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Don't we all have an innate understanding of fairness and justice?

Why do we need a code of ethics?

When it comes to ethics and morals, surely we all know right from wrong. Right?

Wrong. It’s not as simple as that, because we each have different moral codes.

As we just saw in the lottery ticket poll, individual moral codes mean that when faced with a dilemma, we will invariably make different choices to someone else making the same decision, in the same set of circumstances. While this makes sense, it can also be highly problematic. Does it beg the question: who has the right moral code?

A quick note on terminology before we get started

The terms ‘morals’ and ‘ethics’ are often used interchangeably, but they relate to different contexts. Morals are personal values whereas ethics guide values within professions and groups. To be ‘ethical’ is to conform to the norms and standards of a group. Let’s investigate the difference further.

Morals refer to your own beliefs and standards about what is right, fair and reasonable. They are shaped by your upbringing, your values and your personal experiences of life and people. Your ‘moral code’ is like an inner compass, guiding your decision making and behaviour. In your personal life, the consequences of these choices lie with you. They reflect on yourself and you alone are personally accountable.

What then if you make decisions that relate to your workplace, sporting club, political party or community of practice? If you are in a position of power and your decisions are questionable, the repercussions may have a broader and more damaging impact. Most likely, you will bring your profession or group into disrepute, along with yourself. This is where having different morals becomes sticky and where a defined code of ethics or conduct can assist.

How does a code of ethics help?

A code of ethics sets out the ground rules for decision making for people who belong to a group. It is a form of self regulation. The expectation is that you understand and agree to abide by the code of ethics as a condition of belonging to a profession or community of practice.

The aim of a code of ethics is to provide guidance for group members to avoid situations where people who are in a position of power can mistreat others. This may be power over a client, a patient, an employee or in the case of your research, the participant.

Think about ways that researchers could purposely or inadvertently make decisions that:

  • take advantage of a vulnerable research participant
  • use confidential information unethically
  • manipulate research data
  • discriminate against certain research participants.

These actions have the potential to destroy people’s lives and impact negatively on the perception of research in our world. Because we each have individual moral codes, ethical codes of conduct unite researchers by setting guidelines to protect participants and promote the integrity of the research community. You can think of it as a formalised agreement, providing guidance and defining the boundaries between what is considered ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in research.

The inherent power imbalance in research

When we talk about a ‘power imbalance’, we’re referring to an unequal distribution of personal power between two parties.

The party with less power is seen to be more vulnerable, as they don’t have the same level of control over what occurs within the relationship.

The party with more power is seen to be the dominant one. They are in a position to exert their power over the vulnerable party with their conduct and decision making.

In research, the most vulnerable parties are your participants. The power imbalance is significant when we consider these are the people you are hoping to:

  • observe, interview and record
  • test your theories on
  • collect personal information from
  • involve in your experiments and trials.

While no code of ethics or code of conduct can detail every situation you will encounter, a solid understanding of the principles of Beneficence, Nonmaleficence, Justice, Respect and Autonomy will serve to guide you in most cases.

In the next step we demystify these terms and explore each principle in more detail.

Your task

Select the comments link below and share at least one example in your own life where you were surprised to encounter a different moral code to your own. This may have been in a family, school or work setting. If nothing comes to mind for you personally, feel free to share a story of someone else’s experience.

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This article is from the free online course:

Why Ethics Matter: Ethical Research

Griffith University