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Ethics Without 'Thou Shall Not'

November 21, 2011

MONTREAL -- Much of the discussion here Friday and Saturday of a proposed revision to the ethics code of the American Anthropological Association focused on what it was trying not to be. It would not (with only a few exceptions) be a list of “thou shall not” statements of activities that anthropologists should avoid. And it would also not mark a return to a role the association abandoned in the 1990s of judging alleged violations of its principles.

While members of the committee that drafted the proposed revisions stressed their belief that anthropologists constantly confront ethical dilemmas, they also said that the most difficult ones tend to be on issues that are less clear-cut than many assume, and that do not lend themselves to simple rules.

Even a principle like, "Do no harm," which would remain an undercurrent of the proposed new code, is not always easy to apply, committee members said. Rather, they said, it begs the question of, "Harm to whom?" and ignores the possibility that research may involve multiple groups with very different interests and fears.

Laura McNamara, an anthropologist at the Sandia National Laboratory, said that the idea of clear right and wrong decisions was based on “the myth of the solo anthropologist working in the village,” ignoring the complex nature of the peoples and organizations studied, often by teams of scholars. Getting past that myth means getting past a “thou shall not” approach, she and others said.

Ethics issues have in years past been the subject of knock-down, drag-out debates, standing-room-only sessions and raised voices at some annual meetings of the anthropology association. But those fights have generally been prompted by very specific questions. Two have been: Should anthropologists work with the U.S. military? How should anthropologists respond to a scandal over the treatment of a tribe by prominent anthropologists decades ago?

The revision of the ethics code has taken three years of committee work, but the discussion of the results did not produce fireworks. Sessions were not packed, and while there was some pushback from people seeking a more prescriptive or judicial system, the discussion was calm and collegial. "We go into high Sturm und Drang over ethics when there are political issues, and ethics becomes conflated with politics in ways that are profoundly distressing," said McNamara. "And then people get bored with it, and only a tiny fraction of membership" participates in larger discussions of ethics, she added.

During the anthropology association’s annual meeting, the draft revisions to the ethics code were presented to the group’s Executive Board, which will now review them. The revisions will be released in full, soon, by that body. To date, the committee that drafted the proposed changes has released summaries of several parts of the revisions and a comparison of the existing and proposed codes, and members said that there have been additions, but not substantive changes to what has been released.

Dena K. Plemmons, of the University of California at San Diego, said that fellow committee members were invested in the idea of "setting up a principle, followed by an explanatory text" rather than outlining every possible scenario. This means that key principles matter to anthropology as a discipline, even if the ethics code can’t anticipate every variation.

Several speakers said that they also wanted the ethics code to contrast with the approach used by institutional review boards of requiring this or banning that. While IRBs establish more rules (far more, many noted) than the ethics code, several anthropologists said that they viewed the ethics code as raising questions that may be more important than those raised by the review boards, issues requiring real thought, not just compliance.

How the New Approach Would Play Out

So rather than simply stating the obligation to “do no harm,” the proposed revision says in part:

Anthropologists share a primary ethical obligation to avoid doing harm to the lives, communities or environments they study or that may be impacted by their work. This includes not only the avoidance of direct and immediate harm but implies an obligation to weigh carefully the future consequences and impacts of an anthropologist’s work on others. This primary obligation can supersede the goal of seeking new knowledge and can lead to decisions not to undertake or to discontinue a project. Avoidance of harm is a primary ethical obligation, but determining harms and their avoidance in any given situation may be complex.

While anthropologists welcome work benefiting others or increasing the well-being of individuals or communities, determinations regarding what is in the best interests of others or what kinds of efforts are appropriate to increase well-being are complex and value-laden and should reflect sustained discussion with those concerned. Such work should reflect deliberate and thoughtful consideration of both potential unintended consequences and long-term impacts on individuals, communities, identities, tangible and intangible heritage and environments.

The section on informed consent stresses not only the need to have informed consent, but also the importance of recognizing various power relationships. That section, in more detail than the current version, says in part:

Anthropologists develop collaborative and often interdependent relationships with, among others, research participants, students, professional colleagues, employers and funders. These varying relationships may create conflicting, competing or crosscutting ethical obligations, reflecting both the relative vulnerabilities of different individuals, communities or populations, asymmetries of power implicit in a range of relationships, and the differing ethical frameworks of collaborators representing other disciplines or areas of practice.

