Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Ethical Theory and Research Ethics

Of what practical use are theoretical considerations in research ethics?

I posed this question to students in research ethics and asked them to explain how different ethical theories might (a) justify one rule from their professional code and/or (b) draw our attention to different considerations bearing on the rule.

Here, with the students' permissions, are four responses.


At 8:51 AM, Blogger Jaap van Kretschmar said...

PHI816 assignment due 5 Sept. 2006:
Justify one rule from a professional code of ethics in terms of four ethical theories - Egoism, Virtue Theory, Utilitarianism, and Moral Rights.

Chosen professional code of ethics:
That of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB)

Rule to be justified:
"In fulfilling obligations to trainees, it is expect that: Investigators will create and maintain a working environment that encourages cultural diversity."

1.) Egoism
The ultimate good is my own long-term interest. My choice of behavior (words and acts) must be made after considering whether the outcome and potential consequences of such behavior would be consistent with my interests. I am justified in complying with the ASBMB rule because I will benefit: If others comply as I choose to comply, the profession remains open to my interest and ability even if my genetics, ethnicity, and personal choices conflict with those that might otherwise prevail in the working environment.

2.) Virtue Theory
The ultimate good results from behavior that affirms and promotes the interests of my group. As a professional, I must comply with the group's rules or find myself in conflict with the group or, otherwise, excluded. The ASBMB is justified in insisting upon my compliance with the rule: I will enhance the group's attraction to those willing and able to participate in, and contribute to, the profession.

3.) Utilitarianism
The ultimate good is the satisfaction of the interests of all individuals. My choice of behavior must be made after considering the consequences of my words and actions for everyone. If, as a professional, I choose to comply with the ASBMB rule, I will ensure that the profession is one that affirms and welcomes the interests of any individual who is willing and able to learn and practice the profession. Limited funding and opportunities acknowledged, WE are all justified in insisting on compliance with a rule that has been encoded with the intent of benefiting ALL of us.

4.) Moral Rights
The ultimate good results from the preservation of every individual's rights . My choice of action must not put me in conflict with the rights of others to exercise and enjoy those autonomous rights. If, as a professional, I choose to comply with the ASBMB rule, I will prevent the placement of obstacles to the exercise of anyone's right to work, securely and comfortably, in the profession. YOU are justified in insisting that I recognize your right to work in the profession; but, I acknowledge this only because I have a personal stake in maintaining this: OUR, common, right.

Comstock, G. 2006. Four ethical principles and their justifications (draft). North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC

J. B. van Ketschmar; PHI 816; 4 Sept. 2006

At 5:17 PM, Blogger Lisa Emery said...

American Psychological Association Ethical Code:

8.07 Deception in Research
(a) Psychologists do not conduct a study involving deception unless they have determined that the use of deceptive techniques is justified by the study's significant prospective scientific, educational, or applied value and that effective nondeceptive alternative procedures are not feasible.
(b) Psychologists do not deceive prospective participants about research that is reasonably expected to cause physical pain or severe emotional distress.
(c) Psychologists explain any deception that is an integral feature of the design and conduct of an experiment to participants as early as is feasible, preferably at the conclusion of their participation, but no later than at the conclusion of the data collection, and permit participants to withdraw their data. (See also Standard 8.08, Debriefing.)

Egoism: As a research psychologist, I need to conduct studies on human subjects to fulfill my long-term goals of publishing papers that contribute to our knowledge of human behavior. In order to conduct these studies, I need to be able to justify my research methods to university review boards. If I do research involving arbitrary or distressing deception, I am likely to have my research slowed down or stopped by the IRB. Therefore, I should avoid using deception unless there is no other way to conduct the research, the deception will produce no long-term harm, and the research is valuable enough to justify the use of deception.

Virtue Theory: Psychologists are in the business of helping others. If psychologists gain a reputation of using deception in research, our profession may be viewed with mistrust by the public. If the public learns to mistrust us, they will not come to psychologists for help. Therefore, I should do my best to avoid using deception.

Utilitarianism: Since our goal is to maximize aggregate happiness, we must weigh whether the average benefit gained from conducting research using deception outweighs the average pain caused individuals who participate in our research. I will therefore only use deception if the research is of high value to society and causes as little distress or pain as possible.

Moral Rights: Each individual has the right to be treated with respect. Lying to someone is disrespectful. Therefore, if I should do my best to avoid using deception in research. (Or clear up the deception as soon as possible, if the deception cannot be avoided – not sure if this is even justifiable with a moral rights argument).

At 7:03 PM, Blogger travis breaux said...

(ACM Code of Ethics)

QUOTE: "1.7 Respect the privacy of others.

Computing and communication technology enables the collection and exchange of personal information on a scale unprecedented in the history of civilization. Thus there is increased potential for violating the privacy of individuals and groups. It is the responsibility of professionals to maintain the privacy and integrity of data describing individuals. This includes taking precautions to ensure the accuracy of data, as well as protecting it from unauthorized access or accidental disclosure to inappropriate individuals. Furthermore, procedures must be established to allow individuals to review their records and correct inaccuracies."

ANSWER: As a computing professional, if I fail to maintain the privacy and integrity of data describing individuals...

Egoism - I might be held personally liable for irreparable harm suffered by the individual should this data be inaccurate and used in decisions to disenfranchise the individual. For example, if the data inaccurately represented the individual as a convicted felon on a background check and they were subsequently refused employment on that basis. [1]

Virtue Theory - The data might be used by others to financially harm my employer; these costs would weaken our company's profits which may negatively affect our employee benefits.

Utilitarianism - Individuals will begin to distrust our ability to self-regulate as an industry and demand government intervention; ultimately costing tax payers money to develop new privacy regulations and perform industry oversight. [2]

Moral Rights - The individual has an inherent right to privacy, to be left alone and to be represented accurately to others.

At 9:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

J. M. Saquing
Dept. of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering

NSPE Code 4.1

Engineers shall seek opportunities to participate in civic affairs; career guidance for youths; and work for the advancement of the safety, health and well-being of their community.


Participation in civic affairs will promote good public relations and widen one’s network of potential clients. Excellent public relation is good for business and reputation. It will facilitate public support and approval of community infrastructure.

Virtue Theory:

Community service and advancement of safety, health and well-being of the public are amongst the traits expected of a good engineer. These activities exemplify virtuous conduct.


The advancement of safety, health and well being of the community is beneficial to every member of the society. Engineering design and systems are integral component of the infrastructure that sustains life in this world. An improperly designed sanitary landfill or bridge could incur environmental hazards not only to the present but also to the future generations. Therefore, it is important for engineers to consider public safety and welfare.

Moral Rights Theory:

Every member of the society has the right to live in a safe and healthy community. The future generations have also the right to live in a safe and healthy environment. So, engineers should not take for granted the safety factor incorporated in various designs. It is the right of the community to be served well.


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