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From the Absence of 'Rights'. On Rules and Reflexivity in Ethics Teaching in Geography

Dr Iain Hay
Flinders University, Australia


"... the novelty of the postmodern approach to ethics consists first and foremost not in the abandoning of characteristically moral concerns, but in the rejection of the typically modern ways of going about its moral problems (that is, responding to moral challenges with coercive normative regulation in political practice, and the philosophical search for absolutes, universals, and foundations in theory). The great issues of ethics - like human rights, social justice, balance between peaceful co-operation and personal self-assertion, synchronization of individual conduct and collective welfare - have lost none of their topicality. They only need to be seen, and dealt with, in a novel way."

(Bauman 1993, pp. 3-4)

1 Introduction

From an Australian perspective on the ethics of professional conduct and the teaching of those ethics in geography, it seems that multiculturalism, postmodernism, and inherent tensions in ethical theory are all contributing to an unshackling of ethics from what individuals and institutions may once have held to be foundational rights, rules or commandments. And in their place we are confronted with the troubling ideas that moral 'universality' may actually be parochial and partial, constructed and contested. It is from this background, and drawing from Bauman's postmodern approach to ethics, that this paper is written. I discuss rules and reflexivity in ethics teaching from a position which questions claims by various institutions to moral authority and which is consequently critical of prescriptive determinations of 'right' behaviour. The paper outlines one attempt to imagine and teach ethics of professional conduct in a postmodern age. The overall argument and approach cover matters that may have significance for the professional geographical organisations of which many of us are a part.

In overview, I suggest first that, as geographers, we repudiate institutional claims to moral authority and the prescriptive approaches to ethics commonly allied with those claims. Second, I suggest that if we turn away from heteronomous approaches to ethics we must focus instead on re-personalising ethics. This presents a substantial challenge to us as geography-educators. How might we contribute effectively to the re-placement of moral authority in the Self? I must confess here at the outset that I have no simple, easy answer to this question. What I can offer though is a call for us to devote more explicit attention to matters of ethics in our classes; the suggestion that we focus that attention around a group of major moral concerns; and an outline of a simple teaching-and-learning strategy that employs real ethical dilemmas in ways intended to contribute to the nurturing and stimulation of the 'moral imaginations' that, I believe, characterise autonomous, reflexive ethical behaviour.

2 Moral Authority and Ethical Prescription

For reasons which vary from one place to another, a number of national societies, including the AAG (Association of American Geographers), the RGS/IBG (Royal Geographical Society/Institute of British Geographers), the IAG (Institute of Australian Geographers) and the New Zealand Geographical Society have recently considered, or are currently considering, their approaches to professional ethics.

It is my sense that we are in the midst of an institutional impulse to make explicit statements of appropriate ethical practice. Some of the pressures for this to occur within university-based social science research have been brewing for about 10-15 years, although the imperative in other fields is rather older. Whether it was evident earlier or not, research atrocities of the Second World War highlighted the failure of Western religion and custom to provide sufficient moral supervision and direction to prevent the terrifying and despicable human experimentation that occurred then. Modernist legislators and ethicists believed that the void left by the abandonment of a faith in God could be filled with carefully constructed sets of rational rules. Reason could do what belief was doing no more (Bauman 1993, p. 6).

The codes of ethics that were developed after the War (for example, Nuremberg Code, Helsinki Declaration) applied most clearly to human experimentation. To preserve (or regain) public prestige, medical (and animal) science was driven to assure the publics that inhuman behaviour could not be condoned in the name of 'science', and with the confidence that comes with methodological and ontological security, ethical codes were developed for the medical and animal sciences. It is from those models, but in a new social context, that institutions now appear to be finding their blueprints for social and behavioural research ethics (Neuman 1997, p. 454). In this matter it may be informative to consider the experience of the Flinders University of South Australia.

In the mid-1980s, along with other universities in Australia, Flinders began to tighten up its procedures for ethical conduct (Mageean 1995). Reportedly, university administrators had realised that scores of independent researchers were undertaking work that might expose them and the university to litigation (Mageean 1995). Although there had been no experience of any such problems, peer scrutiny of research projects offered the promise of a reduced likelihood of suit. Against resistance to efforts to introduce ethics reviews, the university was able to argue that researchers would themselves carry the brunt of any legal action against them had ethics clearance from the University not been received.

