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ETHICAL THEORY AND ETHICAL RESEARCH David Archard Professor of Philosophy, Lancaster University Member of the Lancaster University Research Ethics Committee.

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Presentation on theme: "ETHICAL THEORY AND ETHICAL RESEARCH David Archard Professor of Philosophy, Lancaster University Member of the Lancaster University Research Ethics Committee."— Presentation transcript:

1 ETHICAL THEORY AND ETHICAL RESEARCH David Archard Professor of Philosophy, Lancaster University Member of the Lancaster University Research Ethics Committee Member of the North-West Clinical Ethics Committee Deputy Chair, Ethics and Law Advisory Committee, Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority Chair, Licence Committee, HFEA

2 ESRC Research Ethics Framework Research proposals involving human participants must normally be reviewed and approved by a Research Ethics Committee (REC) which has been established and operates in accordance with the standards and guidelines set out in this Research Ethics Framework.

3 Codes of ethics The formulation, publication, and implementation of codes of ethics is the normal manner in which the ethical integrity of research is guaranteed Codes of ethics are formal statements of moral principles of relevance to conduct of research Such as: obtain informed consent of involved parties; respect confidentiality; preserve anonymity; They should be clear and accessible

4 Principles or phronesis To Aristotle is owed the idea that morality (and doing the right thing) is not a matter of following principles, but Acquiring (or following the example of those who have) Phronesis (practical wisdom) And each situation requires its own particular appreciation

5 A contrast There is thus in the history and theory of ethical thought a basic contrast between Principle-based theory that is general in form, and Can (and should) be applied to all situations in a consistent manner And Moral knowledge which tends to be Particularistic, and A matter of practical wisdom not the command of a theory

6 A further contrast Generally accepted that there are three broad moral theories that offer accounts of what is morally wrong (and why): Consequentialism: concerned with the outcomes of actions Deontology: concerned with the moral qualities of the actions Virtue theory: concerned with the character or nature of the agents

7 Different moral theories may agree on what is moral We should seek informed consent for anything involving another adult because: Doing so promotes better consequences overall than not doing so Each of us has a right to have our consent secured Morally good persons ask for consent

8 Moral theory and commonsense morality Ordinary commonsense moral judgements such as ‘Killing is wrong’ (or ‘Lying/breaking promises/cruelty/ is wrong’) Moral theory: ‘Do whatever produces the most happiness’ We may use our moral theory to improve (correct, refine, modify) our ordinary judgments: ‘Killing innocent human beings is wrong’ (so the execution of murderers or the killing in combat of enemy soldiers is not) Or we may use our ordinary judgements to correct (constrain, impose limits on, refine) our moral theory: ‘A moral theory - maximise happiness - which implies that killing any innocent human being is allowed cannot be correct’

9 Moral Expertise ‘At least one member must be knowledgeable in ethics’ Moral philosophers (‘ethicists’) do not have moral expertise in the sense that a judgment by a moral philosopher (‘Everyone ought to do x’) gives non- philosophers good (sufficient reason) to do x. Rather Argumentative and conceptual ‘coaching’: This is what ‘informed consent’ means That argument is invalid (does not establish the desired conclusion) It is inconsistent to claim ‘X is permissible’ and ‘Y is impermissible’

10 What codes of ethics are not They are not guarantors of morally exemplary research They merely rule out what is morally impermissible They are not guarantors of exemplary research Morally permitted programmes of research may be poorly designed, unoriginal and unproductive They are not equivalent to statements of what the law requires (or prohibits) But no code of ethics should permit what the law forbids

11 Reporting crime example It is not legally required that one report a crime (although it is considered good citizenship to do so) Should a code of ethics require those who engage in observational social science research in public places to do so? Note: it is unlikely (or impossible) to secure consent to being observed

12 What codes of ethics are (or should be) Publicly known Clear and unambiguous Universal in scope and application Conform to what we generally accept as moral standards Enforced impartially Interpreted consistently

13 Universal standards and cultural differences A statement of universally applicable ethical standards should be sensitive to cultural differences For instance, the requirement that informed consent be obtained should allow that Consent may be obtained in various ways – written, verbal But a sensitivity to cultural differences should not slip into moral relativism: If culture A thinks something is morally permissible whereas culture B thinks it is morally impermissible they are somehow both right

14 Codes of practices are general statements which can be variously interpreted ‘Harm to research participants must be avoided’ A classic principle of non-maleficence. But, Significant or trivial harm? Harms of omission or only commission? Risks of harm? Physical, reputational, psychological, emotional……. Harms that depend on moralised judgments

15 Codes of practice are applied by different committees Committees that interpret and enforce codes of ethics will Be constituted of different memberships with Different ethical sensibilities And different ethical commitments

16 Conclusion Good ethical practice in research should be informed by good ethical theory Even if this is indirectly by means of a code of ethics and a good process of ethical review But good ethical theory does not yield determinate answers in all cases And the role of theory in ethical reasoning is itself a matter of ongoing theoretical dispute


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