An examination of ethical issues pertaining to
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:
- Does the researcher treat the individual as self-conscious,
autonomous, free and rational?
- Is the purpose of the research in the interests of the research
- Could the research data and findings be used for other than
the intended purposes and do the participants understand this
- 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?