The particular form of research ethics review practices at Flinders and the relatively high profile of ethical issues there can be attributed, in part, to an NH&MRC (National Health and Medical Research Council)-driven systematisation of research ethics considerations (Mageean 1995). Long-standing ethical concerns in medical and animal research meant that those fields of work had well-established ethical principles and review procedures by the time Flinders sought to give explicit attention to social and behavioural research ethics. As a result of that intellectual 'leadership', the medical model was, to a certain extent, followed.

The NH&MRC Statement on Human Experimentation [plus Supplementary Notes] (NH&MRC 1992a, 1992b) together constitute the Australian standard for dealing with human research ethics (Steele 1996). Flinders University, like others across Australia, is required by Commonwealth legislation to have a properly composed ethics committee to ensure that national laws are adhered to and those people involved in research have their rights preserved (Steele 1996). For instance, the Flinders University Social and Behavioural Research Ethics Committee is set up in accord with NH&MRC guidelines (for example, a lawyer, a medical graduate with research experience, and a minister of religion must be on the committee) because research conducted with funds administered by that organisation must be approved by an ethics committee which meets with the organisation's approval (Steele 1996). If the University fails to deal 'appropriately' with ethical matters, the potential consequences range from the withdrawal of funding to legal prosecution. More recently, the NH&MRC has been influential through one of its divisions AHEC [Australian Health Ethics Committee] which has been actively promoting its view of ethical practice in qualitative research (AHEC 1994) within Australian universities. Flinders University is required to comply with AHEC privacy guidelines and directions on research in a variety of areas including work involving Torres Strait Islanders and Aboriginal peoples (Steele 1996). It must also comply with State legislation and codes of conduct regulated by the South Australian Health Commission (Steele 1996).

Just as universities now endeavour to codify many aspects of their day-to-day workings (for example, supervision practices, assessment practices, teaching goals), so is the momentum of internally and externally generated requirements to engage in ethical practice likely to find formal expression. Institutional accountability, buttressed by humanitarian and self-interested reasons for acting ethically, now seem bound to compel action of increasing intensity. Once the 'regulatory' process begins, it is likely to gather bureaucratic momentum (Cassell & Wax 1980, p. 260). Institutional (for example, university, granting body) shifts seem likely to be carried over to organisations such as the IAG, NZGS, AAG and RGS-IBG which represent geography to their respective national populations and whose position as such means they are actively concerned with the welfare of researchers and the community (indeed, this is made explicit in the IAG Code of Professional Conduct which states that 'Registered members agree that geographers have responsibilities to the public, employees, clients and colleagues' [Institute of Australian Geographers, no date, para 1.1]).

Unfortunately, an extensive review of published works reveals that geographers appear to have given little explicit attention to professional research ethics. In this apparent silence on ethics in geography, we face a future in which our interests and those of people who participate in geographic research may inadvertently be suppressed. Well-meaning people, perhaps, who see the worlds of research and relationships in quite different ways from those with 'geographical imaginations', may cast research moulds which constrain and distort our discipline's potentials and which unwittingly promote the conditions in which instrumentalist, rule-following behaviours are substituted for ethical thought and engagement.

It is time, I believe, for geographers to give serious thought to professional ethics and to become active in negotiations over the constitution of institutional approaches to ethical practice. While we may not be able to resist some of those incursions into professional ethics by the law (for example, Privacy Acts which might overrule institutional Codes of Ethics) and by those research funding agencies which claim the ethical authority which comes with the provision of increasingly important and scarce financial support for research (for a recent review of the New Zealand context, see Roche & Mansvelt, 1996), we can begin to position ourselves as knowledgeable actors in discussions about the ethical conduct of social and environmental research. To make any such contribution however, we must first develop understandings of the nature of ethics and discuss the ways in which we can contribute usefully to the ethical conduct of geographical research.

In thinking about ethics, I believe geographers would be well advised to avoid following the path of some other disciplines and groups such as the American Sociological Association, the Australian Journalists Society and the New Zealand Association of Social Anthropologists that have adopted ethical codes that are, in whole or in part, prescriptive. Moreover, we need to avoid and discourage regulatory mechanisms such as 'institutional ethics committees' in which the responsibility for what is or is not 'ethical' is shifted quietly from individual geographers to the morally disinterested, but legally engaged, institutions, institutes, or societies of which those committees are a part.

