Ethics Of Social And Behavioral Science Research Paper

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Since their very beginning, genuine concern about the scientific character of social and behavioral sciences has continuously stimulated the development of sophisticated methodologies for this group of disciplines, but also shifted interest away from the variety of normative aspects ineluctably connected with them. Most important among these widely differing aspects are (1) object and objective of the social sciences and their bearing on methods and possible results, (2) the role of value judgments in social and behavioral science, and (3) the feasibility of rational argumentation about norms. In the sequel, the concept of norm will be used in a wide sense to cover norms followed implicitly or explicitly, norms of conventional, methodological or ethical character, and norms of different levels of generality.

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1. Constitutive Norms And Ethics Of Science

Unquestionably, science neither originated, nor continued to exist, as a natural event; it has always been a purposeful enterprise, established for the benefit of mankind. Soon after the social sciences had been called into being, they were considered by some of its greatest exponents to fulfill this function best if they be kept ‘value-free,’ which, of course, did not mean to say that their function was itself without value. Regrettably, confusion about the proper place of value in the social and behavioral sciences has accompanied theoretical reflection on them since the nineteenth century until now (see Sect. 3).

Historically, social and behavioral sciences originated from the need for scientific guidance (and, if possible, foundation) of political efforts towards improvement of the economic condition and social status of sections of the population of Western nations. Up to this day, social workers, as well as many social and behavioral scientists, are motivated in their activities by a strong commitment to the amelioration of social states-of-affairs and the discovery and correction of social disadvantages. Generally, this does not inhibit the objectivity of their scientific work, to which its motivation, despite its normative character, remains external. Likewise, the choice of fields of research and of particular problems, however dependent on practical, mostly normative preconsiderations, will generally not influence the scientific character of investigations into the fields and problems chosen.

Yet, this independence from historical roots, individual motivation, and problem-guided selection of research areas must not blind us to the fact that the object of the social and behavioral sciences is indeed a peculiar one: to restrict the study of human action and behavior to properties and relations accessible by methods effective in the natural sciences would amount to forgoing the acquisition of additional knowledge available due to the human nature shared by investigator and investigated object. The world of experience is not static, it is essentially a world of becoming; and the world investigated by social and behavioral scientists, comprising human action and behavior, exhibits throughout a becoming, events directed towards certain ends, a change from something that is, to something that, in the agent’s opinion, is to be. Purposeful action, guided by norms (for the choice of particular ends and of suitable means for their realization), distinguishes man from inanimate objects (and from most living beings), enriching the equipment of human investigators of human actions by the faculty of interpretive understanding. Even though the investigator and his or her subject may belong to fundamentally different cultural contexts and may follow mutually incompatible norms, they share the orientation towards purposes and norms in general.

Needless to say, social and behavioral sciences conform to the norms constitutive for science in general, such as commitment to impeccable objectivity, unbiased interaction with other persons as objects of social inquiry, and strict observance of methodological norms for scientific investigation (e.g., collecting and sampling of data, accurate data processing, complete and unmanipulated presentation of results). The ethics of science, however, has more and more transcended these normative aspects of the scientific community and is now mainly investigating the import of general moral considerations on the production and use of scientific knowledge, particularly the (individual and general, in some cases even global) consequences of the application of technological and medical knowledge. It will be clear that, despite the novelty of many pertinent problems (e.g., those connected with analysis of the human genome), this is merely an extension of ethical reflections on prohibitive or restrictive norms concerning experimenting with human beings, manipulation of their behavior, their reproduction, their physical and mental equipment, or of the use of scientific or technological knowlegde and results for the impairment or destruction of human lives, e.g., for purposes of eugenics, of euthanasia or of warfare. Among the normative aspects of social and behavioral sciences, one of the most important is that opened up by the insight that ‘a procedure may satisfy criteria of methodological adequacy and be morally unjustified’ (Beauchamp 1998, p. 578) at the same time.

