Back to basics: A quick reminder on facing ethical dilemmas

By: Vinita J. Witanachchi, JD

An ethical dilemma is defined as “a situation that will often involve an apparent conflict between moral imperatives, in which to obey one would result in transgressing another.” As researchers, we face ethical dilemmas in our everyday professional lives.

When you are faced with an ethical dilemma as a researcher, how do you handle it? Though you may have your own methods, I believe that sometimes it helps to take a step back and try some new approaches. No matter where you are in your career, it might be helpful to:

  • Discuss the situation with a senior researcher, or another co-worker, who may have already encountered a similar situation. You never know what their perspective will bring.
  • Familiarize yourself with the accepted ethical standards and, if you need to, consult with a subject matter expert.
  • Ask more questions! Gather as much information as possible by talking to colleagues from other institutions and exploring different options. No matter what you find, as a researcher, you need to make choices.

Additionally, you will have to justify your decisions, and articulate your thought process in arriving there. It can never hurt to ask yourself personal questions such as:

  • Which of the options is the most just, respectful, and beneficent?
  • What does my instinct say?
  • How would the wisest person you know in your professional life react to a similar situation?
  • Which of the options will have the best overall result?
  • Which option may bring on publicity and/or scrutiny?

While there is no guarantee that one’s subjective reasoning will align with accepted ethical standards, if you take a moment and go back to basics, you’re more likely to be comfortable enough to defend your position and the reasoning behind it. Are you a PRIM&R member who’s interested in contributing to Ampersand? Contact us at 617.423.4112 ext. 14 or by e-mail, and learn more about being a PRIM&R guest blogger.