Following on from these assertions, it would be unwise for us to contemplate teaching prescriptive approaches to professional ethics and mischievous to suggest through our teaching that students are morally subordinate to institutional ethics committees - no matter how easy and attractive those options may seem when anxious students demand 'right' answers and when they want hard and fast 'rules' for ethical behaviour. Both positions - ethical prescription and individual subordination to institutions - imply connections to some greater moral authority that quite simply does not exist.

A questioning of moral authority can be founded on more than just the possibility that God might have died - and I'd like to leave aside the question about whose God we might be discussing there, to focus instead on a small number of more secular concerns which illustrate the problematic natures of prescription and moral subordination. These have to do with contradictory normative approaches to ethics; the non-universality of rules and guidelines; the contest between legalism and morality; and simple practical difficulties associated with ethical rules.

First, the normative approaches that underpin ethical decisions are contradictory. Teleological approaches see the morality of acts judged on the basis of the balance of good over evil produced as a consequence of those acts. By contrast, deontological approaches reject the notion that what is 'right' can be determined by assessing consequences. Instead, certain acts are good in themselves and those 'good acts' are viewed as morally right because, for example, they keep a promise, show gratitude, or demonstrate loyalty to an unconditional command (Kimmel 1988, pp. 44-50). So, from a teleological standpoint, it might be appropriate for a geographer to violate and make public the secret and sacred 'women's knowledge' of an Australian Aboriginal community to prevent the construction of a bridge through the sacred places associated with that knowledge. A deontological view, on the other hand, might require that researcher to maintain the secret trust with which s/he had been privileged, even if non-disclosure meant that construction of the bridge would destroy the sacred places associated with that knowledge. These fundamental distinctions between moral theories suggest a certain futility in trying to generate a workable, uniform approach to ethical practice and point to fundamental difficulties in resolving claims to moral exactitude.

The second difficulty associated with ethical heteronomy has to do with the non-universality of ethical rules.Although ethical codes and guidelines might be revised frequently to reflect shifting public concerns, it is unlikely that they will ever be applicable to all people and to all situations at all times. As Bauman (1993, p. 11) notes in Postmodern Ethics, the idea that we can ever develop a universal code of ethics is impossible because moral phenomena are:

"not regular, repetitive, monotonous and predictable in a way that would allow them to be represented as rule-guided. It is mainly for this reason that they cannot be exhausted by any 'ethical code'."

(Bauman 1993, p. 11).

It is unlikely that ethical prescriptions can anticipate every dilemma. So, there will always be times when individual geographers will have to deal with problems without the arguable benefit of rules or guidelines, without 'supervision', and without the input of others. When no one else is 'looking', the monitoring and enforcement of ethical behaviour rests with individual, responsible, self-policing citizens.

Third, formal attempts by individuals and institutions to claim moral authority invite the potential for a contest between 'ethical legalism' and individual, situated morality. Imposed and formal approaches to ethics tend to detract from morality, I would argue, by blurring the need, and limiting the scope, for authentic personal responses to ethical problems.

Finally, practical difficulties associated with the application of prescriptive ethical codes present another fundamental problem. For example, the American Sociological Association's Code of Ethics requires that confidential information provided by research participants be treated as confidential even when legal force is applied to obtain it from the researcher. From this perspective, a sociologist asked by a court of law to divulge the names of informants assured of confidentiality would have to contemplate the real possibility of being gaoled for contempt of court.

So, ethical prescription and moral subordination have their problems. How might these be resolved?

3 Re-personalising Ethics

Following Bauman (1993, p. 11), we need to re-personalise ethics. We must shift moral phenomena away from power-assisted heteronomy and back to the realm of personal autonomy. We must displace a learnable knowledge of rules with the moral self, constituted by responsibility. And we must restore answerability to the Other and to moral self-conscience and take it back from legislators, institutions and other guardians of codes.

One of our challenges as geography-educators then is to concentrate on ways in which we can develop, teach and encourage the moral reflexivity that is a hallmark of this personalised, responsible citizenship.

