Ethics in research: follow-up 4

Thanks for alerting me to the Clark and Shaft (2007) that expertly addresses the multiple potential for truths in a single event. Their observation that “multiple conceptions of truth or ‘right’ may, at times, come into direct conflict” (p. 400) complements my earlier point that social scientists may find themselves in a position where they cannot predict which ‘truth’ will emerge from the intersections in their data/ methodology/ methods and so on.

I would like to address one ethical issue Clark and Shaft bring up, and to do so, I will deliberately use an extreme example. In doing so, I realise that there is the potential for others to perceive offence, although I mean absolutely not to give offence. I do this because this week is reserved for considerations of ethics, but ethics itself cannot be understood without recourse to the values present in society (Halstead & Taylor, 1996). Furthermore, Clark and Shaft refrain from a discussion that I feel is essential if their argument is to carry the weight it deserves. The underlying value that generates their discussion is the implicit need to avoid hurt or injury. However, this question needs to be asked: is hurt always bad, or are there times when the hurt of an individual is justified when the larger good can be established?

Many examples of individual hurt come to mind. Perhaps the most egregious is that of eugenics. Eugenics became associated with evil following WWII (Kevles, 2016), yet at the turn of the 20th century the notion of selective breeding for future generation strength in animals had been established and it seemed natural to wish for the development of humanity in a similar way (Kevles, 2016). The idea of eugenics is abhorrent to many even today, but the use of stem cell technology and foetal tissue for research constitutes a modern form of eugenics which has resulted in much common good (Kevles, 2016). Kevles (2016) argues that eugenics is likely to become an issue at the familial level, rather than from governmental directives, as families utilise progressively utilise advances in modern technology to alter and strengthen their offspring. The movie Gattaca comes to mind.

In social science research, I could find nothing about the moral value of hurt in the short time I had today, and what I could read was unanimously in favour of avoiding individual hurt. If anyone knows of a relevant resource, please let me know. I was reminded, however, of Perry’s influential Scheme (Perry, 1970) in which he delimitates nine ethical and developmental positions. He discusses how teachers help students develop from lower to higher positions, and he uses the term “shock” to describe the reaction some students have when experiencing alternative views of truth. I do not suppose that “shock” equates with “hurt”, but the notion of Perry shocking students out of a comfortable epistemology into a higher state of being—potentially against their will—corresponds somewhat with the role of a researcher who finds that their access to an uncomfortable truth presents ethical problems. So why is it acceptable to hurt, or shock, students but not to do so with informants or even ourselves as researchers if there is a utilitarian overall benefit for society?


Clark, M. C., & Sharf, B. F. (2007). The Dark Side of Truth(s) Ethical Dilemmas in Researching the Personal. Qualitative Inquiry, 13(3), 399–416. doi:10.1177/1077800406297662

Halstead, J. M., & Taylor, M. J. (1996). Values in education and education in values. (J. M. Halstead & M. J. Taylor, Eds.)Values in education and education in values. London: The Falmer Press.

Kevles, D. E. L. J. (2016). The History o f Eugenics. Issuesin Science and Technology, (45-49).

Perry, W. G. (1970). Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a national university.
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