Final Report of the Commission to Review the AAA Statements on Ethics

Commission to Review the AAA Statements on Ethics Final Report

The AAA Executive Board charged the Commission to Review the AAA Statements on Ethics to examine the purposes, content and procedures of the Association Statements on Ethics.1 In approaching its assignment, the Commission was respectfully mindful of the history of the statements and the great importance AAA members place on ethical issues and behavior.

The Commission understands that there will be disagreements with its findings and recommendations; indeed, the Commission was not always of one mind. However, Commission members want the AAA membership to know that we discussed the issues in depth and with some emotion, and that we welcomed constructive suggestions.

In seeking comments from a broad spectrum of interested members, drafts of the Commission’s report and recommendations were presented twice to the AAA Section Assembly, summarized in the Anthropology Newsletter, sent to AAA committees and commissions, and were the subject of an open session at the 1995 AAA Annual Meeting. The Commission also conferred with a similar committee of the American Sociological Association and a professor of philosophy specializing in disciplinary and professional codes of ethics.

The purpose of this report is to provide the background and rationale for the Commission’s recommendations on the purpose and wording of a AAA Code of Ethics and on AAA goals for ethics education.

The report is presented in five parts: (1) current status of the AAA ethics program; (2) Commission goals; (3) general principles applying to codes of ethics; (4) critical questions considered by the Commission; and (5) recommendations, including a proposed AAA Code of Ethics.

I. Current Status of the AAA Ethics Program

The Commission presented a draft of its report to the AAA Section Assembly in May 1995. As a result of that discussion, the Section Assembly unanimously recommended and the AAA Executive Board unanimously approved the recommendation that

The AAA no longer adjudicate claims of unethical behavior and focus its efforts and resources on an ethics education program.

The rationale for this recommendation is presented later in this report.

II. Commission Goals

The Commission felt strongly that the AAA Code of Ethics

Should reflect the changing world in which persons with anthropological training work. Many AAA members pursue research in nonacademic settings. Information moves swiftly and easily across village, community and national borders. For the most part, study in isolated sites and of isolated people are opportunities of the past. Information causes change and creates power. The people studied often want to study themselves, protect their histories, plan their own futures, use the information and results of anthropological studies. The public and the scientific and scholarly communities are demanding openness in research. Teaching/training occurs in and outside the academy.

Should draw an increasingly divided discipline together without sacrificing standards of conduct. At the very least, the code of the discipline’s most inclusive organization should not engender division. The work of the anthropological community is too important and the community too small for such divisions.

Should be relevant to all AAA members, in all subfields.

The Commission also felt strongly that given the increasingly complex situations in which persons with anthropological training work, such persons should have training in and ongoing access to education programs in ethics.

III. General Principles Applying to Codes of Ethics

In reviewing the purpose and content of a Code of Ethics, the Commission profited from discussions with Bernard Gert, Professor for the Study of Ethics and Human Values, Dartmouth College. Professor Gert provided some general guidelines for developing a disciplinary and professional code of ethics. By way of background, the Commission lists some of those guidelines, some of which were drawn from “Morality, Moral Theory, and Applied and Professional Ethics,” (Gert, Professional Ethics, Vol. 1, Nos. 1 & 2, 1992.)

The primary purpose(s) of a professional code of ethics is to help educate and socialize new entrants to the field as well as current members of the discipline; therefore, a code must be of some practical use.

A professional code deals with how a person ought to act, and with behaviors required by one’s societal role/job. A code of ethics does not define a person’s job or professional title (that is, a code of ethics does not define terms such as “scientist,” “humanist,” or “anthropologist”).

The development of a code of ethics assumes that the majority of persons affected by the code agree that there are shared ethical principles; that is, “for the overwhelming majority of cases, any equally informed, impartial, rational person would come to the same conclusion” in determining a particular course of action.

A code of ethics is a “public moral system in that (1) all persons to whom it applies, those whose behavior is to be guided and judged by that system, understand it, i.e., know what behavior the system prohibits, requires and encourages; and (2) it is not irrational for any of them to accept being guided or judged by.”

A “public moral system” includes rules, which must be followed (unless a violation can be justified), and ideals, which encourage how people ought to behave.

Moral rules are not absolute, but justified violations must be impartial (that is, every person may violate the rule in the same situation) and must be public (that is, everyone knows that the specific violation is permitted). It also is understood that there will be disagreement on what constitutes the “same situation.”

IV. Critical Questions Considered by the Committee

The Commission considered a number of critical questions raised by the AAA’s history, by the current Statements on Ethics, and by the Commission’s goals and guidelines. The Commission’s responses to the questions are reflected in its general recommendations and proposed AAA Code of Ethics. A summary of the Commission’s deliberations follows.

