Ethics as Virtue
How can we distinguish morals from ethics, and what constitutes virtue in the context of anthropological research? In this section we provide an overview of the broader ethical traditions within which the ethics of anthropological research sits. We distinguish between morals and ethics (and consider challenges to this distinction) and show how this distinction relates to virtue ethics. Consideration is given to just what constitutes the virtues in the context of anthropological research.
By this point it should be apparent that ethical navigation for the social anthropologist involves steering a careful course between two positions. On the one hand, there is a burgeoning machinery of research oversight and governance which has to be negotiated for professional, bureaucratic and, perhaps legal reasons. On the other hand, there is the highly complex and personal ethical calculus that runs through any research project. A distinction that might be useful in clarifying these positions is one that anthropologists have used to understand the differences between morals and ethics (Laidlaw 2014, Lambek 2010, Zigon 2007, 2008). Whereas the former carries strong imperatives about what one ought to do as a researcher and strives to hold these in place by way of rules, guidelines and procedures of verification and witnessing, the latter refers to the way that an individual decides to act in any given set of circumstances (and which may or may not correspond with the morality of research as identified above). In making this particular claim for an ethics (as opposed to the morality) of research, what is highlighted are the ways in which the values and identity of the researcher are consciously connected to research subjects. It draws attention to an ongoing reflection on the nature and consequences of one’s actions and inactions in relation to a complex field of interlocutors as opposed to a set of obligations and duties that are to be adhered to.
The distinction we are trying to convey is further apparent when we consider the philosophical underpinnings of different approaches to research ethics. Textbooks outlining how to do research ethics usually delineate the different philosophical precedents that underpin, and give intellectual stiffening to, the different approaches taken. These precedents may be drawn from the classical canon of philosophy, as for example with Kantian deontology in which morals are linked to rationality and hence to objective sets of rules and dispositions which applies to everyone and referred to as categorical imperatives (SEP, 2016). Out of Kantian philosophy emerged much of the justification for the incorporation of autonomy in medical ethics and the imperative that persons should be treated as ends in themselves and never as means. Deontology is often contrasted with utilitarianism with its focus on the outcomes or consequences of an action as the basis for its moral evaluation (SEP, 2015).
An approach that has been less evident in accounts of research ethics is that informed by virtue ethics. The most well-known contemporary exponent of virtue ethics is Alasdair MacIntrye with his influential book, After virtue (Macintyre 2007 ). Rather than rules or consequences, virtue ethics has at its core the question of character and how to achieve ‘excellence in human agency’. In Macintyre’s particular blend of Aristotelean ethics and Marxist thinking, the concept of virtue develops through three stages: practice, narrative and moral tradition (2007 : 186-7). This simple scheme is often appealing to anthropologists; it is, to quote Laidlaw, ‘philosophy with an ethnographic stance’ (2014: 47). In relation to research ethics, MacIntrye’s approach thus moves us away from both deontology and utilitarianism as the grounding for ethical practice in that it foregrounds social activity and the settings in which meaningful engagement is accomplished rather than the rules which ought to govern it. His focus on narrative is also congenial to the interests of ethnographers for the insights it gives into the way that human social life is figured in stories. Moreover, it is of relevance in the context of research ethics because we as ethnographers also become part of those stories. Indeed, the ethnographer might ask: “of what story or stories do I find myself a part?” (MacIntyre 2007 : 216).
Although virtue ethics provides some useful groundings for a consideration of the relationship between ethics and ethnography, it is not without its critiques. For example: detractors have argued that it is culturally relative and therefore of little use in establishing a set of workable propositions; it can be subsumed under both deontological and utilitarian approaches; and that everyone comes up with a slightly different list of what the virtues are. Nonetheless, virtue ethics provides a useful stimulus for thinking about the qualities that a researcher might need when in the ethically challenging and unpredictable flow of fieldwork. In terms of the distinction made above, it might be said that it is an awareness of morals that enables the researcher to recognise a situation as problematic. Indeed, such problems may have been anticipated in a prior ethics review, but it is an ethical question as to how he or she should act. In other words, action cannot simply be read off from a set of moral blueprints; it necessitates the management of some extremely complex personal, relational and context dependent variables.
So, what kinds of virtues are we talking about in relation to ethnography and where do they come from?
One the virtues that appears to have gained considerable traction in talk about research ethics is the notion of integrity. For example, a collaboration between Research Councils UK and the UK Research Integrity Office produced a document known as the The Concordat to Support Research Integrity, which is now cited as one of the points in the researcher’s landscape to which there should be ‘alignment’. The aim of this document is to inculcate a ‘culture’ in which certain virtues - here referred to as ‘values’ - might be encouraged and promoted. As the concordat states: ‘All those engaged with research have a duty to consider how the work they undertake, host or support impacts on society and on the wider research community’ (page 9). As one might readily infer, this document is more about scientific integrity and the responsible practice of scientific research. The Concordat lists values such as ‘honesty’, ‘rigour’, ‘transparency and open communication’ and ‘care and respect’ (see page 11) and advocates commitment to them in the conduct of research. All very laudable but one wonders why they have to be written down (haven’t these always been expected virtues of the responsible researcher?) and not much help when it comes to the kinds of integrity that one might have to exercise when working towards an ethnographic account.
