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An examination of ethical issues pertaining to educational research

Author - Greg Gallagher


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The categorical imperative

The conception of worth, that each person is an end per se, is not a mere abstraction. Our interest in it is not merely academic. Every outcry against the oppression of some people by other people, or against what is morally hideous is the affirmation of the principle that a human being as such is not to be violated. A human being is not to be handled as a tool but is to be respected and revered.
Felix Adler (1851-1933), The Ethical Philosophy of Life

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) argued that when we are choosing how we should act under certain circumstances, we should apply criteria, which are capable of becoming universal principles. In other words, under comparable circumstances, other people could apply the same principles. Kant termed this approach to ethical problems the `categorical imperative'. Based on Kant's moral philosophy, individuals cannot be used as a means to an end. Kant points out that each person thinks of himself or herself as a rational creature that is entitled to dignity and respect. Consistency then requires that each person recognize the rational nature of other persons and thus recognize that other persons are also entitled to be treated with dignity and respect. This is why Kant argues that one cannot use another as a means merely to an end. In yet another formulation of the categorical imperative Kant argues that in a community or organization we are bound by rules but by rules that we ourselves would accept as rational legislators. Thus in such communities, which Kant calls kingdoms of ends, the members are all equally subject and sovereign.

This is, in effect, an ethics of respect for persons. In order to make sense of what is ethically permissible, it is necessary to point out that general ethics is theoretical, moral philosophy is practical and a code of ethics elucidatory. To paraphrase Evans and Jakupec (1996: 73): Research conduct is judged by the extent to which it is aligned to the moral agency recognizing the principle of respect of persons. It is not ethically permissible to violate participants’ self-purpose or self-determination.

There are four questions to be asked of researchers' conduct to ascertain whether research is ethically permissible:

  1. Does the researcher treat the individual as self-conscious, autonomous, free and rational?
  2. Is the purpose of the research in the interests of the research participant?
  3. Could the research data and findings be used for other than the intended purposes and do the participants understand this possibility?
  4. Does the research potentially make the participant an instrument of the research and/or the researcher?

Researchers in education need to be aware of the principles of free informed consent. Having made this point, May reminds us that this principle has inherent difficulties, specifically, concerning research on the Internet. He observes:

Not only do the bounds between the public and private aspects of life have the potential to become somewhat blurred, but also in seeking consent from respondents from whom should this be obtained? When a group is ‘virtual’ and subject to routine changes in its composition this creates problems for those seeking to follow such a doctrine.
(May 2001: 60)

Where there are conflicts, which need to be settled, guidance is required from codes of ethics, from colleagues, and direction from our institutions in the form of policies, procedures and guidelines.

If we accept the importance and legitimacy of having rules and guidelines to assist the process of research, then we must accept that researchers to some degree must be held accountable for the methods they use and also to some degree, for the relevance of the research carried out in the first place. But how exactly can researchers be held accountable, and what constitutes relevance?


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