My argument should not be construed as advocacy for ethical relativism. It does not mean that 'anything goes'. It does not mean there are no great moral issues around which we might think and around which different 'ethical' practices have developed (Grace & Cohen 1995, pp. 33-4). Instead, I would like to suggest that we encourage approaches and educational strategies that might allow us and our students to carefully navigate the shared territories of justice, beneficence (doing good), non-maleficence (doing no harm), and respect for others (Tri-Council Working Group 1997) upon which different ethical maps have been laid. And I shall return to these matters shortly. First, however, let us look to a practical problem.

How do we make pedagogically - not to mention institutionally - 'operational' a flexible and personal approach to ethics. How do we promote critical reflexivity focused on matters such as justice and concern for others?

Several authors (Preston 1991, p. 58; Wilson and Ranft 1993, p. 447), and most notably the United States Institute of Society, Ethics and the Life Sciences (otherwise known as the Hastings Center [1979, pp. 48-51]) have set out goals for an ethics education which seem to me to be compatible with the re-personalising of ethics and with the denunciation of prescriptive approaches and institutional assertions of moral authority.

The goals are:

Critical to an educational approach intended to re-personalise ethics is an objective common to all forms of teaching, the dispensability of the teacher. Our teaching practice should aim to provide students with the concepts and skills that will allow them to handle moral issues independently and advisedly. So, how might all of this be done in practice? How might we stimulate moral imaginations, develop analytical skills and foster tolerance of ethical ambiguity?

4 Moral Concerns and Messy Cases

Let me sketch some things out very quickly here. The approach I outline might be used in university classrooms or as part of a continuing education initiative by a professional organisation. There will certainly be room for improvement and I shall confine my discussion to relations between geographers and the people we study, leaving aside matters to do, for example, with professional relations with one another and our relations with funding organisations.

I propose that we build our approaches to ethics teaching and professional development around those four major areas of moral concern to which I referred earlier: justice, beneficence, non-maleficence and respect for others. These are four great domains of interest that even postmodern ethicists like Bauman recognise. However, I would like to add the precautionary note that instead of being attainable through singular ethical stategies, the paths to justice; the paths to respect for others; and the paths to beneficence will be different just as those concepts take different meanings in different contexts. Rather than seeing this multiplicity of routes as constituting an impenetrable moral maze, I believe we may be able to help our students by making explicit some of the ways in which these moral concerns might be revealed in our day-to-day practice and by encouraging - without prescription - critical, autonomous thought about ethical behaviour.

We could, for example, suggest that in reflecting on issues of justice and respect for others associated with a research project, matters such as confidentiality and issues of harm - plus many others such as cultural sensitivity, consent, and feedback to participants - might be given consideration. Some of these are outlined below in Table 1. These might be set up in what I somewhat reluctantly see as a 'have you considered...?' type of framework. My reluctance has to do with the prospect that such catalogues might be regarded as comprehensive checklists for ethical deliberation rather than as a starting point for moral contemplation. None of the points are statements of prescription. They are not declarations of what 'must' or 'should' be and nor should they be taken as implying any particular course of action in any particular situation. They are simply intended to be prompts to facilitate an engagement between morality and method.

Table 1. Prompts for Moral Contemplation

Issues of Confidentiality
  • disclosing identity of participants in the course of research and in the release of results.
  • consent and the collection of private or confidential information.
  • data storage during and after research (e.g. field notes, completed surveys and tape-recorded interviews).
Issues of Harm
  • competence of researchers and appropriateness of facilities.
  • representations of results.
  • opportunities for participants to withdraw from the research once it has commenced.
  • consideration of dependent populations.

Focal points for reflexivity, like those outlined, acknowledge the variability of professional research practice and the situations in which geographers find themselves. Instead of being morally bound by rules or guidelines for behaviour, autonomous practising geographers making day-to-day ethical decisions are instead informed by awareness of areas of potential ethical concern and sensitivity, structured around the moral issues of justice, beneficence and non-maleficence and respect for others.