Macfarlane (2009) attempts a more rigorous exploration of the virtues befitting a ‘good’ researcher. His account lists the qualities of courage, respectfulness, resoluteness, sincerity, humility and reflexivity and he devotes a chapter to the elucidation of each. Whilst Macfarlane was casting a very wide net in terms of ‘research’, these virtues are useful in thinking about the virtues that an ethnographer might require to conduct fieldwork in an ethical manner:
- Courage: fieldwork always entails a journey - both mental and physical - between worlds. There are always unknowns and the risk of disappointment and, perhaps even discomfort and distress. Without wishing to play into the ‘anthropologist as hero/heroine’ trope, anthropological fieldwork often requires a degree of courage to accomplish. Moreover, courage is not simply about external challenges, it also encompasses encounters one may have with inner fears and doubts when in the gaze of others.
- Respectfulness: those with whom we engage in the field must be valued as persons (and not as mere resources). What it is to demonstrate respectfulness relationally, rather than just intellectually, is a complex and skilled accomplishment. Failure to observe politeness, etiquette, rules of hospitality (and this is before we get onto the complexities of confidentiality and anonymity) can ruin a fieldwork project before it has even begun.
- Resoluteness: fieldwork engages with people and their situations and, as such, involves complications, challenges and occasionally downright resistance. It is important that the researcher is resolute in seeing the project through to its conclusion.
- Sincerity: research is by definition fraught with uncertainties but nonetheless it is important that the researcher strives to be honest, trustworthy, consistent and committed to truthful accounts of what is revealed.
- Humility: science sometimes gets mistaken for omniscience, yet the exploration of social worlds is better served by humility and the presumption that there is something there to learn and the people who are the most competent to teach us are the ones who inhabit those worlds.
- Reflexivity: fieldwork is primarily about experience and the skilled fieldworker is aware of a feedback loop in which learning today helps one to do things better tomorrow.
To reflect on the virtues required to be an ethical fieldworker takes us some considerable way beyond the one dimensional research ethics of ethics review. However, naming qualities is not the same as having them; they have to be cultivated and developed as practical skills which will enable the researcher to make good decisions and perform actions that are appropriate to the circumstances. Here we return to the question of training, but not simply the formal, explicit, textbook guidance and instruction regarding generic research ethics. The training that is important here is the one that takes place within what Lave and Wenger have characterised as a ‘community of practice’ (Lave and Wenger 1991). Such communities are the departments, subject networks, cohorts and peer groups in which we work. Here, the acquisition of knowledge and skills accumulates through ‘relationships between people, activities, and the world; developing with time and in relation to other tangential and overlapping communities of practice’ (p98). This kind of learning - implicit, tacit and conveyed through imitation and personal engagement - is particularly relevant because it is not just about what should be known but also takes us into how knowledge and skill are internalised as part of one’s personal and professional sense of being. It is also important because this kind of learning itself inculcates the capacity to respond skillfully and appropriately to ethical challenges. It is likely that a key relationship in this regard is that with the supervisor(s).
Although the role of the supervisor has become somewhat instrumentalised in recent years (Humphrey and Simpson 2013), it remains a crucially important one and particularly when it comes to the finer points of ethical navigation. Supervisors will have gone ahead, so to speak. They will have encountered, if not the same challenges and conundrums then ones that are similar. They should therefore be used not merely as subject authorities but as supervisors in the sense that a counsellor or therapist or social workers would use them, that is, to discuss difficult cases or situations. The supervisor is also a further means to connect to a community of collaboratively accumulated practical knowledge about the best way to cultivate the virtuous researcher and to carry out ethical research.
Finally, it is always possible that one’s sense of ethical duty is not only out of line with the anticipatory ethics of a REC but also with that of professional codes and indeed ones supervisor. Here we enter the realm of conscience and objection and perhaps intervention. We cannot escape who we are and what we feel. In the field, situations arise that allow little time for reflection or consultation. At such moments one may be faced with question of whether to take sides and which side one should be on (Armbruster and Laerke 2008, Scheper-Hughes 1995). Here an ethical response is one guided and justified by one’s conscience and, in a research setting, acceptance of the consequences of one’s actions.
On being challenged about the distinction between morals and ethics.
