A Moral Dilemma for Social Scientists: How to resolve conflicting duties*
by Merrilee H. SalmonProfessor of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh
Visiting Research Professor, Kyoto University
Editor: Soshichi Uchii
This presentation takes up a problem that confronts many social scientists, especially those who live and work with the people whom they study. Even if we do not accept the view of the Critical Theorists that social science is manipulative and thus immoral, we can still be concerned that the social scientists do no harm to the people who are the subjects of their scientific investigations. As with physicians, the first duty of the social scientist is to do no harm. But social scientists have other duties as well. They have a duty to publish their findings for the benefit of other academic investigators; but publication can bring unwanted attention and possible harm to the people studied. Social scientists also have duties to the governments or private agencies that fund their work, and these duties also can conflict with other duties.
Professional associations of social scientists have drafted codes of ethics that offer guidelines for recognizing and avoiding conflicts, but the codes themselves are necessarily vague and sometimes offer conflicting advice. In this presentation, I try to develop a clear definition of conflict of duty for the social sciences, and discuss how some concrete situations of conflict have been resolved. My examples will be taken primarily from situations that face anthropologists, but the ways of dealing with conflict apply to other social sciences.
1. Is social science morally problematic?
When I told a professor from Tokyo what I was going to talk about today in Kyoto, he asked, "What has ethics got to do with science?" His question suggests a view expressed by the logical positivists, who insisted that science deals with facts, not values. The strict separation of facts and values was a chief tenet of logical positivism. While the positivists did not deny the importance of ethics, morality, aesthetics, and other human values, they believed that concern with such values played no part in scientific studies. Some critics of positivism strongly object to banning value considerations from science, especially where social science is concerned, for they see the chief goal of social science as the improvement of the human condition.
Particularly strong in their objections to the positivist view were the critical theorists. These philosophers, all originally associated with the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, claimed that a social science constructed on the model of the natural sciences was inherently immoral. Among the best known critical theorists were Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer and Juergen Habermas. They regarded natural science as a technique for predicting and controlling the natural world, and they believed that a social science framed on that model would be a technique for manipulating the social world. They rejected such manipulation as evil and repressive. They saw the search for laws in the social sciences as an attempt to bolster and legitimate existing forms of social life, most of which they regarded as oppressive. They were appalled at the obvious excesses of totalitarian regimes, and they denounced bureaucratic capitalism for using the techniques of industrial sociology, management science, marketing science, and behavioral psychology to control the purchasing habits of consumers and the voting behavior of workers.
In the past twenty-five years, most philosophers have come to agree with the critical theorists that values do and should play some role in science. The other claims of the critical theorists are less convincing however. Most philosophers of science, for example, reject the critical theoristsｹ account of natural science as mere technique, and see scientific activity directed primarily to understanding the world. Correspondingly, they do not see social science as merely a technique for manipulating societies and individuals.
At the same time, the critical theorists' worry that the activities of social scientists involve manipulation is understandable. Social scientists themselves are well aware of the tensions that arise from both being a member of a social group and treating the group as an object of study and research. This is especially so for anthropologists, whose commitment to the participant-observer method of research frequently involves them in complex human interactions with the people whom they study. As participants, they are guest members of a society. In this role, they assume the usual responsibilities of respecting the privacy and autonomy of others, of sharing confidences, of offering advice and aid when appropriate, and above all, not harming the people who are their hosts. In their role as scientists, they are responsible for maintaining an objective stance in observing and reporting in scholarly outlets what goes on in the societies that they study But these two roles can conflict with one another.
2. An example of a social scientist's dilemma
Consider the following case. Richard Wilk, an anthropologist who works with the Kekchi people, published his research on the history of Kekchi occupation of a forested area of Belize (Wilk 1999). Wilk's historical research was based on incomplete records from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These indicated that most of the Chol Maya speakers who had lived in the area before European contact had been forcibly removed before the Kekchi moved into the vacated territory during the nineteenth century. The Kekchi lived there in a "forest reserve" without interference until economic interest in the rain forest timber increased.
In the 1990's, the Belize Government sold logging concessions for the forest reserve. The logging companies, most of them foreign, began to remove all trees from the land. Legal battles followed, with the Government on one side and the Kekchi and environmentalists on the other. In a court case, the Government appealed to Wilk's publications as scientific evidence that the Kekchi had no ancestral claims on the land because they were "recent immigrants." As an anthropologist who believed that his primary professional ethical duty was to avoid harm to the people he lived with and studied, Wilk was in a situation where this duty not to harm was in apparent conflict with his professional duty of scholarly publication.
