While I was eating dinner today, I began to think about my thesis. I am FINALLY going to defend it in two weeks. While thinking about my thesis, I began thinking about research ethics. When a student undertakes research involving human subjects, she or he must submit their research proposal for IRB approval. The reason for this, or at least the reason we are given in Research Methods, is that this prevents harm to humans. Of course, if some minor harm comes to humans but there is great social benefit to the research, it may still be approved. History is full of unethical studies that caused harm to the subjects involved, such as the commonly cited examples of the Milgrim study, Tuskegee syphilis study, and the Stanford prison experiment. I can’t think of any qualms with research ethics as it seems rather basic that research should not harm people and if it does, this harm should be weighed against a greater good. (Of course, the greater good is subjective as is harm.)
With that said, institutions go to great lengths to make certain that research is ethical. However, this seems to be an island of ethics. Universities, or other institutions, do not account for ethics in much else aside from research. For instance, the apparel that sports teams wear or that is sold in bookstores may be made in sweatshops. The food that is served in dining services is likely sourced from factory farms. The treatment of these animals would not (at least I think) be accepted for IACUC approval if treated that way in the name of an experiment or research. There are also everyday, common place harms against students and workers at universities. For example, 75% of rape victims are women under the age of 25, many of which are college students. What structures and behaviors within campuses promote rape culture? If nothing is done to curtail this, or, if these structures and practices are even promoted, can an institution be considered ethical? When it comes to institutional decisions regarding everything BUT research, it seems that ethics are hardly considered.
That brings me back to my original idea. Can institutions conduct ethical research, when other aspects of their institution are not ethical? Research is submitted to the IRB on an individual basis, but the individual cannot be extracted from social context. For example, could Nazi German scientists conduct ethical research? While an individual Nazi may be able to conduct research that does not harm, if this individual is placed in broader social context it seems that ethical research is not possible. This is an extreme example, but I hope this clarifies my point. A research project that proposes that 350 women should be raped would be rejected, yet, in the broader social context, this does happen on campuses! This isn’t to argue that universities do nothing about these problems, but I think that many ethical issues are not on the radar or are taken as seriously as research. Ethics is squirmy- because right and wrong are debated concepts. But, at least in research there is a working definition of ethics as causing no harm. It therefore baffles me how ethics can be taken so seriously in some areas and not in others. Beyond this, I am not certain that any research is ethical, so long as humans are harmed by the institution wherein or whereby the research is conducted.
I don’t want to freeze knowledge or the exploration of ideas. I only want to call into question the compartmentalization of ethics. Research ethics should not be idealized as there is always harm, somewhere in the process, after the process, or before the process even began. Is harm inevitable? No. But it is an effect of larger systems of inequality and injustice. It is also an effect of the atomization and alienation of everyone. Our isolation and distance from the processes of how things are made or where things come from, render harm invisible to us.
What should be done? Would an ethical university only buy fair trade foods, sweatshop free apparel, cruelty free foods/cosmetics, and sustainability grown paper products? Would an ethical university offer free tuition, safe chemicals to custodians, bus rides, sustainable powered buildings, high wages to student workers, etc? There are many things that could be done. Certainly some of these things would make these institutions more ethical. But, at the end of the day, institutions are connected into the broader society- which itself is full of inequality and injustice. The point is, there are no islands of ethics. Researchers, institutions, communities, states, and countries are interconnected. If the connection between them is a socio-economic system that harms people, then ethics are not possible. This should not be taken with despair, but with the goal of enlarging ethics and branching out beyond research. Things can be better…and there can be less harm….but part of doing this is enlarging the circle.
In any event, that was my most thoughtful thought of the day and something I hadn’t considered before.