Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Ideas on Ethics

Ethics is a tricky issue. There are just too many flavours: professional ethics, personal ethics, research ethics, institutional ethics, etc. And the recipes for effective research ethics aren't specific as to proportions and seasonings. I'm not even sure if a recommendation such as "two parts professional ethics, one part institutional ethics, with a dash of sympathy for the common man [sic]" would necessarily help. Instead, I just need to wrestle with some of these issues (nb. I'm already governed by a few flavours of ethical codes--ALA and Professional Engineers of Ontario--and institutional ethics!)

To better understand ethics issues I'm just going to play with them and kick some ideas around. It seems that many of my recent projects have revolved around social networks and communities of practice so I intend to analyze Flinders's (1992) ontology of ethics--utilitarian, deontological, relational, and ecological--using some of my newly discovered concepts and pull quotes.

Utilitarian Ethics

As Flinders notes, utilitarian ethics have been around for a while and provide a sound basis for ethical thought. The basic concept is utility i.e., the most potential benefit for the least cost. Jeremy Bentham is generally considered to be one of the fathers of utilitarianism and we shouldn't let his eccentricities bias our conception of utilitarian ethics (Bentham's head is embalmed and on display at University College London ). As Flinders notes, however, it becomes difficult to objectively determine the value of particular benefits since value itself is a subjective and socially driven animal. In the back of my mind I have two images floating about: the swimming tadpoles of Deleuze and Guattari's Rhizome Theory (1987) and the WWI trenches portrayed by Axelrod (2003 [1984]). The tadpoles merely swim around any obstruction--such as artificial constructions of value--while groups of individuals collectively and tacitly agree not to engage in particular practices (such as killing people in the other trench) despite the best efforts of authority.

Deontological Ethics

Many of our ethical concerns may be addressed by following codified rules such as those provided by institutions and professional bodies. Codified information, however, always poses reader-response type problems (see discussion in Barnes, 1994). Wenger presents another perspective:

"Any practice--even the most verbal--will have tacit aspects that are revealed by demands outside its regime of competence. By overlooking issues of boundary, schemes for classifying knowledge into types often place too much emphasis on individual cognition and thus on solutions to problems that do not take advantage of the landscape of practices." (Wenger, 1998 pg. 140)

As I write this, I realize that Axelrod and Rhizomes are again applicable. Rules and codes are inherently driven by a local context and are subject to the limitations of that context especially when practitioners are at the bounds of that context (as in the case of original research). As we span boundaries and stretch the limits of a particular context or field, the codes may or may not stretch with us.

Relational Ethics

I find relational ethics particularly interesting: we are to treat our subjects as if we have a special relationship with them. This concept somehow smacks of John Stewart Mill and individual liberty. Unfortunately, Marx did away with individual liberty in favour of power relations. Regardless, the concept of relational ethics inherently involves a network of individual actors with their own requirements and desires. Relational ethics may seem like a face valid construct but I feel that it rightly belongs as a subset of ecological ethics.

Ecological Ethics

Any network involves a crucial problem: bridging the epistemic gap through brokering:

"The job of brokering is complex. It involves processes of translation, coordination, and alignment between perspectives. It requires enough legitimacy to influence the development of a practice, mobilize attention, and address conflicting interests." (Wenger, 1998 pg. 109)

There's a whole body of literature on negotiating these gaps. Most of the theories, however, represent some sort of explicit thing like "boundary objects" (Bowker & Star, 1999) or "trading languages" (Galison, 1999) but many of the rules governing society are tacit. Hayek sums it up nicely when he says:

"In the kind of society with which we are familar, of course, only some of the rules which people in fact observe, namely some of the rules of law (but never all, even of these) will be the product of deliberate design, while most of the rules of morals and custom will be spontaneous growths." (Hayek, 2003 [1976] pg. 231)


So where does all of this leave me? I really don't know. I'm suddenly confused as to why we need ethics at all. Shouldn't our socially constructed practices be enough? Or do our codes of ethics only really apply to Dooley's "demented social researchers" (Dooley, 1990) who want to abduct us off the streets? This one is going to require some more thought...


Axelrod, R. (2003 [1984]). The Live-and-Let-Live System in Trench Warfare in World War I. In M. Hechter & C. Horne (Eds.), Theories of social order : a reader (pp. 273-282). Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Social Sciences.
Barnes, T. J. (1994). Probable writing: Derrida, deconstruction, and the quantitative revolution in human geography. Environment and Planning A, 26, 1021-1040.
Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (1999). Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus : capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Dooley, D. (1990). Social research methods (2nd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
Flinders, D. J. (1992). In search of ethical guidance: constructing a basis for dialogue. Qualitative Studies in Education, 3(2), 101-115.
Galison, P. (1999). Trading Zone: Coordinating Action and Belief. In M. Biagioli (Ed.), The science studies reader (pp. 137-160). New York; London: Routledge.
Hayek, F. A. (2003 [1976]). Cosmos and Taxis. In M. Hechter & C. Horne (Eds.), Theories of social order : a reader (pp. 221-236). Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Social Sciences.
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice : learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press.


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