3. Codes of ethics for social scientists
Social scientists officially recognize the ethical difficulties that can arise carrying out one's scientific duties. Major professional associations of social scientists in many countries, such as the American Association of Anthropology, and similar associations for historians, political scientists, and sociologists (but not economists!) have formulated principles of ethics for their members. These statements of ethical principles give some attention to conflicts between professional duties and personal interests, and suggest ways to avoid or lessen the impact of such conflicts. The American Historical Association (AHA), for example, defines conflicts of interest as those situations in which an individual's "personal interest or bias threatens or appears to threaten to compromise his or her ability to act in accordance with professional or public obligations." The advice of the AHA is to avoid such situations as reviewing manuscripts or serving in other evaluative capacities for persons to whom one feels "a sense of personal obligation, competition, or enmity," as well as those that would appear to offer a financial benefit.
The American Political Science Association discusses conflict of interest in situations of hiring, and counsels avoidance of hiring relatives or close friends. The American Sociological Association (ASA) says that "conflicts of interest arise when sociologists' personal or financial interests prevent them from performing their professional duties in an unbiased manner." The ASA advises sociologists to be alert to such situations and to take appropriate action to prevent conflict by avoiding the situation or disclosing the nature of the conflict to the appropriate party.
The American Anthropological Association also recognizes that conflicts occur. Earlier versions of the present ethical code for anthropologists stipulated that in cases of conflicts of interests, avoiding harm to the host people took precedence over all other considerations. The current version of the code attempts a more subtle ethical analysis. It recognizes that no formula is applicable to all of the many ethical conflicts that arise at every stage of anthropological work, and says that each case must be resolved on its own merits. While I agree that there can be no formula for ethically correct action, I think more can be said about what constitutes a conflict for the social scientist, what is troubling about such situations, and how they might be resolved.
Most ethical codes, including those I have just cited, advise social scientists to avoid situations of conflict. They typically consider a case in which a conflict arises between a professional duty and some personal interest, and where avoidance is possible. Not every conflict is avoidable however.
As an alternative to avoidance, some ethical codes, such as that of the ASA, recommend disclosing the nature of the conflict to appropriate parties. For example, suppose that a scholar is asked to referee a paper by a former student. The referee could refuse the task, and thereby avoid any conflict. At the same time, the editor may not have another referee, the scholar may be the best available referee, and so forth. In such a situation, the code advises the scholar to reveal to the journal editor the nature of any interest that might compromise a fair review. If the editor still wants the report, then the responsibility of taking account of any bias falls on the editor. Similarly, a social scientist who is employed or funded by a government or a private foundation should reveal to the research subjects the nature of his or her responsibilities to the sponsor.
Disclosure alleviates the problem of conflict, however, only when it is accompanied by informed consent of the persons who receive the disclosure. Editors presumably are in a position to give informed consent. In many situations, however, informed consent may not be obtainable. Most of us are familiar with the problem of medical patients who, despite being impaired by their physical or psychic trauma, are asked to consent to drastic medical procedures. Research subjects in a social science project can also be prevented from offering informed consent because of such barriers as extreme youth, failure to understand the language of the consent form, cultural distance, imprisonment, or lack of education.. When informed consent can be obtained, however, it sometimes reduces the problematic character of a situation by protecting the privacy and autonomy of the research subject.
In other cases, however, avoidance is not possible, and disclosure doesn't help. The ethical codes cited above advise how to behave when personal interests conflict with professional duties, but have little to say about the kind of unavoidable conflict that arises from having more than one duty to fulfil. Consider again the situation of the anthropologist working with the Kekchi people in Belize. Wilk is a scholar doing anthropological fieldwork. Wilk's dilemma did not involve any possible financial gain to himself or his relatives, or any other personal interest. The conflict was between his ethical duty to his host people and his professional obligation to disclose the results of his research
4. Defining "conflict of duty"
To characterize this sort of conflict in a general way, I need to introduce the idea of a fiduciary duty. Fiduciary duties are those that involve confidence or trust on the part of the person to whom the duty is owed. For example, a medical doctor has a fiduciary duty to provide the best possible medical care and advice to her patients. The trustee of an estate has a fiduciary duty to preserve the estate for the beneficiary. These duties are called "fiduciary" because they involve trust or confidence in the person who provides the service. Moreover, this trust is based on the professional expertise of the doctor or trustee of the estate. With an understanding of fiduciary duties, we are in a position to define "conflict of duty."
