Constructing a Coherent Philosophical Basis for Research Ethics

Dissertation, Australian National University (2017)
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Abstract

The purpose of this dissertation is to identify some of the most pressing problems in the dominant contemporary approach to research ethics, and to devise an alternative approach that avoids these problems. I contend that the fundamental ethical values invoked in human research are often appealed to in contradictory or ambiguous ways, or in ways that do not adequately capture or do not show an adequate understanding of the specific ethical concerns of human research. One significant problem in this domain is that values for ethical research are often unreflectively imported from medical therapy, producing ill-suited guidelines that cannot capture the different ethical situations that arise in the context of research. Furthermore, ethical guidelines in this area are often not developed with a sufficient understanding of the deep philosophical issues that they invoke. I suggest that we can address these problems through examining the fundamental ethical concerns of research on a philosophical level. This method will reveal severe problems with the approach to two of the ethical values underlying research; beneficence and respect for autonomy (or respect for persons). Once the nature of these problems has been revealed, and with reference to ethical problems that typically arise in the domain of research, I construct a coherent philosophical foundation for research ethics, which both avoids these deep-seated problems and better captures the ethical issues that arise in the domain of human research. I argue that we need to radically depart from the values of beneficence and autonomy/respect for persons as they are currently understood in the guidelines. We need an idea of beneficence that is clearly distinct from that which is used in the therapeutic medical context from which this notion is currently drawn. I also contend that we need to move away from autonomy as a central value in research ethics. I posit an alternative choice-based approach to informed consent which is concerned both with respecting agents’ freedom of choice, and also with their wellbeing, as providing a good means of protecting and promoting the interests of the individual research subject. Although these two imperatives are often thought to clash on a fundamental level, I will show that, in research ethics, they can be reconciled with minimal conflict. Though this represents a departure from the ethics of medical therapy, this approach is far more suited to the context of research. This theoretical basis for informed consent can help to clarify the ethical problems that are specific to this domain and provide us with relevant ethical guidance in research ethics.

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Lucie White
Utrecht University

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References found in this work

Freedom of the will and the concept of a person.Harry G. Frankfurt - 1971 - Journal of Philosophy 68 (1):5-20.
Freedom of the will and the concept of a person.Harry Frankfurt - 2004 - In Tim Crane & Katalin Farkas (eds.), Metaphysics: A Guide and Anthology. Oxford University Press UK.
Persons and their pasts.Sydney Shoemaker - 1970 - American Philosophical Quarterly 7 (4):269-85.

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