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An examination of ethical issues pertaining to educational research

Author - Greg Gallagher

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According to Guthrie, ‘moral and political philosophy first arose in Greece (which means that it first arose in Europe) in an atmosphere of scepticism’ (1978: 67). This scepticism is explained by Guthrie (1978), as a mistrust of the possibility of absolute knowledge. Prior to the arrival of Socrates (469-399 BC), Plato (c.429-347 BC) and Aristotle (384-322 BC) (Guthrie 1978: 67 refers to these three individuals as the greatest of the Greek philosophers), theories of physical science attempted to explain everything that was capable of being explained. After all, the foundations of physical science were based on immutable laws, which gave stability and permanence. The public however, reacted to this arrogance and the choice, as Guthrie (1978: 65) infers, of either accepting the theories of Parmenides [who advanced the view that non-existence was impossible, that everything was permanently in a state of being] or the atomists [who believed that everything had a materialist explanation]. This in turn gave rise to a more humanistic approach to explain reality as proffered by the itinerant teachers of the day called Sophists. Around the second half of the fifth century BC according to Guthrie (1978: 68), an Athenian called Archelaus; a pupil of Anaxagoras is reputed to have made the link between material laws and moral laws. Guthrie, describes this rational moral link as follows:

If hot and cold, sweet and bitter, have no existence in nature but are simply a matter of how we feel at the time, then, it was argued, must we not suppose that justice and injustice, right and wrong, have an equally subjective and unreal existence? There can be in nature no absolute principles governing the relations between man and man. It is all a question of how you look at it.
(Guthrie 1978: 68)

Almost two and a half thousand years later and some would argue that nothing has really been added to this interpretation. However, others would assert that the argument has been augmented and refined taking into account the various doctrines and schools of thought that exist within the field of ethical philosophy – intuitionism, naturalism, emotive theory, moral psychology, psychological egoism, existentialism, utilitarianism to name just a very small number of the myriad of those that exist.

The ethical debate received many contributions during the twentieth century, a period that saw the birth of many social sciences, which sought recognition in their own right as autonomous bodies of knowledge. The social sciences were also intertwined with ethics and the ethical debate predominantly as it affected the realm of research within their fields. How could the social sciences ensure that their integrity and valuable contributions would not be compromised by research, which was deemed to be unethical?

We must now look at the impact that ethical theory had on the social sciences and educational research in particular.

Ethics and social research

Science cannot resolve moral conflicts, but it can help to more accurately frame the debates about those conflicts.
Heinz Pagels, The Dreams of Reason (1988)

The origins of concerns about research ethics are to be found in medical research, but this has broadened to include all research with human subjects. It is interesting to note that Marshall, in his Dictionary of Sociology, defines ‘research ethics’ very comprehensively and succinctly. For him research ethics consists of:

The application of moral rules and professional codes of conduct to the collection, analysis, reporting, and publication of information about research subjects, in particular active acceptance of subjects’ right to privacy, confidentiality and informed consent.
(Marshall 1998: 566)

He goes on to state that until only recently both sociologists, and social scientists generally, often displayed ‘arrogance’ in their treatment of research subjects and justified this approach on the grounds that it was necessary to uncover the truth. Marshall (1998: 566) points out that this trend is now being addressed within industrialized societies by the adoption of formal codes of conduct and greater emphasis on ethical research procedures. The point is made by Marshall that:

Public opinion now resists invasions of privacy for genuine research purposes just as much as for publicity seeking mass media stories, as evidenced by periodic increases in survey non-response, despite the fact that anonymity is effectively guaranteed in large-scale data collections.
(Marshall 1998: 566)


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