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An examination of ethical issues pertaining to educational research

Author - Greg Gallagher

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The philosophy of ethics

I do not believe in the immorality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern without any superhuman authority behind it.
Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

Before examining ethical behaviour and the topical issues pertaining to the subject, it is probably best at this juncture to briefly explain what exactly we mean by ‘ethics’. The very nature of moral philosophy or ‘ethics’ is such that its very definition gives rise to much heated dialectical debate. That said however, it is important to attempt to define this field within the context of this paper, but bear in mind that no definition will find universal approval.

Fieser and Dowden, (2004) in their Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, offer the following definition: they assert that ‘The field of ethics, also called moral philosophy, involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behaviour’.

Marshall (1998), in his Dictionary of Sociology, attempts the following definition: ‘Ethics is often defined as the concern with what ought to be, whereas science (including social science) is concerned with describing reality as it actually exists’. He goes on to state that social science should be ‘value free’ or ‘value neutral’. He acknowledges however, that the practice of social science investigation (both the means and goals) is ‘intrinsically bound up with ethical considerations’.

As pointed out by Raphael (1980: 1) in the introduction of his book Moral Philosophy, ‘the main purpose of philosophy, as practised in the Western tradition, is the critical evaluation of assumptions and arguments’. He goes on to point out that all societies and cultural groups tend to simply accept ‘without question’, beliefs and conventions inherent within those societies. Raphael (1980) uses the example of the beliefs held by primitive tribes or societies believing in witchcraft to highlight the point that some societies believe in things far removed from the mainstream current Western belief system. The point is well made and accentuates one of the fundamental purposes of philosophy, which is to examine all of our underlying assumptions and inherited beliefs, and to consider whether we have good reason to follow them. It may well be that we have: but at least we will have used reason and self-reflection to give personal meaning to what we believe in. If however, we find that we cannot support the underlying assumptions, then we must either suspend judgement or else find a new framework of belief.

Questioning traditional assumptions that underlie our culture, and the ability to reach new ones is part of the evolution of humankind. It is the ability to do this that has enabled humankind to progress to the level that we have, and is one of the key characteristics that differentiates us from all other animals. Philosophy has greatly assisted this process.

Philosophical analysis today tends to refer to a loose family of practices, or styles that maintain a dedication to consistency, clarity, rigour, some degree of scepticism and a careful examination of language to assist us in being more adept in understanding important aspects of our lives and the nature of humankind as a social animal.

Each and every one of us that is capable of rational thought, to some degree has engaged, whether consciously or unconsciously in philosophical thoughts. It should be remembered that the term ‘philosophy’ is made up of two Greek words, namely, philo- meaning love of and sophos- meaning wise. This point is mentioned to help us understand the nature of philosophy and what it ultimately stands for.

Although the terms ‘moral’ and ‘ethical’ tend to be used interchangeably as synonyms, it is important to point out that there is a technical difference within the field of philosophy. Namely, ‘moral’ or ‘morality’ is a broad descriptive term. In the philosophical literature, the most general term for the consideration of what we ought to do, think, feel or be is ‘ethics’. The term ‘morality’ in philosophical literature refers to a subset of ethics that notably came to prominence in Europe, and which focuses on our obligations and what is right. That being said however, no such distinction will be made in this paper, and both terms will be used interchangeably to include the broad and narrow sense outlined.

Philosophy, in all matters attempts to be rational and in this regard it shares a common objective with science. Raphael makes an interesting point in describing how philosophy differs from science when he notes:

the practitioner of a particular science is not so likely to see, or to be able to cope with, apparent inconsistencies between two general fields of science ... or between his field of science and some other well-established body of thought.
(Raphael 1980: 6)

The philosopher by his or her nature must adopt an overall view on a topic of analysis relative to all of the components of reality. This is sometimes referred to as a ‘helicopter view’ in that the philosopher must rise above any given situation and view the full picture in a holistic, thorough and concise manner. Questions must be answered, but answers must be questioned. The philosopher will question matters both epistemologically (how we know what we know) and ontologically (the way we understand the world). This distinction is important and is a key determining differentiation between the scientist and the philosopher.

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