In one of the sessions on the ethics proposal, an anthropologist in the audience suggested that the proposal could be more specific, and could state simply that the obligation of the anthropologist is to the weakest group member among those being studied.

But Simon J. Craddock Lee, an anthropologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, spoke about how basic rules don’t work anymore. Much of his work is technically about physicians at the hospital, arguably people with more power than he has. But many of the ethical issues involved are about patients, not technically the people he is studying.

Most of the draft document focuses on issues to consider, values to maintain and so forth, not strict rules. But one new area in which the proposed policy calls for a prohibition relates to debates over work with the military (although that isn’t stated explicitly).

The proposed policy says that research "that by design does not allow the anthropologist to know the full scope or purpose of a project (i.e., compartmentalized research ) is ethically problematic, since by definition the anthropologist cannot communicate transparently with participants, nor ensure fully informed consent." Typically, informed consent involves telling research subjects the nature of the research, the funding source, the potential use and so forth.

No Enforcement Proposed

In two sessions on the proposed ethics rules, speakers defended the idea – criticized from time to time by other anthropologists – that the anthropology association stay out of the business of adjudicating disputes over whether an anthropologist has violated ethical standards. People noted that because anthropologists are not licensed or required to be members of the AAA, the association has no real authority over any of its members. And many questioned the ability of the association to come up with a system that would be fair – and would promote ethical conduct.

Janet E. Levy of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte spoke at one session about her experience as the person who was chair of the association’s ethics committee when it last made decisions on whether various individuals’ conduct was ethical. The experience, she said, left her lacking confidence in the ability of the association to handle these issues with "fairness, timeliness or impact." She said she hoped that the new ethics code would "enrich our understanding of dilemmas, something she said it could do. But she said that "a policing function would interfere" with that.

Levy said that some anthropologists have suggested that the association is suffering from "cowardice," because of the fear that any policing function would lead to lawsuits by anthropologists accused of wrongdoing who are then unhappy with the association’s decisions. Levy said that liability concerns are real. "Let he or she who dismisses liability concerns finance the legal defense fund," she said.

But more broadly, she said that there are too many issues that ethical, reasonable anthropologists (and others) would disagree on to have any sort of official ruling. The discipline could face “scholarly paralysis” if it attempted to regulate such issues, rather than encouraging thoughtful, informed decision-making.

Levy cited the example of Nancy Scheper-Hughes, a professor of medical anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, whose work has focused in recent years on the illegal sale of human organs. In her work, Scheper-Hughes has openly violated the association ethics code’s rules requiring full disclosure to research subjects, and protection of their anonymity.

Scheper-Hughes has written about how she has posed as someone looking for an organ to talk to people who may sell their body parts or broker such a sale. She has argued that only through deception has she been able to document this illicit industry. (She has disclosed her identity after interviews.) Further, she has sometimes shared information about organ trafficking with law enforcement authorities, arguing that it is moral to do so, even if this violates a traditional prohibition on doing anything that might harm a source.

Levy cited an article Scheper-Hughes wrote in Anthropology News in which she called for "new engagements" by anthropologists to help the truly powerless, even if doing so violates traditional ethics norms. She wrote that such work requires a "relentless reflexive and self-critical rethinking of anthropology ethics."

Asked Scheper-Hughes: "What if the best method to learn of the hidden suffering of an invisible population of medically abused and mortally neglected people involves entering a facility in disguise?"

Levy did not weigh in on whether she agreed with the Scheper-Hughes analysis, but said it was an example of a researcher’s sincere conflict with rules that many anthropologists have considered sacrosanct. How, Levy said, could the profession fairly respect Scheper-Hughes’ views while constructing a new judicial process for those unhappy with the choices made by other anthropologists?

"One doesn’t want a Scheper-Hughes exception" to ethics rules, Levy said. "Should we exempt her from standards such as those about deception? Because she is a tenured full professor at Berkeley? Presumably not. Because she thought really hard about this? Because we all agree on what are the more important moral judgments?"

While Levy said that these are difficult questions, she said she was confident that the way to promote ethical conduct in such situations was not to try to come up with an ironclad rule that could win "majority vote at the business meeting" of the anthropology association. "I don’t think so."

 

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