, B. A., & Padgett, D. K. (2016). Program evaluation: An Introduction. Boston, MA; Cengage.

Sandel, M. J. (2010). Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?  (Reprint edition).  New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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