As you probably know, I am interested in research ethics in the real world. The global pandemic has highlighted a number of difficult real-world ethical questions. These are always with us, but usually they rumble away in the background. Now they are occupying a lot of column inches, airwaves, and discussion time.
At national level, how should we balance people’s health needs with a country’s economic needs? We are seeing very different conclusions about this being drawn and implemented in different parts of the world. It is easy to say ‘we should all have done what New Zealand did’ but New Zealand is an island nation, over 1,000 miles from the nearest land mass, with a small population of highly co-operative citizens and an intelligent and empathic leader. Imagine a country with a couple of land borders, a large population of citizens who prize individual freedom over co-operation, and a sociopathic leader. I expect you can think of one or two which fit that description. So clearly not every country could have done what New Zealand did.
I learned early in my research career, from Strauss and Corbin’s book on grounded theory, that absolutes are red flags for ‘not enough ethical thinking’. So, while ‘we should all have done what New Zealand did’ might pass muster at the dinner table, the ‘we should all’ formulation raises my ethical antennae. So do words like ‘always’ and ‘never’, or their more subtly presented equivalents such as ‘everyone knows…’ or ‘that’s not how we do things around here’. As researchers, we need to learn to spot these red flags and then think beyond them.
A perennial difficulty for any kind of democratic government is to balance the need to create policy with the individual and collective freedoms of its citizens. If a policy is too vague, the citizens wail, ‘they’re the government, they should be making things clear’. If it is too specific, the citizens bellow, ‘they’re overstepping their authority, they can’t tell us what to do’. How can we write policy which is just specific enough?
Even when policy is really specific – ‘stay home, save lives’ – people don’t always comply. Everyone, all of the time, is balancing their own physical and mental health needs with the needs of others: family, friends, employers, creditors and so on. We all know people who didn’t entirely comply with the lockdown rules. Most of us are those people. I know I am. I broke the rules twice, once to buy a flowering shrub to plant in my garden while my mother, who died from COVID19 in April, was being cremated with none of her family present; and once to drive a few miles to see a friend for a distanced walk around country lanes during the difficult early phase of bereavement. I also took myself into isolation around 10 days before my government required me to do so. We all make up our own minds how much, or how little, to comply with policy and regulations. We think we’re right, or at least justified, in our actions.
This highlights more difficult ethical questions: who is right, and how do we decide? Freedom of speech is a fine principle and, like all principles, requires people to exercise responsibility alongside their rights. In a modern democratic society, we might decide that freedom of speech is not permitted where that speech incites hatred and abuse of others. That means misogynistic, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and other such statements are not allowed because women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ people, Jewish people and others have a right to live free from oppression, This trumps the freedom of speech of those who would oppress. So far, so straightforward – in theory, if not, alas, in practice. How, though, do we decide who is right in arguments which don’t run along such easily identifiable lines of oppression? What about the pro- and anti-vaccination movements? Vaccination has become very topical in recent months. The pro-vaccination movement cites scientific evidence and protection of vulnerable people; the anti-vaccination movement cites a range of evidence sources and freedom of choice; and religious arguments are cited by religious people to support both sides of the debate. This causes more difficulties at policy level: should governments support public health by making vaccinations compulsory, or support individual liberty by making them optional?
One question we should always ask ourselves as researchers is: ‘those people who think differently from me, what if they are right?’ It’s important to read arguments that we disagree with, and to consider them carefully. Why do we disagree? What can we learn from other arguments? And it is essential that we are willing to change our minds. If we don’t deal with all evidence as even-handedly as possible, how can we expect others to take seriously the evidence we generate?
Our own views are part of our identity, and we cannot understand our identity without understanding the existence of others. Also, identity is not singular but plural: one person may be a man, a father, an artist and an academic; another may be non-binary, a mother, a football player and an evaluation researcher. Each identity is affiliated with a group of people who also hold that identity. And each identity and group has its ‘others’: people of other genders, ethnicities, political persuasions, religious beliefs, and so on. This is an inescapable part of human life. As researchers, we need to consider the role of our own identities. Who are our ‘others’? How does this affect our work?
These are not easy questions – but then that’s ethics for you!
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