From regulation to virtue: a critique of ethical formalism in research organizations.

Author:Atkinson, Timothy N.


The research compliance system, both fiscal and non-fiscal, has some noticeable flaws that should be addressed, particularly with regard to excessive emphasis of and reliance upon formal regulations in research administration. Research administrators in the compliance field sometimes practice a form of "ethical formalism" in which rules and regulations outweigh other approaches to promoting ethical behavior in the research environment (Bell & Wray-Bliss, 2009). The tendency toward regulatory rigor evolved through government mandate and laws that were created in response to watershed events in ethical history, such as the infamous study of syphilis at Tuskegee. Research administrators had no choice but to enact compliance-oriented practices as the penalties for non-compliance with the federal regulations and mandates are severe. Through the force of law, ethical formalism, or a more extreme form of ethical compliance, became a necessity, and eventually an organizational myth in the pursuit of organizational survival, professional legitimacy, and control. Ethical formalism is the accepted and legitimized practice of absolute ethics in research administration, propelled by ethical saga, controlled by law, rules, policies, and, unfortunately, fear.

In this article, we argue that ethical formalism is not an optimal perspective alone, and that the organizational culture was formed by laws and rules outside the organizations' control, thereby failing to generate the adaptive guidance needed for the flourishing dynamic research environments. The analysis continues by offering some solutions for how the ethical formalistic perspective can be augmented through positive organizational practices and virtuous action (Cameron, Dutton & Quinn, 2003), and finally by creating organizational actors who stand as moral exemplars (Zagzebski, 2010) or leader-mentors (Cheatham, 2010; Gabriel, 2010) who bridge the gap between researchers, organizational leaders, and the regulations.

It is important to clarify that ethical formalism, as understood and analyzed here, has become the preferred approach to the guidance of ethical behavior within organizations. It is distinct from formal ethical theories intended to establish a foundation for ethics itself, such as the formal deontological ethics formulated by Kant as a universal basis for the moral imperatives required of rational agents in general. The issues we address pertain to how ethical conduct is implemented and maintained within and through organizations, rather than the origins of ethical normativity itself. The critique offered is an analysis of the shortcomings in relying upon formal authoritative rules and regulations as the sole source of behavior guidance among research administrators. This extreme ethical formalism should be augmented by the positive promotion of virtuous and responsible agent-based conduct through mentorship and moral exemplarism, irrespective of whatever particular theory or account informs the determination of what one ought or ought not to do.

To be clear, the proposal is not to remove or replace formal rules and regulations, but rather to recognize their limitations and the need for further positive processes towards effective ethical thought and action within research organizations. It is also important to clarify that the following argument is not a critique of research administrators as a professional group who practice compliance administration. On the contrary, both anecdotal and empirical evidence suggests research administrators are a vital professional group who strongly contribute to integrity in the research environment, but whose actions are constrained by political structures in their own organizations so that consistent application of law, policy, or perspective becomes difficult to achieve (Atkinson & Gilleland, 2007; Atkinson, Gilleland & Pearson, 2007). Control is truly a myth as some actors will defy the law or be ignorant of the law regardless of the pressure to comply. Through the critiques and proposals provided here, it is hoped that the efficacy of research administrators in promoting ethical research may be enhanced towards the flourishing of the research environment overall.

In addition, the analyses and suggestions we offer are aimed primarily at the research practices and behaviors within established organizations in the developed world and the deficits we see with the sole reliance upon formal regulations to guide the ethical conduct of research. In other contexts with differing cultural dynamics, such as research conducted in the developing world without established compliance procedures already in place, different emphases may be appropriate or necessary. For example, in a case where informed consent procedures are not in place for the protection of human participants, some formal, foundational regulations and procedures may first need to be put into practice before we can expect the cycle of virtuous research to flourish. Of course, virtuous agency and decisionmaking entails treating others well, and an emphasis on virtue can itself help ameliorate the ethical problems that informed consent and other such regulatory procedures are intended to address, but we must acknowledge that the promotion of virtue through exemplary mentorship is not a catch-all solution for the diverse ethical issues that occur across all cultural contexts. A developing country could be in the foundational stages of change and might require an initial formal approach to raise awareness, just as it was in the U.S. before rules and regulations were enforced.

Problems with Ethical Formalism and Extreme Compliance Administration

We begin our analysis by surveying some problems with ethical formalism in general, through both theoretical considerations and empirical findings across social psychology, cognitive science, decision theory, and ethical theory, to be followed by a critique of ethical formalism within research environments in particular.

First, it is important to recognize that rules and regulations are abstract objects consisting of broad normative generalizations that stand apart from the concrete particular details of human life. As such, formal rules and regulations alone are not adequate for handling the complex contextual factors that pertain to human decision-making in actual practice. Of course, the generality established by formal rule systems serves a purpose, providing a clear framework for important commonalities in the values and limits that ought to guide human behavior, but this alone is insufficient for the establishment of concrete ethical behavior in practice. At the very minimum, rules and regulations must be interpreted and applied, which demands further cognitive processing and skilled decision-making in virtually any context involving the complexities of human social life (Hastie & Dawes, 2001). A rule can specify what one ought or ought not to do in certain clearly defined cases, but it alone cannot provide the guidance needed to make well-formed decisions amidst the myriad details and nuances surrounding the choices people face, especially in complex social environments. This is a point that has long been recognized in ethical theory, most notably in regard to Aristotelian virtue ethics, which emphasizes the need for well-habituated virtuous practical reasoning skills in the cultivation of a good life (Aristotle 1999). Abstract formal structures of rules and regulations alone cannot provide a sufficient normative basis for concrete human thought and activity.

Another distinct and significant problem in relying upon the authority of rules and regulations to guide behavior is the diffusion of responsibility that tends to accompany the deference to authority involved in rule following. When told to behave in a particular manner by an authority, people exhibit a psychological tendency to offload responsibility for the consequences onto the external situation (Auhagen & Bierhoff, 2001). In Stanley Milgram's famous obedience experiments, for example, the subjects who obeyed the authoritatively imposed order to shock another person tended to explain their actions not as something that they themselves would normally choose to do but rather as an expedient matter of just doing their job, as assigned by an external authority (Milgram, 1974). The subjects were merely acting in accordance with the rules and guidelines placed upon them, without considering themselves as ethical agents independently in charge of their own choices and thereby responsible for the consequences. This is particularly troubling when the rules themselves may lead to unethical circumstances, as was the case in Milgram's obedience experiments, but it is important to recognize that the problem is broader than the capacity of humans to engage in unethical behavior when compelled to do so by the rules. Even when the consequences may be perfectly ethical, the diffusion of responsibility onto the external authority of the rules creates psychological deficits in the person's decision-making, such that the person in question does not engage in the kind of thoughtful, conscientious and goal-oriented agency that could maximize the positive efficacy of their job and the flourishing of the organization in which they work.

The problems with ethical formalism in general may be summarized by observing that reliance upon rules and regulations alone to establish ethical behavior displaces the reasoning and responsibility of human agents. This is not to say that rules and regulations are bad or problematic in themselves, but rather that their over-emphasis within ethical formalism, and an extreme compliance framework, creates a rigid formal authority that diminishes the nuanced practical reasoning required of good decision-making in complex circumstances and replaces mindful responsibility with...

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