Guided ethical dialogue is based on three key assumptions of building an ethically strong research community:
- Ethical issues are complex.
- Making ethical questions transparent and visible as early as possible increases the ability to create solutions before questions turn into problems.
- Ethical dialogue is a skill that can be learnt.
Guided ethical dialogue is an ongoing process. Ethical questions appear at different stages of research both due to the nature of research and the changes in the research environment. Research is at its core unpredictable and it is impossible to be prepared for where it will take us. New partners, unexpected results, and changes in the research knowledge can all generate new ethical concerns. Similarly, the research environment is fluid – new codes of conduct, agreements between partners, expectations for sharing and publishing can all create new ethical questions to consider.
Guided dialogue is based on two steps:
- Understanding the ethical question
- Reasoning and choosing how to respond to it
Understanding the question requires a regular checking into the process and identifying potential new ethical concerns. The concerns can be further explored by identifying stakeholders and rights/responsibilities of each stakeholder. An essential step in understanding the question is also starting to seek ways to respond to it – there is always more than one option – we can do something or nothing!
Once the question has been identified it is possible to approach it from three different perspectives. We can explore how different options would create harm and benefit for each of the identified stakeholder. This consequentalist approach suggests that ethically most appropriate answer is the one which maximises identified benefit and minimises the potential harm. The challenges appear is identifying and quantifying benefit/harm and comparing different types of harm and benefit with each other.
Alternative approach is to look at rules and principles. Every stakeholder has potential rights and responsibilities in each situation. With this approach ethically justifiable answer is the one that respects these rights and responsibilities that precede the actual ethical question. Codes of Conduct for Research Integrity and Responsible Conduct of Research guidelines are examples of rules and principles within the research context. Applying these in actual ethical questions requires further analysis and agreement of concepts like ‘substantial contribution’ or ‘respect for participants’.
The third perspective is offered by considering the decision-maker and the values that guide the decision-making process. Virtues are significant values that guide individual behaviour. These could include honesty, kindness, transparency for example. The decision-making process would reflect on each option and identify how well it aligns with the desired virtues and becoming the best version of oneself possible. Knowing and understanding values and holding onto them even when it is difficult presents a challenge in this approach.
When we approach ethical questions as a community, both steps of the process are important. Creating a shared understanding of the question is essential for an ability to seek an answer that will strengthen the community. The actual process of choosing a way to respond to ethical questions allows for the researchers to make visible both their key personal values as well as the values upon which research process is built.
Learning to use guided ethical dialogue has a lot to do with just giving it a go. Starting conversations around ethical questions. Reflecting on them personally and sharing the ideas and values with others. Understanding the three different ways to approach an ethical question gives tools to ask poignant questions and analyse what has been said. Ethics becomes something that we can put in the middle of the conversation and observe and analyse together rather than a source of differentiation or disharmony.