Ethics Task Force – Draft Principle: Balance Competing Ethical Obligations

13 thoughts on “Ethics Task Force – Draft Principle: Balance Competing Ethical Obligations”

  1. One cannot easily disagree with the general principle, because it is vague. One might wish for more specific guidelines. There remains the problem that anthropologists usually owe a special debt to their consultants. Indeed, if one is “studying up,” this is a different matter from studying a vulnerable and persecuted small group. But, still, in normal anthropological practice, there is not an equality of “stakeholders.” Some of the people we have to worry about are just that: stakeholders. Others are much more seriously involved. We simply must figure out a way to deal with the fact that we owe a special debt to the people who have most often helped us, i.e. the Indigenous, marginal, impoverished, rural, and otherwise disadvantaged or oppressed groups of all types–or even just ordinary people. Surely we, professionally, given the history of this profession, owe them more than just adding them to a pool of things to be considered.

  2. I agree with Barry Bainton; honesty and obligations are bedrock. Nevertheless, with regard to: “Anthropologists have an obligation to distinguish the different kinds of interdependencies and collaborations” – in addition to collaborators, informants (people who are willing to share information but who otherwise have little or no inerest in our research) are important stakeholders. Also, dependence is a critical variable but we need to include inequalities and perhaps also hierarchies. My point is that ethnical decisions cannot be made without understanding the distribution of power, and “dependence” is only one (however important) kind.

  3. “Balance competing ethical obligations due collaborators and affected parties.” sounds good, but again implies power that the anthropologist may not have nor should be expected to have in this generic sense. In any anthropological endeavor, the anthropologist occupies a set of status/role positions visa a vise others in the situation. The simplest and, maybe, best way to balance the competing ethical obligations is two fold:
    (1) know what your obligations are to others and they to you
    (2) be honest in your dealings with the others

    . That is, be a good person and you may do what is right and expected of you.

    The anthropologist should not set her/himself up as a god. That is the role of the experimental scientist.. “Anthropology is not an experimental science.Anthropology is,”, as A. L. Kroeber said, ” the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities.” Let our code of ethics reflect that reality.

  4. I like the message of this principle; I would only suggest that it be re-worded, since the current wording is a bit awkward and lacks clarity. I think what is important in this principle is the acknowledgment that it is not so easy to pinpoint to whom our ethical behaviour is owed. At the same time, I think we need to NOT conflate professional ethics (among colleagues in the academy, say) with ethics in our field research (where we might have the potential to disempower people or put them at risk) – with all the caveats about “studying up” vs. studying any other way taken into consideration.

  5. Principle #2) The idea of Balancing ethical obligations is an important advance.

    It is redundant to begin by saying that anthropology is a ‘social enterprise.’ Why say this to a group of anthropologists, unless the code is also intended for others’ eyes.

  6. Since the Task Force is presenting the Code of Ethics one principle at a time, I think this sounds good on its own so far. Every anthropologist, and in most cases, every worker, is the only one to know intimately all the entities, issues, extenuating circumstances, and ramifications of her actions. It puts the responsibility squarely on the individual to make the best and most ethical decision at the time. Good effort. I like the iterative process. On to the next.

  7. I completely agree that a code of ethics without any sanctions is simply a paper tiger. Indeed, when the AAA Committee on Ethics (COE) is reduced to merely an educational function, albeit one extremely important function, are the COE in particular and AAA in general being ethical?

    In addition, is it being ethically responsible to the membership and interested public to remove from the AAA website the Final Report of the Task Force on Darkness in El Dorado and and its Preliminary Report and the very informative and insightful Commentary on the latter by some of the membership? These reports were developed for the membership of the AAA, yet any interested 10,000 to 11,000 paying members as well as historians of science and other legitimate researchers must search elsewhere to find these reports. Is the COE serving its educational function in this instance? Is the AAA following the principles in the Code of Ethics in this instance? Is such censorship in the interest of science, scholarship, the profession, and the AAA?

    Finally, two other questions: Does the Code of Ethics apply to staff of the AAA who are not anthropologists? Should the revision of the Code of Ethics include guidelines for the leadership of the AAA?

  8. A workable code must be enforceable and sanctionable, or it is not workable. As regards the tendered 2nd principle, the key question is what ‘balance’ is to mean. The professional anthropologist and/or social science practitioner must import relevant metrics to determine any balancing between competing ethical obligations to other parties. For example, I work with Aboriginal peoples in Canada. The constitutional law of Canada is such that the Crown owes Aboriginal peoples a legal fiduciary obligation in relation to any matter that the Crown might have discretionary decision making over. If I advise the Crown in a matter that clearly involves such discretion, the 2nd principal requires me to to balance my ethical obligations both to the Crown (my client) and to the Aboriginal group affected (to which the Crown may hold a legal duty). How do/can I possbily balance these obligations without more sensitive and contextually relevant guidance?
    Accordingly, I suggest that the principle be amended to add reference to a reference process, which brings me back of course to the need for a sanctioning and enforcement process. However, even without the latter, if the profession were to sanction a formal reference process for itself (as indeed occurs in the legal and other professions) then this might naturally migrate to the appropriate sanctioning/enforecment regime that is required.

  9. It would be helpful if the Task Force would articulate why the current code is deficient. What does it lack that this new code will provide?

  10. It would be helpful if the Task Force would articulate why the current code is deficient. It seems to cover many of the ethical obligations that Anthropologists have.

  11. (a) Disappointed in the continued process of removing ‘science’ from the anthropological inventory. Yes iit is social, but it used to be anyhow, also sicence.

    (b) Ethics without sanctions result in a paper tiger.

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