2. Values And Value Judgments In Social And Behavioral Science

Traditionally, problems of the kind just mentioned have been dealt with in philosophy as questions of ‘values.’ Individuals often prefer an object, or a state of affairs, or (performing) an action, to other objects, states of affairs, or actions; they ‘valuate’ them positively, considering them more desirable than the other ones and declaring them to be ‘higher’ values. For example, truth is a scientific value, charity a Christian moral value, reliability (of a person, or of a report, or of a tool) a value in everyday life.

Values as reasons behind valuations and thereby behind actions are omnipresent in society and are a legitimate object of social and behavioral sciences. Investigators from these fields may or may not share the values of the persons whose (valuation-guided) actions they investigate, but they must by no means let these values influence the conduction or the results of their scientific work. There is no problem in scrutinizing the compatility of a person’s values and to describe and analyze the inner conflicts of this person in case they are incompatible, or to investigate (as an historian or as a sociologist) the controversies, open hostilities, or even material combats between adherents of conflicting values. Doubt would, however, be cast on the scientific character of such research if the investigator would ‘take sides,’ approving or disapproving of values and actions of his subjects, and even more so if the researcher would use his scientific findings for a denouncement of, or as apologetics for, some state of affairs or situation in which his subjects are involved.

Max Weber (1864–1920) propounded his famous demand for a value-free social science explicitly with the intention of clearly separating the (fully justified) domain of scientific investigation from the (equally justified, but fundamentally different) domains of social commitment and social policy. In his opinion, it should be possible to discern, in a social scientist’s report on his research, the parts that may be accepted by any one independently of his or her valuations and to argue for changes of social situations, of laws etc. without abusing for this purpose the results of scientific research as if they cogently implied practical consequences. This last-mentioned step has frequently been repudiated as a typical case of the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ of overlooking that a normative conclusion can never be logically inferred from descriptive premisses alone (i.e., without at least one further normative premiss). However, the position of the ‘valuesupporters’ is not that simplistic, as is shown by the debates in the Werturteilsstreit (the controversy over the role of value-judgments in social science and economics, see Weippert 1939) and in its partial resumption in the Positi ismusstreit (see Adorno 1969). The differences of opinion concerned not only the role and legitimacy of value-judgments in science, but on a deeper level the (extension of the) concept of science, the concepts of foundation and justification, and the possibility of rational argumentation for or against normative propositions.

3. The Feasibility Of Argumentation About Norms

Max Weber and his adherents in the Werturteilsstreit, as well as the ‘critical rationalists’ in the Positivismusstreit, were convinced that objectivity of normative propositions could never be reached since the necessary intersubjectivity seemed to them precluded by the essential subjectivity of all valuation. At most, norms could be shown to be inconsistent, or to be incompatible with other norms. The other side, representative of the ‘critical theory’ of the Frankfurter Schule, criticized the restriction of ‘foundation’ and ‘justification’ to deductive procedures and envisaged an ultimate foundation (Letztbegruendung) of norms by the exhibition of necessary presuppositions of any speech acts whatever, i.e., of human communication in general. They failed to convince their opponents since, pragmatically, proving that something is necessarily presupposed does not entail evidence that it is well founded (Gethmann 1979). More recent approaches from the perspective of ‘methodical constructivism’ have shown how to reach intersubjectively acceptable foundations for norms relative to the best possible consensuses among all persons concerned, i.e., exposed to possible consequences of actions that are guided by the norms in question.

Apart from this, attempts have been made to reach consensus as to fundamental (or primordial) situations which constitute ultimate purposes or ends for any human living together, i.e., community and communication. The most fundamental ones derive from the condition humaine including the facts that men are born, have to grow up, have to reproduce within a limited period of reproductive potency, and will die some day; that they are reliant on other human beings and on material support, etc. Institutions of society, deliberately created for the fulfillment of such needs, may be valuated as suiting their purpose to a higher or lower degree. Even though one must admit the striking fact that human beings can willfully repudiate submission to even the most fundamental exigencies, there is no reason to deny the possibility of rational argumentation for or against the acceptance of certain norms and actions (in a group, or society, or culture) if other norms or actions have already been accepted (see, e.g., Greer 1969, p. 49).


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