A need to know: an ethical decision-making model for research administrators.

Author:Lincoln, Sarah Hope


The ability to work through and resolve ethical dilemmas is an important skill for any professional. The multi-faceted work of research administrators forces them to deal with a multiplicity of dilemmas related to research ethics. These dilemmas can arise in any of the areas or allied disciplines related to research administration, such as financial stewardship, operations, human resources management, sponsored projects oversight, strategic planning, research law, development activities, standards for the responsible conduct of research, and human subjects protection. The ability to tackle ethical dilemmas to uphold the ethical integrity of research and ensure regulatory compliance is critical for professional research administrators on all levels, including executives, middle managers, and technical or support staff. Yet, as individuals join the research administration profession from diverse backgrounds and previous experiences, their exposure to research ethics also varies. Recognizing that each research administrator brings different perspectives and experiences to ethical situations, it is important that research administrators of all professional levels receive clear, effective training for dealing with ethical dilemmas.

Literature Review

Rushworth Kidder, founder of the Institute for Global Ethics, describes a true ethical dilemma as a conflict of right versus right. He claims that true ethical dilemmas fall within four right-versus-right categories; individuals so frequently encounter these four types of dilemmas that they can be considered paradigms (Kidder, 1995). These four fundamental ethical dilemmas are: truth versus loyalty, individual versus community, short term versus long term, and justice versus mercy. Kidder asserts that the ability to classify ethical dilemmas into one of these four categories allows individuals to reduce a complex and potentially anxiety-provoking dilemma into a more manageable and less threatening problem. However, the ability to identify and categorize the type of ethical dilemma does not resolve the conflict. Working through the dilemma is necessary to reach a decision.

Focusing on the process of understanding and resolving an ethical dilemma, James Rest (1994) developed a theoretical model of ethical decision making that involves four distinct psychological processes: moral awareness, moral judgment, moral intention, and moral action. Rest asserts that, when confronted with an ethical dilemma, individuals engage in a decision-making process that involves working through these four components. Individuals move from moral awareness, the recognition of a moral situation, to moral judgment, the evaluation of choices and outcomes, to moral intention, choosing how one intends to act, and lastly to moral action, the actual behavior in the situation. A failure at any step in the process could result in a failure to make an ethical decision (Rest, 1994).

Building on Rest's theory, Jones (1991) developed a theory of moral intensity, suggesting that specific characteristics of the moral situation-- what he collectively identified as moral intensity--influence individuals' decision-making ability. Jones described six factors of moral intensity: Magnitude of Consequences, Social Consensus, Probability of Effect, Temporal Immediacy, Proximity, and Concentration of Effect. Magnitude of Consequences refers to the degree to which an individual may be harmed by or benefit from the decision maker's action. Social Consensus refers to the degree of agreement among a social group that an action is good or bad. This social group could be society as a whole (e.g., an illegal act is not morally acceptable by society because a law prohibits it) or a smaller social group, such as an individual's colleagues. Probability of Effect is described as the likelihood that the predicted outcomes and the expected level of harm/benefit will occur. Temporal Immediacy refers to the length of time between the action and its resolution. An action that results in...

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