Most debates about research ethics reduce to disagreements between consequentialism and deontology.
These four ethical principles of Respect for Persons, Beneficence, Justice, and Respect for Law and Public Interest are themselves largely derived from two more abstract ethical frameworks: consequentialism and deontology. Understanding these frameworks is helpful because it will enable you identify and then reason about one of the most fundamental tensions in research ethics: using potentially unethical means to achieve ethical ends.
Consequentialism, which has roots in the work of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, focuses on taking actions that lead to better states in the world (Sinnott-Armstrong 2014). The principle of Beneficence, which focuses on balancing risk and benefits, is deeply rooted in consequentialist thinking. On the other hand, deontology, which has roots in the work of Immanuel Kant, focuses on ethical duties, independent of their consequences (Alexander and Moore 2015). The principle of Respect for Persons, which focuses on the autonomy of participants, is deeply rooted in deontological thinking. A quick and crude way to distinguish the two frameworks is that deontologists focus on means and consequentialists focus on ends.
To see how these two frameworks operate, consider informed consent. Both frameworks could be used to support informed consent, but for different reasons. A consequentialist argument for informed consent is that it helps to prevent harm to participants by prohibiting research that does not properly balance risk and anticipated benefit. In other words, consequentialist thinking would support informed consent because it helps prevent bad outcomes for participants. However, a deontological argument for informed consent focuses on a researcher’s duty to respect the autonomy of her participants. Given these approaches, a pure consequentialist might be willing to waive the requirement for informed consent in a setting where there was no risk, whereas a pure deontologist might not.
Both consequentialism and deontology offer important ethical insight, but each can be taken to absurd extremes. For consequentialism, one of these extreme cases could be called Transplant. Imagine a doctor who has five patients dying of organ failure and one healthy patient whose organs can save all five. Under certain conditions, a consequentialist doctor will be permitted—and even required—to kill the healthy patient to obtain his organs. This complete focus on ends, without regard to means, is flawed.
Likewise, deontology can also be taken to awkward extremes, such as in the case that could be called Time bomb. Imagine a police officer who has captured a terrorist who knows the location of a ticking time bomb that will kill millions of people. A deontological police officer would not lie in order to trick a terrorist into revealing the location of the bomb. This complete focus on means, without regards to ends, also is flawed.
In practice, most social researchers implicitly embrace a blend of these two ethical frameworks. Noticing this blending of ethical schools helps clarify why many ethical debates—which tend to be between those who are more consequentialist and those who are more deontological—don’t make much progress. Consequentialists generally offer arguments about ends—arguments that are not convincing to deontologists, who are worried about means. Likewise, deontologists tend to offer arguments about means, which are not convincing to consequentialists, who are focused on ends. Arguments between consequentialists and deontologists are like two ships passing in the night.
One solution to these debates would be for social researchers to develop a consistent, morally solid, and easy-to-apply blend of consequentialism and deontology. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen; philosophers have been struggling with these problems for a long time. However, researchers can use these two ethical frameworks—and the four principles they imply—to reason about ethical challenges, clarify trade-offs, and suggest improvements to research designs.