Mon 27 Feb 2006 01:02 PM

I was thinking about something in the neighborhood of research ethics and thought that I should make a short blog post about it. I realized that the point I had in mind depended on a bunch of context, so I wrote the following screed:

Several years ago, I worked on The Responsible Conduct of Research with Mike Kalichman. (RCR is a euphemism for research ethics, with the caveat that it never recommends violating official regulations.) My duties were largely editorial. Mike had written a book that he wanted cut apart and restructured as material for a website.

In addition to discussing rules and official regulations, each topic contains separate sections for Principles and Guidelines. The Principles are middle level ethical claims about the domain (eg, Authorship). The Guidelines are more specific, raising issues relevant to specific kinds of decisions within the domain.

I do not recall how much of this was Mike's original framework and how much was my contribution, but I think that this was the structure of some sections but not others when I started work. In fleshing out the framework, I had to formulate principles for every topic. Moreover, I had to write explanatory justifications for each principle.

These justifications proceeded along three familiar lines: (1) Don't cause suffering. (2) Respect people. (3) Try to generate knowledge and dispel ignorance.

If I had written the Ethics page for the RCR website, I would have made these higher principles explicit. They can be elaborated in the usual way. One feature of them that I rather like is that they correspond to the Peircean categories of Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness.

A defense of the higher principles is beyond the scope of most discussions of RCR. It is philosophers' business, important if we want to justify the principles-- and any such business can embrangle us in details and difficulties from which we might never emerge.

For some purposes, it may be essential to revisit the ethical underpinnings of the principles. For example: (1) is often taken to include the suffering of animals, but (2) may or may not include respect for animals. Why? And what about fetuses? What about animal fetuses? Plants and spores?

One strategy is to show that many differing ethical theories can agree on the principle even when they disagree on its justification. Failing that, if each interlocutor accepts them for their own private reasons, then we can take them as more-or-less given. This makes applied ethics tractable without waiting for the more abstract questions to be resolved.

The RCR website breaks this down further, by suggesting that the higher level principles overdetermine some lower level principles. The lower level principles provide common ground even if there is disagreement as to exactly how they should be justified. Intermediate levels may be introduced as much as required, incrementally moving from abstract considerations down to brass tacks.

The Ethics page was written by Mary Devereaux, after I left the project. She lists something like the three principles I had in mind and adds a fourth, calling for "A commitment to the use of scientific knowledge and its applications to promote the social good." This is not a consequence of the principles I had in mind, and I am not sure it belongs on the list. Several reasons: The first three are directly relevant to how one should conduct oneself once involved in a research project; this other principle comes into play only when considering what job to take or-- if one is in a position of authority-- which research projects to pursue. The first three clearly make demands on any scientist; the fourth may be supererogatory. (Is it? Maybe.) There is no Peircean Fourthness; a fortiori there can be no fourth principle.

Nevertheless, the fourth principle seems like an important thing for scientists to think about. It belongs on some list, somewhere in the neighborhood of RCR.

(Having finished the screed, I've lost track of the original point.)