A situation of conflict of duty obtains when a person's ability to meet a professional responsibility to perform a fiduciary duty is strained by a competing duty.
In this definition, "conflict of duty" describes a situation rather than a feeling that a person in the situation might have. That is to say, a person need not feel any conflict or stress from the competing duties.
Situations of conflict of duty thus characterized are neither good nor bad. They are morally neutral. Those who are in such situations, however, may be tempted to forgo some fiduciary responsibility. That is why in some cases it is wise and even morally obligatory to avoid a situation in which a conflict can arise. Judges can refuse to sit on a case when they have a strong interest in the outcome. Lawyers can refuse a new client when serving the new client would compromise a relationship with another client. As we have seen, however, avoidance is not always possible. Furthermore, in cases such as Wilk's dilemma, the government's use of his work could hardly have been foreseen, so that the fact that informed consent was obtained was not helpful. Wilk's fiduciary duty to avoid harm to his hosts was strained by his professional duty to publish his results. The problem seemed to be that his historical investigations had revealed that his Kekchi hosts were relatively recent immigrants to the land on which they lived. On this basis, the Government denied that the Kekchi had ancestral claims on the lands that were conceded to logging companies.
5. Wilk's attempt to resolve the conflict of duties
To solve the problem, Wilk used some sophisticated philosophical reasoning. He argued that the fact of recent occupancy was not sufficient to make the Government case. He realized that the Government's case relied also on two unstated assumptions. The first assumption was that only long-term (longer than 150 years!) occupancy by a culturally continuous group secures contemporary land rights. The second was that the Government's treatment of the Kekchi during their long period of occupancy is irrelevant. (The Kekchi were denied the right to lease or buy the land even though no one else wanted it.) The first assumption is clearly not a scientific claim, but a value judgment. As to the second assumption, which also involves a value judgment, Wilk says that he had not included the information about the Government's denial of the Kekchi because he realized too late its ethical significance.
In reflecting on the Belize government's use of his published results, Wilk also questioned his own unthinking acceptance of using contemporary legal categories of ethnicity and property along with cultural claims to identity and continuity to frame the historical analysis he had presented. His self-criticism led him to see that the concepts of ethnicity and property rights are too unclear to serve as a foundation for scientific claims of land ownership. His own innovative suggestion to the property dispute was to reconceptualize the notion of property. It would be better, he said, to adjudicate multiple use of land by all parties with a legitimate interest in it, rather than to try to establish exclusive ownership on a dubious scientific basis.
In reviewing his work, Wilk claimed that if his scientific acumen had been greater, the apparent conflict between publishing the results of his research and his duty not to harm the Kekchi would not have arisen. He regards this as a case where better science (and, I would add, more careful philosophical analysis of concepts, including ethical concepts) would have prevented a conflict between professional duties.
6. Conflicting duties of a museum anthropologist
A second example of a conflict of duties is based on the experience of Jeremy Sabloff, an anthropologist who is also director of a major ethnographic museum (Sabloff 1999). As a museum director, he has a fiduciary duty to the trustees of the museum to preserve and maintain the collections for the benefit of the museum's patrons. Among the possessions of the museum are important cultural artifacts that were purchased in the late 19th and early 20th century from members of the Kwakiutl tribe, Native Americans from the northwest coast of the United States and Canada. Some descendants and tribal relatives of the original owners of the artifacts believe that the museum should return the artifacts to the tribe. Tribal members claim that this is essential to the dignity, privacy, and well being of their society. Even though he was not personally involved in the collection of the artifacts, Sabloff, as an anthropologist, has a professional duty to avoid harm to the tribe that originally owned the artifacts and still have an interest in them.
Sometimes the law supports claims for the return of artifacts. The transfer of ownership of cultural artifacts acquired after World War II, or in some cases, after 1970, is now regulated by laws and agreements at the local, state, federal, and international level. When the interpretation of the law is not problematic, legal resolution of the conflict is possible. The laws, however, do not cover adequately the earlier period when many of the collections of the great museums were being built through legal purchase of cultural materials. Museum personnel thus are often faced with a conflict of duty.
The anthropologist who is entrusted with museum collections cannot resolve the issue by avoiding the conflict. It is not feasible for an anthropologist who is a museum director to ignore either a duty not to harm the tribe or the competing duty of achieving the mission of the museum.
