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A History of Ethics: Why We Need Ethics in Research.

Updated on January 27, 2017

Ethics in Research

This is Important...Pay Attention!
This is Important...Pay Attention!

What are ethics and why do we have them?

That is a question tat as been plaing society for many years. The field of ethics and ethical codes ave been around for centuries. In fact, ethics date back to the early Greeks and Romans (Wikipeda, 200). During the age of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle ethics was known as ethical naturalism. Thereafter, the field of ethics became more developed as an picurean ovement (Wikipeda, 200). However, it was not until the times of Thomas Hobbes and David Hume that ethics became a phenomenon in the western world.

Ethics are not exclusively limited to the field of psychology and the root of ethics actually began within the context of religion (Wikipeda, 2004). Assumptions about ethical underpinnings are actually reflected in every field of social science (Wikipeda, 2004). However, ethics in the field of psychology is rooted in the fact that psychologists seek to define, understand, and treat behaviors which are considered un-ethical.

Psychologists from the beginning of time have not really concerned themselves with creating a strong code of ethics. Take for instance the experiment conducted by well known psychologist John Watson and Rosalie Rayner (1920 ). In that experiment Watson and Rayner (1920) conditioned a child called "Little Albert" to fear white rats. However, as it turned out Little Albert ended up fearing more than just the white rat. Watson and Rayner (1920) found that when other stimuli that were white were presented Albert had also feared them. While it is true that psychologists learned a great deal from that experiment, it is also true that at that time a code of ethics was not in place to deal with issues that arose thereafter. The fact that Little Albert was never brought back to Watson and Rayner (1920) in order for them to un-condition Little Albert of this fear demonstrates that a code of ethics is needed in research. However, this is only one such study that dictated a need for a code of ethics to provide for the protection of human and animal subjects in research.

In fact, it was not until the 1960s that there was an increased interest in creating a code of ethics (Wikipeda, 2004). In 1963 a psychologist by the name of Stanley Milgram conducted a study in a prison which involved un-ethical procedures (1963). In his study, Milgram (1963) used subjects in an experiment where electric shock was used. The subjects used in the study were reported as suffering from extreme emotional stress due to what they believed as afflicting harm to another person. At that time a code of ethics was not in place and Milgram (1963) did not think that he was doing any harm. However, after this experiment psychologists begun to question whether such tactics as this were even considered ethical. Additionally, psychologists such as Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan began to develop theories based on moral behaviors. As a result, society became more interested in studying and applying ethics to life.

As the field of psychology and life become more complex, however, a code of ethics develops more complexity. In society today we are dealing with more issues which are something we may not have experience in the past. Consequently, we are finding that we need to become more stringent on the way researchers treat humans and animals alike.

Do we need a code of ethics and has it gone too far?

Simply put- No. In fact, through the continuous process of creating a code of ethics we have saved numerous human and animal subjects from suffering. Research is a situation in which psychologists and other professionals seek to find out about various feats of life including: human and animal behaviors, physical well being, and interactions with the world today. However, when these boundaries become clouded by putting humans and animals at harm then we are doing more harm than we are doing good. Many people might wonder if the code of ethics that we follow is too stringent. However, we cannot overlook the fact that there are more issues in society today and if we do not discreetly define our roles then other issues may arise. A good example of why ethics is needed is due to the current surge in lawsuits. There are many instances where someone has been wrongly (or perhaps not) violated and these rights need to be protected. However, if you consider the role of ethics in this whole process, perhaps we would never have to take this step.

There are many other reasons why a code of ethics is needed, and not just in the field of psychology. The first and foremost reason being for the continued protection of a person’s rights. There are many people in the world today who do not know their rights and have limited resources to fight for these rights. The code of ethics serves as this document of protection for people in such a situation. If a person or organization knows what the boundaries are prior to services being rendered then problems can be avoided.

Another reason of code of ethics is important is due to the fact that in the pursuit of research some people lose sight of what is harmful to another person or animal. Reflecting back on the experiment conducted by Milgram (1963) reminds us of how research can indeed harm another person. If that same experiment were proposed today it would not have gained approval from an ethics board. This is just one example of how a code of ethics serves as protection for those subjects who are being studied.


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