The distinction between morals and ethics outlined in the previous section can, however, take the anthropologist into some difficult terrains. One of us (Simpson) was once at a bioethics conference having breakfast across from a very eminent philosopher and ethicist. The philosopher had a record of being less than impressed with anthropologists’ tendency to place relativism close to the core of disciplinary thinking. The question was put to him: ‘do you think it is ethical to carry out research that involves witnessing female genital mutilation?’ Simpson choked, literally on his cereal and metaphorically on the enormity of the question. A ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer was problematic and any attempt at a more complex framing sounded like prevarication. To have said ‘yes’, would sound like complicity in an act that for many offends medical, gender, legal and many other sensibilities. The philosopher was on safe and principled ground in saying ‘no’ because rights and justice should be absolutes that prevail in all circumstances. Witnessing others holding a young girls legs apart whilst a ‘midwife’ slices away her genitalia was about rights and justice; this position would always trump the anthropologist’s relativism. However, whilst the anthropologist may be personally and politically committed to the idea of rights and justice, the relationship with the conduct of research is more complicated. For the anthropologist to say ‘no’ to the question is to close down the possibilities for learning about the human condition and make a priori assumptions about what things might or might not mean in other people’s worlds. FGM tests this commitment to the limit.
It might thus be argued that the study of female genital mutilation is something of an outlier within anthropological research and it is unfair to make our research ethics turn around such an extreme axis. That most of anthropology is a paean to positive aspects of diversity (nb. Geertz’s famous ‘anti- anti-relativist essay in 1983) is, however, no defence. The world is not made up of tidy bundles of user-friendly culture and the practices of others do frequently violate principles of respect, dignity and human flourishing. Had there been longer than a breakfast, what responses might have been put to the philosopher’s damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t question? There are at least four responses:
- Agree. The practice of female genital mutilation is such an abhorrent practice that the ways it is carried out should not form part of an anthropologist’s research. In other words, whilst it might be acceptable to study FGM through testimonies of victims and perpetrators one might steer clear witnessing actual practices. Whereas a study which involved witnessing (and certainly a researcher practicing) FGM would be intercepted at the ethical approval stage, one that involved secondary accounts could prove to be acceptable.
- Going on listening (and watching) when others stop. This view has been articulated in an interesting paper by Didier Fassin (2008) on HIV in Africa. Medical ethics dictates that non-disclosure of HIV status is wrong. In his research, Fassin noted that many doctors would not tell patients who were clearly HIV+ of their status. As a medical doctor, Fassin was fully aware that this was ethically problematic but as an anthropologist he was committed to taking seriously their reasons for not disclosing. His intention was to understand how, in the minds of local doctors, this practice ‘makes sense’. Rather than an a priori assumption that certain practices are wrong and then ipso facto beyond the analytical pale, his analysis opens up other moral registers which touch on the management of futility and despair in many medical settings in Africa. Fassin was criticised on a number of grounds which Simpson’s philosopher colleague would have been able to articulate most eloquently. Basically, he should be condemning these practices rather than analysing them. Fassin’s response was that the anthropologist’s role is to study morals and by extension this is to bring to light knowledge of how others act in morally complex situations. His responses points towards an anthropology of morals in which the anthropologist is fully implicated.
- Don’t mistake the part for the whole: with a topic such as FGM it is easy but nonetheless problematic to reduce all to the act of cutting. However, part of the anthropologist’s contribution is to understand the context in which actions take place. Such understandings are pursued with an eye on how to change problematic practices rather than on keeping them the same. An understanding of power - who holds it? how is it given legitimacy? and why it is maintained? - can be crucial in designing interventions that achieve meaningful change, for example, by getting certain authorities on the side of change and reform. Likewise, understanding the nature of objections to the exercise of power by people who disapprove of FGM is also a crucial responsibility for an anthropologist. In short, the act of cutting is but one element of this broader mosaic of relationships and practices but one that nonetheless it might be necessary to encounter in order to make sense of why abusive practices are sustained.
- Rejection and intervention: A former PhD colleague carried out her work among the Masaai in the 1980s. At one point she was taken to a female circumcision ceremony (note the shift in rhetorical effect of the language). She was pushed to the front to get a better view and promptly passed out when she saw the full horror of the practice. We do not know what we will see in the field, the conditions under which we will see it and how we will react (physically, emotionally, ethically). Another reaction might well have been to intervene to stop the procedure. This response would have been to go beyond passive avoidance as in 1)and to switch to an activist or interventionist mode and to seek to change the outcomes for the individuals in question and thereby act according to conscience.
- A word about abhorrent and repugnant practices in general (Harding 1991): In an increasing number of cases social anthropologists conduct research in contexts of extreme power inequalities and on practices and conditions they are likely to disagree with, dislike or want to reject. Racist groups, people who espouse violence against women, homosexuals or minority groups, experimental medical interventions, unethical business practices and so forth all now fall within the anthropologist’s gaze. In such cases, Simpson’s breakfast partner would have to be informed that anthropological fieldwork among those we disagree with may be the only fruitful ethical option. Here, too, we try to map and shed light on how to us objectionable practices have come about and why they are continuing. However, due to the unpredictable and exploratory nature of such research, RECs might hesitate to give approval, especially when the proposed research is covert. It is in such cases that anthropologists need the support of colleagues and supervisors.
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