A. Relativism

The Commission considered what implications views about cultural relativism and moral relativism might have on development of a AAA code of ethics. What moral authority does the AAA have to create a code of ethics if espousal of cultural relativism leads to the position that the moral codes of different cultures are morally equal? The Commission took the view that cultural relativism is an important intellectual stance enabling a researcher to study how and why people act as they do. To prejudge the morality of people, to be concerned with how people ought to act before finding out how they do act, would skew the research.

However, acceptance of “cultural relativism” as a research and/or teaching stance does not mean that a researcher or a teacher automatically agrees with any or all of the practices of the people being studied or taught about, any more than any person is required to accept each practice of his or her own culture as morally acceptable. Segregation in the US was an accepted practice even though many US residents found it morally corrupt, and the institution of slavery is worthy of study even if the practice is considered immoral.

Also, since adopting the Principles of Professional Responsibility in 1967, the Association has been on record accepting the position that the discipline/profession should be guided by clearly stated ethical concepts.

The questions of the AAA’s moral authority to create a code of ethics have to do with the purposes and reach of the code, not with the moral authority of the AAA to do so.

B. The Purpose(s) of a AAA Code A professional code of ethics should be a useful educational document, laying out rules and ideals as to what is expected of persons in the field to which the code applies. A code of ethics also can be the basis for adjudicating claims of unethical behavior. The current AAA Statements on Ethics are intended to serve both purposes. The Commission considered the purposes separately.

1. Education. As an educational document, a AAA Code of Ethics must help introduce new entrants to the field of anthropology to what is ethically expected of them and it must help members of the discipline resolve ethical dilemmas. To be an effective educational tool, a code of ethics should be accompanied by useful (practical) case studies, active dissemination efforts, and ongoing educational and training opportunities on ethical issues. At present, the AAA has no formal educational program in ethics. The Commission urges the AAA to commit the Association’s resources to creating and implementing a strong ethics education program for students, anthropology departments, and persons pursuing anthropological research, teaching, and application. The elected Committee on Ethics should be charged to design and implement the program.

2. Adjudication. The current AAA Statements on Ethics includes a complex procedure for considering charges of unethical behavior. To be useful, a adjudication system must

Ensure due process, which involves collection of data, interviews, hearings, etc.

Have the ability to impose meaningful sanctions.

Have moral, if not legal standing.

Be willing and able to take on all appropriate claims.

Be able to deliver what it promises.

The Commission found that the AAA adjudication process failed to meet all of these tests.

Due process is a lengthy and expensive undertaking, which the AAA has neither the resources nor the expertise to carry out. Fairness demands due process; the possibility of costly and lengthy court suits objecting to less than due process demands prudence.

Since no ethics case has ever reached the final stage of the process, the AAA has never had to face the difficult issues of a full-blown investigation and sanctions. The Statements on Ethics are silent on what kinds of sanctions the AAA could issue, and to what effect.

The AAA Statements on Ethics have no legal standing and appear to be on weak moral footing. It seems unfair to seek to apply the code to non-AAA members, none of whom have in any way agreed to be covered by the Statements. Similarly, while new members of the Association are sent copies of the Statements, no member is asked to subscribe to the Statements.

An adjudication process which is severely limited in the number of charges it can investigate inadvertently gives its blessing to questionable acts which it does not have the time or resources to investigate.

By having an adjudication procedure, the AAA implies it is willing and able to hear cases and impose sanctions. The facts that no ethics case has ever reached the final hearing stage in the process and that no sanctions have ever been levied suggest otherwise, demeaning the credibility of the process, the Committee on Ethics, and the Association. Further, the existence of the process leads some people to file claims better suited to other venues with more effective remedies.

The Commission discussed in depth the concept that the AAA at least ought to be a “court” of last resort for bringing a claim of unethical behavior. While such a role might reduce the number of complaints the AAA might have to adjudicate, the process would still face the problems of providing due process and of promising more than it could deliver, plus having to decide what it means to be a court of last resort.

The Commission also weighed the importance of creating an aggressive ethics education program and of maintaining an adjudication program in light of limited AAA resources.

Based on the general principle that an ethics code is primarily a vehicle for education and on the inability of the AAA to carry out a fair and legally defensible adjudication program, the Commission recommended that the AAA direct its energies and resources solely to establishing an ongoing ethics education program.

As reported above, in May 1995 the AAA Section Assembly endorsed and the AAA Executive Board approved the Commission’s recommendation to focus the work of the AAA Ethics Committee and the AAA’s resources on an ethics education program, and to cease investigation and adjudication of claims of unethical behavior.

The Commission recommends that the AAA Committee on Ethics continue to offer advice to persons who are faced with ethical dilemmas and to persons who are considering bringing a claim of unethical behavior in another venue.