Without minimizing the difficulty of the issue, Sabloff (1999) emphasizes the importance of dialogue and consultation with representatives of all the groups that have a legitimate interest in the artifacts. Sometimes, but not always, a resolution acceptable to both sides can be reached. In at least one instance, a tribe asked for the return of artifacts, but when they came to realize what is involved in the protection and maintenance of their cultural treasures, they preferred to work with the museum. The museum can respond to some objections of the tribal leaders by removing sensitive items, such as human skeletons, from display. The museum can also present some items in a way that enhances their significance. In some cases, museums can work out agreements for shared custody of artifacts. This shared custody allows the tribe on special occasions to use or display the treasures that are ordinarily cared for by the museum. When such accommodations succeed, the anthropologist's conflict of duties is eliminated or alleviated by bringing into harmony the conflicting interests of the two groups who have claims on his duty. Even when no solution that completely satisfies both sides emerges, the participants in the dialogue learn from each other. This enhances the preservation and accessibility of artifacts and the understanding of the cultures that created them.
7. Conflicts of duties for social scientists who are government employees, or whose research is sponsored by the government
Governments--at least enlightened governments--employ social scientists for advice on such matters as the impact of government policy decisions on various cultural subgroups; how to reach prospective clients for government health or educational benefits; how to prepare foreign service and military personnel for living in other cultures; and (at least in the past) military intelligence. Social scientists who are also government employees have the duty to uphold the laws and policies of the governments that they serve. The social scientists' have a fiduciary duty to the government because their professional expertise produces an expectation on the part of their employers that they will use that knowledge to carry out government policy, excluding, of course, any actions that are clearly immoral or unethical.
The last clause of the preceding sentence is important. During several periods of US history, scandals arose concerning the use of social scientists as spies, and in consequence, some professional associations advised their members to refuse all government employment. In today's anti-formulaic ethical climate, however, social scientists are advised to judge the over-all ethical implications of particular projects rather than rejecting outright any work for the government.
My final example is taken from the work of Joe Watkins. He is an anthropological archaeologist, a Native American, and an employee of the United States Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. He has written insightfully about the potential conflicts that he faces in his attempts to fulfil all his professional duties. Many of these issues can be illustrated in the controversy surrounding the recent discovery of a human skeleton on federally controlled land in the northwestern part of the United States. Problems about the disposition of this skeleton, which has been named "Kennewick Man," demonstrate the difficulty in reconciling anthropological standards of ethics with some government regulations. Unfortunately, the issue has also been characterized as a conflict between scientific and humanistic values.
The two anthropologists who discovered the skeleton, judged it to be the remains of a Caucasian male, dating from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. The skeleton had a projectile point embedded in its hip. The anthropologists figured that was a result of a skirmish between whites and Indians. Radiocarbon dating of a bone sample taken from the skeleton, however, put its age at an astonishing 9,200-9,600 years. Once the age of the skeleton became known, five Indian tribes filed a claim for the remains, appealing to the newly enacted federal law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The tribes wanted to rebury the skeleton without allowing any further scientific tests. Eight distinguished anthropologists, worried about the loss to science, sued to block repatriation. The progress of this lawsuit would be closely watched, as it posed the first major test of the vaguely worded law. Some anthropologists feared that the tribes would be clear winners, and that this would compel archaeologists to abandon the study of Native American culture. If that were the result, Watkins writes, "Imagine the personal anguish most governmental archaeologists would feel if forced to uphold a federal policy in regard to materials equally as important to science and Native American cultures as "Kennewick Man"." The anguish that Watkins describes as "personal," however, is professional as well. Watkins would be faced with a conflict between his archaeological duty and his fiduciary duty as a public official.
Watkins' own solution to the potential conflicts he faces is to work with members of the tribe to establish personal relationships as well as the formal relationships required by his job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In this way, he hopes to forge appropriate links of understanding and respect on both sides. A continuing dialogue that focuses in part on what archaeology is trying to find out and how this fits into other interests of the tribe, he believes, will make it easier to resolve issues about sensitive materials when they arise. If government archaeologists understand the point of view of Native Americans, they can better explain why archaeology is relevant and valuable to the Native American point of view. This should dispel the belief that science (i.e., archaeology) cannot coexist with Native American cosmological beliefs. Neither science nor Native American values would be harmed if archaeology could both be and be perceived as relevant and valuable to the interests of Native Americans in preserving their history and tradition. Such understanding cannot be gained solely by argument or legislation, however. It can develop only by the patient building of relationships of understanding and trust.
