Thursday, October 25, 2007

Ethics

I am well aware that it's been a full month since my last post. I guess it's been a rather busy month, as I submitted my doctoral thesis (woohoo!), moved out of Bristol (into storage), attended conferences in Finland and Singapore (where I am right now) and turned 30. Oh and I've begun looking for jobs. Hmm, not much time left over for formulating complete thoughts. But, as usual, loads of partial thought-processing. This month I have been pondering quite a bit the issue of ethics, so I am going to try to flesh out my thoughts here a little bit.

The ethical question that seems to keep coming up in conversations is that of standards. What standard should I be seeking to uphold ethically? In an academic sociology program, I have been taught a strict set of ethical guidelines for conducting social research. But when I attend events with Christians in ministry, those ethical guidelines are frequently dismissed as irrelevant. Their argument is that these are academic standards and non-academics are not required to follow them. And when talking about work outside of the U.S. or Europe, even less so, as there are almost no ethical rules to be enforced.

For example: if I take a picture of a stranger on the street and want to use it in a brochure or newsletter or website. According to academic ethical standards I would not publish that picture without the person's permission. According to U.S./European legal standards, I would not publish that picture without the person's permission unless I was sure that s/he simply blended into a crowd. According to most other countries' rules, it's probably alright for me to use the picture and even if it weren't allowed unlikely anyone would care. And it seems that Christians have numerous reasons why they think it's ok to use the picture and often do.

Until recently I would have used the picture, but I'm not so sure I would anymore. I think that's because, now that I've learned the rules that some people live by, I feel I should demonstrate a commitment to the highest of moral standards. I've always believed that high moral standards are an important testimony to all that is good in my relationship with Christ. So I try to stick to high ethical standards for the same reason as I try to dress decently and behave respectfully, because I know such things illustrate commitment to high moral standards.

Another example is "informed consent", something we are required to obtain when conducting research in academia. When interviewing someone or even observing him/her (not necessarily in a purely public context where one just blends into a crowd of people), that person has the right to know what I'm doing and why, and to choose not to participate. Legally (in U.S. and Europe), apparently the person has those same rights but might not be told "why" until after the participation is over. Elsewhere there are unlikely to be any such laws. But when I did my MA in Lebanon I was told that informed consent was important even in Middle Eastern academia.

In Christian circles this is not always considered the standard. Now, to be fair, journalists are famed for not using informed consent as a standard, either - hiding cameras and voice recorders or using "off-the-record" interviews in reports are the kind of thing that journalists seem to often do. But then don't we see those things as sleazy techniques?

OK, but on the other hand, I am often reminded that all rules are culturally-specific. The role of photos, who is portrayed in them, the obligation to be (or not to be) brutally honest with people - these are things that vary significantly from culture to culture. Especially honesty; in a lot of places a confrontational/brutal type of honesty is considered disrespectful, not admirable. Are academic ethical rules culturally-bound? In that case, they deserve to be disregarded when inappropriate.

I don't think they are culturally-bound. I think they are based on a foundation of basic respect for the dignity of each human being. Why informed consent? Because that person has autonomy over his/her person - not me. Why the limitations on the publication of photos? Same reason. In some cultures, autonomy is not an individual concept - it's the person's family that shares ownership of all of its members. But it's still not me, the outsider, who has the right to make his/her decisions. But maybe it's not that simple either.

What about the question of doing ultimate good? A lot of ethically-questionable decisions are justified because they are working toward an ultimate good. For example, I use that photo to pray for the person in the photo. I don't tell the person I'm observing or interviewing that I'm researching him/her, but it's ok because I will use what I learn to help him/her. So far, I'm not comfortable with this either; it seems to me that the person should still be included. But what if s/he doesn't accept prayer, or what if s/he thinks that the way I'll help him/her is actually unhelpful? Wow, that's a hard one.

Prayer is a thing that happens in the heart usually between me and God, so, picture or no picture, I may pray for that person anyway. In a sense, it's too arbitrary to ask someone's permission to pray for him/her - it's like asking for permission to think about someone. When we step into a public place we make ourselves vulnerable to the thoughts of anyone who encounters us there. But it is not so easy to know when it's ok (or not) to share that person's photo with others.

To address the question of "covert" research which will later used to help those being studied, let's use a benign example of a type of "help". Let's say that, based on the research I do, I open a community centre to provide food for children after school. Few people will find that unhelpful, but what if the people I researched don't want a community centre providing after-school nutrition? Did they not at least have the right to know that I was intentionally looking for a way to "help" them when I did the interview or observation?

As usual, I have come up with more questions than answers, but so far I have been able to bring all these questions under the umbrella of one single question: "If the person involved knew what I was doing, how would s/he feel about it?" If s/he wouldn't care if I told him/her, then it's probably ok. If s/he would feel abused then maybe I shouldn't do it. Or maybe I should explain to him/her my values such that s/he would appreciate my action. Any thoughts or advice as I continue to consider this??

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