C. The Reach of the Code The reach of the code involves two questions: to whom should the Code apply, and to what activities should the Code apply?

1. To whom should the AAA Ethics Code apply? As noted above, the current AAA Statements on Ethics are silent on this question. Members are not asked to subscribe to the Statements. It is not clear from the current Statements on Ethics if the AAA Committee on Ethics should review complaints from nonmembers.

This question takes on great importance if the AAA were to continue to adjudicate complaints of ethical behavior. In that case, the Code, for adjudication purposes, should apply only to AAA members, and members should acknowledge acceptance of the Code and their willingness to accept the AAA as an adjudicator of any ethics charges against them.

However, since the Code is for education only, the question is simpler. The Committee envisions the Code and related educational efforts as being of use across the Association, across the discipline, to other organizations, to anthropology departments, and to persons applying anthropological knowledge in or outside the academy.

The Commission also agreed that it is the ethical responsibility of all AAA members to be familiar with, understand, and abide by the Association’s Code of Ethics in their work as anthropologists.

2. To what activities should the AAA Code apply? Persons with advanced degrees in anthropology work in many different settings and in many different jobs. Whether in or outside the academy, trained anthropologists pursue different kinds of activities–research, teaching/training, consulting, administration, application of anthropological knowledge, etc. Depending on the nature and location of the activity, the work can be governed by public laws and regulations, as well as by various professional codes.

The Commission discussed in detail how a AAA code might address different categories of research (academic, proprietary, applied, secret, clandestine), activities in different intellectual areas (biological, linguistic, archaeological, and cultural), different kinds teaching and training, and different applications of anthropological concepts and knowledge, in keeping with the Commission’s goals of inclusiveness, encouraging unity, and recognizing the changing world in which anthropologists work.

The Commission agreed that, as an educational document, the AAA Code of Ethics

Should become an integral part of the overall anthropological enterprise, from teaching through research, training and application.

Should apply across the intellectual breadth of the discipline.

Should apply to the conduct of all anthropological research, and not make distinctions based on funder, site, or purpose, and should not distinguish between basic, applied, academic-based, or proprietary research.

Should be an effective tool for informing prospective employers seeking to hire persons with anthropological training of the discipline’s ethics and for assisting persons with anthropological training to negotiate ethical arrangements with employers.

The Commission was particularly mindful that in addressing ethical duties related to teaching, not only did numerous institutional and other professional codes inform ethical teaching behavior, but a good many ethical teaching rules applied across disciplines. The Commission suggests that the AAA explore the feasibility and utility of development of a common ethics statement on teaching for several of the sciences, social sciences and humanities, adding strength and clarity to the AAA Code of Ethics.

D. Responsibilities to Persons Studied No issue engaged the Commission’s attention and energy more than the issue of anthropologists’ responsibilities to the people they study. The Commission, mindful of AAA history and the strong feelings of many AAA members on this issue, took as its starting point this sentence from the preamble of the AAA’s current statement of “Principles of Professional Responsibilities:”

“Anthropologists must respect, protect and promote the rights and the welfare of all those affected by their work.”

The Commission eventually divided the question into two parts: (1) responsibilities to individuals providing information, and (2) responsibilities to peoples and cultures studied.

1. Responsibilities to individuals providing information. In relations with individuals providing information, the Commission felt quite strongly that anthropological researchers clearly should be open about the purposes of their work, should determine and respect an individual’s wish regarding anonymity or recognition, and should make every effort to protect the identity of individuals wishing to remain anonymous, making clear that anonymity may be compromised or recognition fail to materialize. This position is consistent with the current AAA Statements.

2. Responsibilities to peoples and cultures studied. While sympathetic to the notion that an anthropological researcher might be able to help protect and promote the well-being of a people or a culture, the Commission found that the concept, particular as a moral duty, raised the following kinds of difficult questions:

Who determines what is in the best interests of the people studied? Most communities will not be of one mind as to what is in their best interests, and it seems paternalistic, if not presumptuous, to expect an anthropological researcher to make that judgment for someone else.

Who decides who has access to information? Information is potential power and can be used to effect change. When change occurs, there usually are winners and losers. If the person providing the information decides in favor of recognition or chooses to use the information for his or her own ends, an anthropological re-searcher’s ability to pick and choose winners and losers (the general welfare) is diluted, if it ever existed.

Do all groups studied by anthropologists deserve efforts to promote the group’s general welfare? It would seem not (i.e., hate groups, terrorists, drug cartels, etc.).