A second and allied component of a teaching strategy intended to help re-personalise ethics is founded on a series of real ethical cases. The case method, which was reviewed in the Journal of Geography in Higher Education by Richard Grant last year (1997), appears to be particularly relevant in ethics teaching. The approach has a number of valuable educational outcomes that include, amongst others: fostering critical thinking, blending affective and cognitive learning (that is learning to do with values and emotions and skills of intellect and thought) and teaching questioning and self-directed learning. But I would like to go on to suggest that Joyce, Weil & Showers' (1992) six phase Jurisprudential Inquiry approach to learning offers a useful instructional framework within which to embed the case method for ethics teaching in geography.

In phase one, the class reads and discusses some of those matters of ethics, ethical theory and moral authority I have outlined in this talk. Then, small groups of about 3-4 students are presented with a number of ethical conundrums/case studies such as that set out below. Through these cases students are asked to engage and exercise their moral imaginations.

Table 2. Ethics Case: "They Did That Last Week"

Malcolm Peterson, an Honours student at an Australian university, carefully prepares a questionnaire survey for distribution to two groups of sixteen-year old students in 'home groups' at two local high schools. The survey is central to the comparative work Malcolm is conducting as part of his thesis. In compliance with the State's Department of Educational and Children's Services, Malcolm secures permission from the students' parents to conduct the survey. He also gets permission for his work from the university's Ethics Committee. The Ethics Committee requires him to include a cover letter to students which states that their participation in the study is voluntary and that no-one is obliged to answer any of the questions asked. A few weeks before he intends to administer the questionnaire survey, Malcolm leaves near-final drafts of it with the students' teachers for comment. The draft copy of the questionnaire does not include the cover letter. It is Malcolm's intention to revise the questionnaire in the light of each teacher's comments and then return to the schools to administer the questionnaire during 'home group' meeting times. About a week after he leaves the survey forms with the teachers Malcolm calls them to find out if they have had an opportunity to comment on the questionnaire. The first teacher has just returned the questionnaire - with no amendments - by post. However, Malcolm finds that the second teacher had already made multiple copies of the forms and had administered the questionnaire to her student 'home group'. She asks Malcolm to come along to collect the completed forms. Malcolm scuttles off to the school immediately. He finds that the questionnaires had been completed fully by every student present in the home group. Only one student from the class of 30 had been absent so the response rate was 97% - a remarkably high rate. Malcolm feels he cannot ask the teacher to readminister the survey because she has already indicated several times that she is tired of his requests for assistance and access to the class.

As part of that engagement, and unless there are good reasons for doing otherwise, the case studies should not be accompanied by specific questions (e.g. 'what should she do now?', 'should he have done that?'). Instead, in phase two, students are required to decide what the ethical problems are in these cases, if any exist at all. Issue identification is a significant learning objective because, as Burns (1995, p. 37) notes in a paper in Law and Contemporary Problems, "much unethical and deeply destructive behavior results from a failure to see the moral significance of human situations." The identification of ethical issues might be achieved through a process of classroom negotiation. At this stage students should avoid taking a stand. The task is simply to identify the ethical problems. It is in phase three that students formulate their own positions on the cases and support those stands. To maximise individual engagement with the material and to minimise subsequent 'buck-passing' and 'I dunno' responses, this is probably best achieved by getting everyone to prepare their answers independently in their own time and in writing. In phase four, each student's notes on the ethical scenario(s) form the basis of Socratic dialogue with the teacher and perhaps with peers. As you will recall from "The Paper Chase", a 1973 movie set in Harvard Law School, the Socratic method is most commonly associated with legal education and typically involves a teacher asking students questions about a case under study. Rather than learning 'right' answers, the emphasis is on exploring principles, concepts, and attempting to resolve problems. The method seems ideally suited to issues of ethics. Phase five activities are intended to encourage each student to review their position and the reasoning behind it. This might require everyone to rewrite their original opinion in the light of peer and instructor comments provided during phase four discussion. Finally, phase six offers additional testing of the student's arguments by checking to see if they can stand up to the most extreme conditions possible. This can be done through formal assessment of written work, with the marking being based on criteria such as quality of argument and quality of evidence. It seems to me that this phase would be enriched through the use of writing groups.

Overall, this strategy allows student-geographers to reflect on the character and complexities of specific situations in research and professional practice in the comparative safety of the classroom. Through Socratic discussion, writing and peer review groups, the cases prompt students to reflect critically on ethical problems and to engage with moral imaginations: both their own and those of their peers. While there surely are other ways of stimulating moral imaginations, advancing analytical abilities, and engendering tolerance to ambiguity, the model based on the case method and jurisprudential inquiry has the virtues of simplicity, ease of application, and cost-effectiveness.

