Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Principle and Process in the Ethics of Educational Research: Response to Robin Small

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Principle and Process in the Ethics of Educational Research: Response to Robin Small

Article excerpt

For readers of this journal, some background on the differences between cricket and baseball might be helpful. In cricket (as I understand it), the bowler throws the ball to a batsman. If the batsman fails to hit the ball, and it knock the wooden bails off the wicket, the batsman is out. A material effect occurs, and it is plainly visible to all participants. In baseball, the analogue is when a pitcher throws the ball to a batter, and the batter fails to hit the ball. In this instance, the umpire, positioned behind the catcher (analogous to the wicket-keeper), must make a judgement about whether the ball passes through the `strike zone', the rectangular air space from the batter's knees to chest-height, and across the width of the home base. The umpire is supposed to call a throw that passes through this space a `strike', and outside it, a `ball'. Since the throws from a pitcher sometimes exceed 100 miles per hour, and are frequently following a curved trajectory, the umpire's call is often a topic of great dispute among the competing teams' players, managers, and fans. Slow-motion video replays and computer-enhanced graphics are sometimes marshalled in the analysis (after the fact) of whether the umpire's call was `correct' or not. Certain umpires have notoriously generous strike zones, others are stingy; some give more latitude to high throws, others to low ones; and so on. There is no higher court of appeal.

All of this is background to the following famous baseball story, which goes that, during a particularly tense moment in a game, a throw came zipping in that brushed the very edges of the strike zone. The batter, pitcher, and catcher turned to ask the umpire, `What was that, a ball or a strike?' The umpire, taking his time, replied, `It ain't nothin' until I call it'.

It may be because of my upbringing with such sporting anecdotes that I have so little difficulty with Robin Small's central thesis, that we should accept the rock-bottom proceduralism of group deliberative processes in making judgements about research ethics, and stop trying to establish objective codes that such committees can `apply' to tell them what is right and wrong. Where judgements of ethical or unethical research conduct are concerned, `it ain't nothin' until they call it'.

In this essay, I want to focus more closely on some of the details, of Professor Small's argument: first to try to clarify, as I understand it, what he means by this claim; and second to suggest that the consequences of his argument are even more far-ranging than he seems to suggest.

Dr Small's argument goes through a change from the beginning to the end of his essay. At the outset he says, `I will effectively be claiming that ethics committees provide better means for making good ethical decisions than such codes. That is, my claim is that codes of ethics are not very useful, and that ethics committees can be very useful, if they work properly'. He says that it need not be entirely either/or, but that `when an ethics committee is working properly, it goes by procedures and precedents, and not by referring to any code of ethics'. Yet, at the end, he says, `What role remains for codes of ethics in this new perspective? A helpful suggestion is made by Andy Clark, who writes: "This reconception reveals such summary maxims as the guides and signposts that enable collaborative moral exploration". Here I think we have a sketch of the proper relation between codes of research ethics and the work of those groups of people who have to cope with ethical issues in educational research. We need not throw away our codes, but we should keep them in perspective'. I think you see the difficulty right away. An argument that begins by opposing codes and committees (principles and procedures) as alternative moral approaches, saying that committees are more useful than codes, ends by acknowledging that indeed codes can be very useful to committees, enabling the process of collective deliberation. …

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