8. Conflicts faced by social scientists employed in industry and medicine
The three examples of conflicts of duties that I have discussed are typical of conflicts that anthropologists face in assuming their varied professional roles. Similar conflicts arise for other social scientists. Sociologists, for example, can also be torn between duties to the people they study and duties to government sponsors of their research. Political scientists can face similar situations. In the cases discussed here, the anthropologists who confront conflicts of duties attempt to resolve the conflicts by adjusting perceptions of how best to pursue apparently conflicting interests. These perceptions are adjusted through open disclosure of the sources of the conflict, negotiation, and modification of behavior. For example, in the museum case, the duty of avoiding harm to the tribal group is recognized as very important, but when the tribe is seen to benefit from the museumｹs care for its artifacts, the duty of the museum official and the anthropologist no longer conflict. At the same time, when the museum recognizes that its holding of artifacts is perceived by the tribe as a harm, it can adjust its way of curating artifacts to accommodate tribal interests. This accommodation of tribal interests in turn enhances the understanding of the collections for the museum and its clients.
Social scientists employed in industry and in the medical field, like museum workers and government employees, face conflicts of duties as well. Industry has come to realize, for example, that the skills of social scientists are useful in market research and product development. The education of social scientists trains them to engage in nonthreatening but probing conversation with people. The training of social scientists also also prepares them to observe and interpret all sorts of behavioral cues to peopleｹs beliefs, needs, and desires These abilities are just what is needed for conducting successful marketing research. Private employers of social scientists have expectations similar to those of government employers with respect to loyalty in upholding and enacting company policies.
Social scientists, however, must take care not to exploit the people whom they work with to accomplish the goals of industry. Thus full disclosure on the part of the scientists and informed consent on the part of the people they work with are essential.
Medical anthropologists and sociologists confront special issues because they must deal with Institutional Review Boards that regulate all research on humans in medical settings. Social scientist who are engaged in research on medical practices try to establish a fiduciary relationship with both staff and patients. Sometimes, however, their fiduciary duties are strained. This can happen, for example, when the social scientist's research uncovers incompetence on the part of the staff or unethical behavior on the part of either staff or patients. These cases may be even more difficult to resolve than the others discussed so far because most medical information must be kept confidential.
9. Concluding remarks
In all of the examples discussed today, I have tried to link present-day concern with situations of conflict of duties to the worries of critical theorists about treating humans as object of study. The strain between a fiduciary duty and some other duty of a social scientist poses dilemmas that can sometimes be resolved by the methods suggested in this talk.
It is important for critics of the social sciences to recognize that professional associations of social scientists support committees to formulate and revise appropriate codes of ethics for their members. Several associations have even enlisted the aid of philosophers to draft ethical codes. The American Anthropological Association, for example, worked with Professor B. Gert to prepare the latest version of its code. Comparisons of older and newer versions of ethical codes reveal that the newer codes are subtler than their predecessors were. In addition to formulating ethical codes, the professional associations of social scientists attempt to draw their members into a process of self-education in ethics. They urge members to read about and think about the issues, and to realize that there are no easy recipes for doing the right thing. They also recognize that reasonable people can disagree about what course of action is best in a situation where difficult choices must be made. In light of these ethical concerns by social scientists who fully embrace the methods and goals of the natural scientists, the critical theorists' claim that a social science modeled on a natural science is inherently immoral is severely undermined.
*Different versions of this paper were presented at the 1999 meeting of the International Union for Logic, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science (Cracow), and at Shoin Women's College (Kobe). The author is grateful for comments received on both occasions. An expanded version of the paper will be published in Conflict of Interest in the Professions, edited by M. Davis and A. Stark, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Sabloff, J. (1999). Scientific research, museum collections, and rights of ownership. Science and Engineering Ethics, 5: 347-354.
Watkins, J. (1999). Conflicting codes: Professional, ethical and legal obligations in archaeology. Science and Engineering Ethics 5:337-346.
Wilk, R. (1999). Whose forest? Whose land? Whose ruins? Ethics and conservation. Science and Engineering Ethics 5:367-374
(c) Merrilee H. Salmon
Editor's Note: Prof. Merrilee Salmon has been teaching here in Kyoto this term, and her seminar on the philosophy of soial science updated our scant knowledge in this field. We are grateful for her clear and kind lectures. The paper included here was presented at a meeting for the Kyoto Colloquium for the Philosophy of Science, June 25, 2000, and the editor wishes to thank her for this contribution to our Newsletter. (Soshichi Uchii)
Last modified Nov. 30, 2008