Global Ethics: A Deja Vu Experience

by Michael (Mike) Kraten, PhD, CPA, IRB Chair at Providence College

PRIM&R is pleased to share a post from Mike Kraten, a member of the PRIM&R Blog Squad for the 2014 Advancing Ethical Research (AER) Conference. The PRIM&R Blog Squad is composed of PRIM&R members who will blog here, on Ampersand, about the conference to give our readers an inside peek of what happened December 4-7 in Baltimore, MD. 

Have you ever experienced a sense of deja vu? A feeling of having lived through a moment in another life?

I lived through such a moment as an audience member at a plenary discussion on Friday titled “Global Research Ethics: Challenges and Strategies – Past, Present, and Future”. However, instead of reliving a moment from a previous life, I re-experienced a question that I am now struggling to answer in a different life.

You see, I am not a full-time researcher. My professional life includes teaching responsibilities, and I regularly challenge my students to consider the ethical ramifications of business decisions. During Friday’s discussion, a panelist answered a question about research ethics that startled me, as it addressed the very question that I’ve been struggling to answer about business ethics.

Early in the session, Robert J. Levine, MD, of Yale University spoke about inconsistencies between various international codes of research ethics. He explained that any decision to adhere to one code could force researchers to violate other codes. Later, during the question and answer period, an audience member asked him for advice about what to do in situations where national codes conflict with international codes. What was Dr. Levine’s response? “I don’t really know what to do.” It was an extremely honest answer to a question that is far too complex to permit a simple reply. Of course, he then went on to provide some helpful advice anyway.

As a teacher in a School of Business, I train students to manage ethical dilemmas in commercial contexts. For instance, I recently worked with the global accounting firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) to develop a teaching case called Save The Blue Frog! In the case, an American energy company must pay a “gratuity” to a government official in an emerging nation to secure a contract to develop a renewable energy resource with immense social and economic value. Although such payments are perfectly ethical in the emerging nation, they are clearly considered unethical (and illegal) in the United States.

When my students ask me what to do in such situations, how do I respond? As did Dr. Levine, I reluctantly reply, “I don’t really know what to do.” And then, like Dr. Levine, I try to offer helpful advice anyway. Participating in the panel made me realize that the challenge of addressing inconsistencies in ethical codes isn’t solely a research issue. And it isn’t solely a business issue, either. It’s a universal issue that must be addressed whenever different cultures collaborate to address common challenges.