Research ethics as moral assurance system

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogModern society seems to be driven by skepticism. As philosophers systematically doubted the senses by enumerating optical and other illusions, our human ability to think for ourselves and take responsibility for our professional activities is doubted by enumerating scandals and cases of misconduct in the past.

The logic is simple: Since human practices have a notorious tendency to slide into the ditch – just think of scandals x, y and z! – we must introduce assurance systems that guarantee that the practices remain safely on the road.

In such a spirit of systematic doubt, research ethics developed into what resembles a moral assurance system for research. With reference to past scandals and atrocities, an extra-legal regulatory system emerged with detailed steering documents (ethical guidelines), overseeing bodies (research ethics committees), and formal procedures (informed consent).

The system is meant to secure ethical trustworthiness.

The trustwortiness of the assurance system is questioned in a new article in Research Ethics, written by Linus Johansson together with Stefan Eriksson, Gert Helgesson and Mats G. Hansson.

Guidelines, review and consent aren’t questioned as such, however. (There are those who want to abolish the system altogether.) The problem is rather the institutionalized distrust that makes the system more and more formalized, like following a checklist in a mindless bureaucracy.

The logic of distrust demands a system that does not rely on the human abilities that are doubted. That would be self-contradictory. But thereby the system does not support human abilities to think for ourselves and take responsibility.

The logic demands a system where humans become what they are feared being.

The cold logic of distrust is what needs to be overcome. Can we abstain from demanding more detailed guidelines and more thorough control, next time we hear about a scandal?

The logic of skepticism is not easily overcome.

Pär Segerdahl

We challenge habits of thought : the Ethics Blog

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