What is meant by “promote?” A person can promote the general or a specific welfare in many different ways, (i.e., through research identifying a problem, putting a problem in context, and developing options for responding; by educating various audiences; and by advocating a particular solution or cause). The Commission understands and supports the desire of some anthropological researchers to move beyond disseminating research results and education to a position of advocacy. The Commission feels that choice is the individual’s decision. However, advocating from an anthropological research base is not the same as doing anthropological research. While the Commission agrees that the anthropological researchers should share their findings with the public, there are numerous and effective ways to do so other than advocacy.

Based on these questions, the Commission feels there ought be no expectation that an anthropological researcher must be an advocate for or be expected to “promote the welfare” of a group or culture studied.

The anthropological researcher, however, does have duties to the people studied, including doing no harm or wrong, full disclosure and informed consent, warnings of possible outcomes (good and bad) of the research for the people involved, and a careful weighing of the risks and benefits of the study for the people being studied.

E. Responsibilities Related to the Study of Animals and to the Collection and/or Study of Materials The Commission found that the current AAA Statements on Ethics were silent on the issues of the treatment of animals studied and the collection and preservation of materials studied. As the organization embracing the totality of the discipline, the AAA code should address such issues. The anthropological researcher has a duty to preserve the historical record, to protect materials discovered in the course of research, to protect species threatened with extinction, and to treat animals humanely.

F. Responsibilities Related to the Application of Anthropological Skills and/or Knowledge As noted previously, persons with anthropological training work in many different settings, pursuing many different activities. The Commission spent considerable time discussing how a AAA Code of Ethics should address this. It adopted the following guidelines:

The Code should not make distinctions based on the funder/employer (public or private) sponsorship of a research or teaching program or based on the kind of research pursued (academic, proprietary, applied, etc.). The same ethical duties apply in all cases.

The Code should be relevant to persons with anthropological training who are applying anthropological knowledge in their work, regardless of the setting (that is, for example, those hired by a for-profit firm because of their anthropological training). The Code does not apply to such persons who work in positions for which such training is not necessary or in jobs in which anthropological expertise is not utilized.

G. Conflicting Ethical Demands By the nature of their work, anthropological researchers, faculty, and appliers of anthropological knowledge and skills often are subject to a number of different ethical demands at the same time. The researcher not only is a scientist or a scholar, but also may be a member of a family, community, or religion, and affiliated with an institution or business. A researcher may be influenced by concerns for the common good, broadly defined, and may have developed covenantal relationships with individuals or groups as a result of long years of collaboration. The anthropological researcher, teacher, or applier must weigh all such ethical demands in deciding if a course of action is ethical. In many cases, the answer will be anything but clear, decided by subjective judgments as to how much weight to give which claim. However, the Commission concludes that researchers must be prepared to forgo or stop a research project if they decide the project is, on balance, unethical.

V. Recommendations

As noted previously, the Commission’s recommendation that the AAA focus on an ethics education program and no longer seek to adjudicate claims of unethical behavior has been adopted by the AAA Executive Board.

The Commission makes the following additional recommendations to carry out the educational charge:

A. As the basis for the educational program, the AAA adopt the proposed Code of Ethics, based on the issues discussed and the conclusions listed in this report. The Code of Ethics should include references to other codes which may apply to anthropological activities. The Code should be sent to the entire membership for approval.

B. The objectives of the ethics education program be (1) to increase the number of candidates for all degrees in anthropology receiving training in ethics before graduating; (2) to provide ongoing education in ethical issues for all AAA members, and (3) to provide advice to AAA members facing/raising ethical dilemmas.

C. The elected AAA Committee on Ethics be responsible for the design and implementation of the ethics education and advisory program.

The Commission further recommends that the AAA Committee on Ethics consider the following suggestions for inclusion in the ethics education program.

The AAA should produce and periodically update a publication of case studies of ethical dilemmas anthropological re-searchers, teachers and practitioners might face, suitable for use in graduate training, postdoctorate training, and continuing education.

The AAA should provide departments technical assistance in establishing educational offerings in ethics.

The AAA should conduct ethics training workshops at annual meetings and during the year.

The AAA should seek a joint grant with one or more other social science organizations to develop a basic ethics teaching module, which could be used by all social sciences, calling on resources from across the campus, and which would be supplemented with department training specific to the discipline.

The AAA should seek a joint grant with one or more social science organizations to develop common basic statement of teaching ethics.

The AAA should develop broad guidelines to help departments determine the appropriate minimum of ethics training which should be offered to different levels of students.

[This Statement was submitted to the AAA Executive Board on September 16, 1995.]

/1/ Those statements include “Principles of Professional Responsibility,” approved in May 1971 as amended through October 1990; “Statement on Problems of Anthropological Research and Ethics,” adopted March 1967, “Resolution on Freedom of Publication,” adopted December 1948; “Role and Function of the Committee on Ethics,” adopted May 1971 as amended through May 1976, and “Rules and Procedures,” adopted April 1973.