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Comparing Approaches for Forensic Science

The comparison of the utilitarian and deontological approaches of ethics as they relate to forensic science is better understood when observing a common topic in the field. Take, for example, the opening of cases by the Innocence Project.1 From the consequentialist perspective, what are the consequences of reopening of past cases? Does this act benefit the Innocence Project, society, or both? Is the Innocence Project using society as a means to an end? In examining the consequences, it is helpful to consider outcomes. The potential positive outcomes are freeing individuals who were wrongly convicted, supporting guilt, showing the strength of forensic evidence such as DNA, and giving hope to those who believe they were wrongly convicted. The potential negative outcomes of the Innocence Project include not having the necessary resources, that is, scientists or funding to examine the current cases, to complete backlog cases, and to rework past cases. Initially, such negative outcomes may reflect badly on science if people are proven innocent with the reexamination of evidence, and more people will request cases be reopened or evidence be retested, which will take a good deal of time, money, and resources.

Critical Thinking

  • • In the deontologist’s view, do those heading the Innocence Project have a duty to reopen past cases?
  • • How many cases would scientists be required to retest?
  • 1 The Innocence Project assists prisoners who have the potential to be proven innocent by DNA testing. The group began its work in 1992 by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufield. More information can be found at
  • • Is the Innocence Project serving the society by showing potential flaws in science and the judicial system?
  • • Based on duty, what legitimate restraints should the society impose on the Innocence Project cases?

When considering means-end relationships, with either approach, it is useful to answer questions that assist in determining the degree of ethical issues involved. A means-end relationship is best explained by the relationship between one’s methods and one’s results. As paraphrased from Ethics in Human Communication (Johannesen et al., 2008), here are some questions to determine the level of ethics in any means-end relationship:

  • 1. Are the means actually unethical or just unpopular, unwise, or ineffective?
  • 2. Is the end truly good, or does it simply seem so because we want it?
  • 3. Is it possible that the ethically bad means will actually produce a good end?
  • 4. Is the same end achievable using more ethical means?
  • 5. Is the good end much better than the potential bad effects of the means used to attain it?
  • 6. Could the use of unethical means be justified to those most affected by them?

Means-end relationships are a crucial factor to consider in ethical decision-making.

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