In some of the research courses I teach, ethics is one of the topics we cover. In a university, ethics applies to many areas of our work including how we interact with our students and our research assistants, how we grade students’ work and how we conduct research.
Research involving human subjects must receive official approval from the university’s Independent Review Board (IRB) before we are allowed to begin our research. This applies equally to faculty and students.
Sometimes students are quite puzzled by this idea. They ask me, “Why does an independent board have to give you ethics clearance before you start a research project? Shouldn’t people just do the right thing?”
The problem is that sometimes people don’t do the right thing. Or they don’t think through what they are doing to understand what impact of their research or actions might have on others.
In 1971 Dr. Zimbardo conducted a psychological study that became known as the Stanford Prison Experiment. Stanford University students were used as research subjects in the study, which was designed to simulate prison life. The experiment was planned for two weeks, but the shut down the experiment after only six days. The students who were role-playing as guards had become sadistic and malicious. Those who were role-playing as prisoners became depressed and showed signs of severe stress.
The experiment revealed a great deal about human behaviour and how power in a relationship can be easily abused.
The Stanford Prison Experiment has become a classic case to talk about when we learn about professional ethics.
In today’s world, it is unlikely that the experiment conducted by Dr. Zimbardo over 40 years ago would receive ethics clearance from an independent review board. It’s not that Dr. Zimbardo broke any laws. It’s that the risks to the research subjects would be too high.
It is worth noting that professional ethics goes beyond research. Inevitably, our class discussions get around to ethical conduct as part of every day professional practice. Students begin to develop an awareness of how their actions, words and attitudes may be harmful or unethical. I often recommend that they read Better Ethics Now: How to Avoid the Ethics Disaster You Never Saw Coming by Dr. Chris Bauer. He demystifies the topic of ethics in plain and simple language that is easy to understand.
Sometimes they ask me, “How do I know if what I am doing is ethical?”
I usually answer them in two ways:
Firstly, if you have to ask yourself that question, then chances are good that there may be an ethical issue.
Secondly, if you are really not sure, ask yourself this: If your greatest mentor was standing by your side, would they be proud of you for what you did?
That question assumes, of course, that our mentors are ethical, too. More often than not, we put our mentors up on a bit of a pedestal. We want them to be proud of us and we would feel happy if we had their approval.
If our mentors or colleagues disapprove of our actions or question our judgement, we probably are not acting in an ethical manner. Ethics isn’t about doing what’s legal. It’s about doing what’s right.
Every day we are faced with ethical choices as part of our daily professional practice. Ethics can be learned and they can be improved. That’s one of the aspects of Dr. Bauer‘s book that I really like. He let’s us know that everyone is capable of improving and learning to be more aware and more ethical every day.
Professionalism goes beyond using polite language or wearing business attire. At the core of our day-to-day interactions and professional actions, we must take care that we are never causing harm to others or putting them at any sort of risk, particularly when we are in a position of power.
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.