6.7.3 Think of research ethics as continuous, not discrete

Debate about the ethics of social research in the digital age frequently happens in binary terms; for example, Emotional Contagion was either ethical or it was not ethical. This binary thinking polarizes discussion, hinders efforts to develop shared norms, promotes intellectual laziness, and absolves researchers whose research is labeled “ethical” from their responsibility to act more ethically. The most productive conversations that I’ve seen involving research ethics move beyond this binary thinking to a continuous notion about research ethics.

A major practical problem with binary conceptions of research ethics is that it polarizes discussion. Calling Emotional Contagion or Taste, Ties, and Time unethical lump these studies together with true atrocities in a way that it is not helpful. Moving away from binary thinking and polarizing language is not a call for us to use muddled language to hide unethical behavior. Rather, a continuous notion of ethics will, I think, lead to more careful and precise language. Further, a continuous notion of research ethics clarifies that everyone—even researchers who are doing work that is already considered “ethical”—should strive to create an even better ethical balance in their work.

A final benefit of a move toward continuous thinking is that it encourages intellectual humility, which is appropriate in the face of difficult ethical challenges. The questions of research ethics in the digital age are difficult, and no single person should be so confident in her own ability to diagnose the correct course of action.