5 Concluding Remarks

Amongst other things, the characteristics of ethical theory and the lessons learned from and through postmodern thought bring into question claims to moral authority and make clear the impotence of prescriptive approaches to ethics. Rather than aiding and abetting the colonisation of geographers' moral imaginations by devising or supporting the application of institutional codes of ethics, we would do better to encourage autonomous, critical and situated reflexivity around some of the major issues of ethics - justice, beneficence, non-maleficence and respect for others. Given recent legal and institutional shifts towards heteronomous relations my advocacy of ethical autonomy is perhaps somewhat idealistic and, in one sense, anachronistic, but an approach to ethics built on critical reflexivity rather than on adherence to rules and guidelines may contribute to the re-personalising of morality. And in doing that, it restores, or at least holds, ethics in the place that it belongs. Moreover, by foresaking ethical heteronomy and emphasising moral imaginations we will be reminded constantly that morality ultimately flows from the self and that context gives further shape to its various manifestations.

Because the feasibility of repersonalised, reflexive ethics as a matter of ethical policy rests on the existence of keen and critical moral imaginations, it is vital that we as geographers and as geography-educators give consideration to the ways in which we can stimulate and nurture those imaginations. Whatever means we use to advance those objectives, and I have suggested one for discussion here today, we must endeavour to find pedagogic practices which mean that when confronted with ethical dilemmas in day-to-day life and professional practice, our graduates will be able to respond in ways which they - as autonomous, imaginative, reflexive and responsible geographers - can defend as being ethical and appropriate.

6 References Cited

Bauman, Z. (1993) Postmodern Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Burns, R.P. (1995) 'Teaching the basic ethics class through simulation: the Northwestern program in advocacy and professionalism', Law and Contemporary Problems, vol. 58, nos. 3&4, pp. 37-50.

Cassell, J. & Wax, M.L. (1980) 'Editorial introduction: towards a moral science of human beings', Social Problems, vol. 27, pp. 259-64.

Grace, D. & Cohen, S. (1995) Business ethics. Australian problems and cases. Melbourne: Prentice-Hall.

Hastings Center (Institute of Society, Ethics and the Life Sciences) (1979) The Teaching of Ethics in Higher Education. Hastings-on-Hudson: New York, Hastings Center.

Hay, I. (1998a) 'Ethics, geography and responsible citizenship', Journal of Geography in Higher Education, vol., 22, no. 2, pp. 169-183.

Hay, I. (1998b) 'Making moral imaginations. Research ethics, pedagogy, and professional human geography', Ethics, Place and Environment, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 55-75.

Institute of Australian Geographers no date, Schedule to the Constitution. Code of Professional Conduct.

Kimmel, A.J. (1988) Ethics and Values in Applied Social Research. London: Sage.

Mageean, B. (1995) Interview conducted with Bernard Mageean, Chair of the Flinders University Social and Behavioural Research Ethics Committee, 26 October.

Neuman, W.L. (1997) Social Research Methods (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

NH&MRC (National Health and Medical Research Council) (1992a) Guidelines for the monitoring of research by institutional ethics committees. NH&MRC: Canberra.

NH&MRC (National Health and Medical Research Council) (1992b) Supplementary notes. NH&MRC: Canberra.

Preston, N. (1991) 'Applied ethics: a challenge for Australian universities', Social Alternatives, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 57-59.

Roche, M.M. & Mansvelt, J. (1996) 'Ethical research in a Public Good Funding Environment', New Zealand Geographer, vol. 52, no. 1, pp. 41-7.

Steele, C. (1996) Discussion paper: Review of the Flinders University Human Ethics Committee Structure, URC3/96/5.

Tri-Council Working Group. (1997) Code of Ethical Conduct for Research involving Humans. Available at

Wilson, L.S. & Ranft, V.A. (1993) 'The state of ethical training for counseling psychology doctoral students', The Counseling Psychologist, vol. 21, no. 3, pp. 445-456.

Sections of this paper draw heavily from Hay 1998a and 1998b.

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