Ethical research

When we think of research ethics, we tend to think across a range of separate areas – the behaviour of researchers towards their material (plagiarism, falsification etc.), towards other researchers (harassment, discrimination etc.) or towards the human or animal subjects of their research (physical or psychological harm or distress, social or economic damage, invasion of privacy or betrayal of confidentiality and so on).

Alex London’s important new book focuses very much on the third area, and specifically on medicine.[1]  His substantially elaborated case for research ’for the common good’ is largely framed within a medical context and with reference to low and middle income countries. 

His strong claim is that the research enterprise should be understood on fundamentally social terms.  “It is a division of social labor between a diverse range of stakeholders that requires the exercise of social authority and the utilization of social resources in order to fulfill a distinctively social purpose… the moral purpose of this social enterprise is to generate the knowledge and the means necessary to enable the basic social institutions of a community to effectively, efficiently, and equitably secure and advance the basic interests of their respective members” (17).

Although this claim is generalised here, most of the book reverts to participant research with a strong emphasis towards medical examples, and it is none the less impactful for that.  

I am interested in working through what this means for research more generally however, and specifically arts and humanities.  What are the consequences of this argument?

London develops his argument further towards the end of the book: “research stands in a special relationship to the basic structures of a community because it produces a unique public good. This public good is the information and means necessary to understand threats to the basic interests of community members, the causal processes involved in the lifecycle of such threats, to understand and develop alternative means of addressing those threats, and to clarify the relative merits of possible preventative or restorative strategies” (387).

Here the argument has moved on from the moral purpose of a social enterprise, that is research, to its place as a public good.  Now it is relatively straightforward to see this operating in medical research and the volume is timely in the context of COVID-19 and has evident consequences for the fair and equitable distribution of vaccines.

If one frames the question as to how arts and humanities research is a public good, the argument risks becoming an instrumentalization of what we do, and there are plenty of examples of research twisted to relevance, misshapen by a determination to demonstrate impact that is hard to discern or prove. This is true of some scientific research too, in fairness.  But I am keen to reframe the question altogether.

London does not (I think) quite make this argument, but his enterprise suggests that the trade offs and decisions necessary to deliver research that produces a public good are located precisely in the combination of arts and humanities and social sciences with sound data.  The answers will not be straightforward but a matter of fruitful debate, the terms of which are grounded in ethical, historical and social circumstances.

When London concludes by saying that research is embedded in complex social systems “into which it feeds, and that influence the incentives for stakeholders who advance the many different objectives out of which the larger tapestry of cooperation is woven,” (422) he begins to hint at the very broad notion of scientific research which is necessary to deliver the public good he has identified.

To be more concrete, our disciplinary boundaries are at their starkest when we fail to ground research sufficiently in the broadest systemic design.  To talk about health without talking about economics, or well being; to talk about health disparities without talking about historical inequalities; to talk about health systems without talking about the politicization of the body, and the differential value placed on life is profoundly limiting at best.  Indeed it would be better to say that you simply cannot talk about science without a deep historical and cultural contextualization of the object of science as well as an ethical one.

We can I think go further.  If we consider two of the crises we currently face, one from a pandemic and the other from climate change, it is easy to see that from the perspective of history, geography and economy they are closely linked.  The spread of the virus was swift because of the nature of our mobility, which was the product of a system which has contributed greatly to climate change.  The virus has exposed disparities and fractures in society which are themselves also products of economic systems which have contributed to our current predicaments; but these are also the ruptures in our social fabric and contract which are most likely to be exacerbated by a worsening climate.  And the tensions which arise are already affecting us all; water and food shortages are a geopolitical threat.

It is not that arts, humanities and social sciences have all the answers, but I would contend that they offer the critical and methodologically rigorous context and connections that bring research agendas together.  We have to think of systems not of individual problems; we must raise our sights to see how the common good which London identifies is not attainable without this broader view.  The social systems in which research is embedded are only explicable through the application of cultural, linguistic, historical, economic and philosophical lenses.

London’s argument therefore offers an interesting reframing of what an ethical scientific framework should look like.  It demonstrates that we need to bring all our insights to bear for research to deliver genuine public good. 

The answer is our appreciation of the interconnectedness of our past and our future, our study of human life and everything and everyone both present and future with which we share it, and of the richness of the notion of human flourishing which it is our privilege to explore.


[1] Alex John London, For the Common Good: Philosophical Foundations of Research Ethics, Oxford 2022 and available open access at https://www.cmu.edu/dietrich/philosophy/people/faculty/london.html.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s