Moral philosophy and the qualitative researcher

“What’s moral philosophy got to do with me?” you might ask. In fact, various forms of moral philosophy underlie how scientific research is routinely practiced. Let’s look at three moral philosophies, and how they might be used to inform ethical decision-making in the conduct of research. Of course, there are many more approaches to moral philosophy, and the descriptions below are somewhat simplified. For more introductions to moral philosophy see Birsch (2014), Rachels and Rachels (2015), and Vaughn (2015). 


Classical utilitarianist theory is founded in the work of scholars such as Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), and Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900), who argued that

  • The morality of an action depends solely on the consequences of the action; nothing else matters.
  • An action’s consequences matter only insofar as they involve the greater or lesser happiness of individuals.
  • In the assessment of consequences, each individual’s happiness gets equal consideration (Rachels & Rachels, 2015, p. 111)

Peter Singer is a well-known contemporary philosopher who takes a utilitarianist position.


Deontological ethics (from the Greek, meaning “obligation” or “duty”) refers to a position in which the morality of actions is based on rules. Deontological ethics is sometimes referred to as “rule-based” or “duty-based” ethics, and one of its foremost proponents was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who developed the idea of the “Categorical Imperative” which he expressed as: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Kant, cited by Rachels & Rachels, 2015, p. 130). Kant argued that there are absolute or universal moral rules that “hold true in all circumstances” (Rachels & Rachels, 2015, p. 131).

Feminist ethics

Carol Gilligan is well known for her work in developing a theory of moral development (Gilligan, 1982) that pertained particularly to women’s experiences. This theory contrasted with the theory of moral development developed by Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987), with whom she worked as a research assistant.  In her research, Gilligan developed ideas about “caring,” suggesting that “women’s basic moral orientation is one of caring” (Rachels & Rachels, 2015, p. 150). Other scholars such as Nel Noddings have developed the idea of care ethics, which attends to the “private life” and the “small-scale world of friends and family” (Rachels & Rachels, 2015, p. 157) in ways that are not accommodated by other approaches.

Here, I have not attended to the critiques of each of these three approaches – which you will find discussed in any of the introductory texts cited above. Rather, I would like to provide an example of how these different approaches to ethical decision-making play out in the conduct of research. How might one make ethical decisions when faced with moral dilemmas?

In her informative chapter on research ethics, Kit Tisdale (2004) uses a case to exemplify how these approaches to ethical decision making might result in different actions on the part of the researcher using the following scenario (p. 15):

Dr. Patin is studying a group of boys at a juvenile justice facility in a mid-sized city. After spending 6 months interviewing the boys and observing their interactions in classrooms and during recreational time, Dr. Patin feels that he knows the boys well. He has learned about their family histories, the crimes they committed, their group dynamics, and their hopes for the future. Dr. Patin is planning on using the data for a tradebook on juvenile justice issues and for a series of scholarly articles on peer relationships in institutional settings. Before a 9am scheduled interview with Jason, one of the participants, Dr. Patin receives a phone call from the facility. He is told that another resident and friend of Jason’s committed suicide in the early morning hours. Jason has been clearly upset since hearing the news. The director of the facility inquires if Dr. Patin wants to proceed with the scheduled interview.

What should Dr. Patin do?

A utilitarian or consequentialist approach (also referred to as a “teleogical” approach) would use a cost/benefit analysis to inform decision making (that is, one would write ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ lists for each potential action, and assess what the outcomes might be. It could be argued that collecting data might promote the “greatest good” in understanding teenagers’ responses to peer suicide. In this scenario, if the outcomes of research are of pre-eminent importance, Dr. Patin would go ahead with meeting with the Jason in order to generate data, even if Jason were to experience distress as an outcome of participating in a research interview (Tisdale, 2004, p. 16).

If one were to take a deontological or duty-based approach (e.g. drawing on the categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant), the researcher would act to treat the participant as an “ends rather than means”. That would mean that the researcher would strive to fulfill his duty towards Jason as a trusted research participant. In that case, rather than use the meeting to conduct research, Dr. Patin could cancel the meeting and send Jason a note of condolence (Tisdale, 2004, p. 16), or provide information about access to care and appropriate counseling.

From a care-based ethics approach, the greatest importance would lie in Dr. Patel honoring his relationship with Jason. This would mean that the provision of support for a participant in a time of crisis would take precedent over fulfilling the research agenda of conducting a research interview. Dr. Patel could use the meeting time to further develop a caring relationship with participant by spending additional time with Jason participating in a task that Jason chooses.

These are merely illustrations, and the moral dilemmas that researchers face in doing qualitative studies with human subjects are many and varied. Further, I have discussed only three moral philosophies that could be used to inform decision-making. There are other approaches too.

Writers have also forwarded various protocols, or questions that might be used to resolve ethical problems during a research study. One such protocol is offered by Whiteford and Trotter (2008), who outline six steps that will assist in analyzing a problem, and deciding on a course of action. These include:

  1. Determine the facts of the research case
  • Goals and objectives of the research
  • Research setting: place, community, culture
  • Research subjects
  • Research methods
  • Sponsors
  • Researchers
  1. Identify the values at risk
  • Values of investigators
  • Values of research subjects
  • Values of sponsors
  • Values of community & social network
  • Relevant societal values
  1. Describe the primary ethical dilemma
  • Ethical Principles at risk & values of stakeholders that create conflicts
  • Which conflict of values & principles is the primary conflict?
  • Whose values are threatened?
  • Whose is most vulnerable?
  1. Determine possible causes of action
  • Brainstorming (generate solutions)
  • Determine the facts
  • Assess threats
  • Decide whether to do nothing
  1. Choose one course of action
  • Eliminate ethically unacceptable solutions
  • Determine the most promising solutions
  • Choose one solution or a combination
  • Identify the strengths of the solution
  • Write a description of the positive and negative aspects & strengths and weaknesses
  1. Defend your course of action
  • Professional ethics & values
  • Personal ethics & values
  • How solutions protect or threaten values
  • Accommodating each stakeholder group

In the conduct of any research study, there is always the potential for ethical dilemmas to arise. Here I’ve provided introductory texts that might be used to think about moral decision-making. By no means are these the only approaches to take. There are also many other resources that assist researchers in the planning and conducting ethically responsible research (e.g., Sieber & Tolich, 2013).

Once again, all the best with your research!

Kathy Roulston


Birsch, D. (2014). Introduction to ethical theories: A procedural approach. Long Grove, Il: Waveland Press.

Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rachels, J., & Rachels, S. (2015). The elements of moral philosophy (8th ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.

Sieber, J. E., & Tolich, M. B. (2013). Planning ethically responsible research (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.

Tisdale, K. (2004). Being vulnerable and being ethical with/in research. In K. B. DeMarrais & S. D. Lapan (Eds.), Foundations of research: Methods of inquiry in education and the social sciences (pp. 13-30). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Vaughn, L. (2015). Beginning ethics: An introduction to moral philosophy. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Whiteford, L. M., & Trotter, R. T. (2008). Ethics for anthropological research and practice. Waveland Press: Long Grove, Ill.



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