From Regulation to Virtue: A Critique of Ethical Formalism in Research Organizations

By Atkinson, Timothy N.; Butler, Jesse W. | Journal of Research Administration, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

From Regulation to Virtue: A Critique of Ethical Formalism in Research Organizations


Atkinson, Timothy N., Butler, Jesse W., Journal of Research Administration


Introduction

The research compliance system, both fiscal and non-fiscal, has some noticeable flaws that should be addressed, particularly with regard to excessive emphasis of and reliance upon formal regulations in research administration. Research administrators in the compliance field sometimes practice a form of "ethical formalism" in which rules and regulations outweigh other approaches to promoting ethical behavior in the research environment (Bell & Wray-Bliss, 2009). The tendency toward regulatory rigor evolved through government mandate and laws that were created in response to watershed events in ethical history, such as the infamous study of syphilis at Tuskegee. Research administrators had no choice but to enact compliance-oriented practices as the penalties for non-compliance with the federal regulations and mandates are severe. Through the force of law, ethical formalism, or a more extreme form of ethical compliance, became a necessity, and eventually an organizational myth in the pursuit of organizational survival, professional legitimacy, and control. Ethical formalism is the accepted and legitimized practice of absolute ethics in research administration, propelled by ethical saga, controlled by law, rules, policies, and, unfortunately, fear.

In this article, we argue that ethical formalism is not an optimal perspective alone, and that the organizational culture was formed by laws and rules outside the organizations' control, thereby failing to generate the adaptive guidance needed for the flourishing dynamic research environments. The analysis continues by offering some solutions for how the ethical formalistic perspective can be augmented through positive organizational practices and virtuous action (Cameron, Dutton & Quinn, 2003), and finally by creating organizational actors who stand as moral exemplars (Zagzebski, 2010) or leader-mentors (Cheatham, 2010; Gabriel, 2010) who bridge the gap between researchers, organizational leaders, and the regulations.

It is important to clarify that ethical formalism, as understood and analyzed here, has become the preferred approach to the guidance of ethical behavior within organizations. It is distinct from formal ethical theories intended to establish a foundation for ethics itself, such as the formal deontological ethics formulated by Kant as a universal basis for the moral imperatives required of rational agents in general. The issues we address pertain to how ethical conduct is implemented and maintained within and through organizations, rather than the origins of ethical normativity itself. The critique offered is an analysis of the shortcomings in relying upon formal authoritative rules and regulations as the sole source of behavior guidance among research administrators. This extreme ethical formalism should be augmented by the positive promotion of virtuous and responsible agent-based conduct through mentorship and moral exemplarism, irrespective of whatever particular theory or account informs the determination of what one ought or ought not to do.

To be clear, the proposal is not to remove or replace formal rules and regulations, but rather to recognize their limitations and the need for further positive processes towards effective ethical thought and action within research organizations. It is also important to clarify that the following argument is not a critique of research administrators as a professional group who practice compliance administration. On the contrary, both anecdotal and empirical evidence suggests research administrators are a vital professional group who strongly contribute to integrity in the research environment, but whose actions are constrained by political structures in their own organizations so that consistent application of law, policy, or perspective becomes difficult to achieve (Atkinson & Gilleland, 2007; Atkinson, Gilleland & Pearson, 2007). Control is truly a myth as some actors will defy the law or be ignorant of the law regardless of the pressure to comply.

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