Creating Ethically Relevant Research Projects

The Kutak Ethics Center and UNL Libraries aim to highlight the importance of academic integrity and encourage its exploration. We would love to have as many UNL colleges, departments, RSOs, and other campus units participate as possible.

To get involved in spreading the word on Academic Integrity at UNL, you simply need to (a) hold an event geared toward academic integrity, and (b) notify us so that we can add your event to the official list of Academic Integrity Events at UNL. Note, the event can be part of your regularly scheduled event series. 

For more information or guidance about setting up an academic integrity event aligned with your themes, values, or mission (402) 472-8229 or ethics@unl.edu.




    Approach 1:

    Talk to an ethicist.  Ethicists are philosophers who specialize in ethics.  Just like other experts they have a deep understanding of their area of specialization and so can help connect your interests to an issue, debate, or particular argument in ethics and social and political philosophy.  They can also help you assess which areas are hot button issues and those that have been largely neglected in and outside of philosophy.  Importantly, they will also be best suited to help you understand how and the extent to which certain lines of research might bear on the issue, debate, or argument most closely associated with your research interests.  Hence, this is the approach we recommend most strongly.  Others may have some knowledge about ethics as it relates to business, medicine, agriculture, etc. and you can always browse the web or books for information on ethics.  But, philosophers trained in value theory are in the best position to help you make strong connections between your interests and ethics.

    Ethicists can be found in your school’s philosophy department or at centers like ours.  In fact, our Assistant Director, Adam R. Thompson has a Ph.D. in Philosophy and specializes in value theory.  If your school does not have a philosophy department, you might also check out departments with courses in ethics.  You should be aware, however, that these courses are often not taught by ethicists.  Still, the instructor should be able to help you locate someone in your community that is.  And, of course, you can always try searching for a university or college nearby that has a philosophy department with ethicists on staff.  If you live in the Lincoln, NE area, you’ll find plenty of ethicists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  Just click here to find some in our Department of Philosophy or email us at ethics@unl.edu. 

     

    Approach 2:

    Do it yourself. Though talking to an ethicist is by far the best way to connect your research interests to ethics, you may not be well positioned to do so.  Another way, then, to make the connection is to consult books or online sources that survey the area of ethics to which your interests most readily align.

     Empirical research is typically most relevant to particular issues in applied ethics. Hence, consulting general texts with detailed information about a wide range of applied ethics issues is a good place to start.  We recommend the following:

     Oxford Handbook of Practical Ethics

    Ethics in Practice: An Anthology

    African Ethics: An Anthology in Comparative and Applied Ethics

    Ethics: A Liberative Approach


    Empirical research also plays an important role in other areas of value theory.  The area most like the area of applied ethics is social and political philosophy.  You can discover topics related to that area in the books listed above and these:

                Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy

                Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Anthology

     At the more theoretical level, empirical research can inform discussions in metaethics, normative ethics, and moral psychology.  These books offer keen insights into the ways in which empirical studies bear on topics in those areas of value theory:

                 Moral Psychology: A Contemporary Introduction

                Metaethics: A Contemporary Introduction

                A Companion to Ethics

               Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory

              Ethical Theory: An Anthology

              An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics

    Finally, the web is also a valuable resource for discovering topics in ethics related to your research interests.  Valuable resources in this regard are

                Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online

                Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

    Those offer survey articles on particular philosophical subjects including just about anything in the area of ethics and social/political philosophy. 

    Once you’ve located an ethical issue in practical ethics, you can continue to explore that issue in texts more narrowly focused that attempt to survey the landscape of that particular subject. 

    For instance, suppose the debate over whether we should allow physician assisted suicide aligns well with your research interests.  To further explore the issue it is best to do three things.  First, you’ll want to see how that debate intersects other related issues in the context where it finds its proper home.  In the case of physician assisted suicide, medical ethics is its proper home.  So, it would be helpful to read around in a survey text of medical ethics like

                Contemporary Bioethics: A Reader with Cases

     

    Second, you’ll want to study the issue itself in more depth and detail.  Finding a monograph or anthology devoted to the particular subject you’re interested in can serve this purpose.  In the case of physician assisted suicide, you might try

                 Medically Assisted Death

                Euthanasia and Physician Assisted Suicide

     

    You might discover that your research will focus on a point of concern that traverses the particular topic.  For example, the topic of autonomy is central to the subject of physician assisted suicide and many other subjects in medical ethics and beyond.  In that case, you’ll want to read through a monograph or anthology devoted to autonomy like these

              Personal Autonomy in Society

             Personal Autonomy: New Essays on Personal Autonomy and Its Role in Contemporary Moral Philosophy

     

    Those offer survey articles on particular philosophical subjects including just about anything in the area of ethics and social/political philosophy. 

    Also, like many other disciplines, most debates in ethics take place in professional journals.  If you’re interested in reading professional articles in ethics, you should go to

                 Phil Papers

    They do an excellent job archiving professional articles in a searchable manner.  They have also take the time to round up articles under particular headings.  So, if you’re interested in exploring a general topic like physician assisted suicide or autonomy by reading professional articles, you can easily locate a number of quality articles through their web resource. 

     As you may discover, you’ll still need to consult an ethicist to make your funding proposal as strong as it can be.  But, this approach can help you home in on ethical topics that interest you and align closely with your own research interests.  Following this approach can also help you discuss your plans with an ethicist once you’re ready to move into the proposal writing stage. 

    There are a number of funding opportunities for research projects that are, in some significant way, related to ethical issues.  However, it is not always obvious whether your research project bears some significant relationship to ethics or how to design such a project.   This portion of our website is meant to help you connect your research or research interests to ethics.

    Please feel free to contact Assistant Director, Adam R. Thompson for more information and guidance about using these resources at (402) 472-8229 or ethics@unl.edu.


    We've categorized ethically relevant research projects into the following four types: (a) Supporting a Premise, (b) Improving Life, (c) Exploring Ethical Issues, and (d) Encouraging Reflection. Below you'll find an elaboration of each with links to examples of that type of research and funding resources for it.


    Support a Premise

    Some arguments support a normative conclusion. For instance:

    P1: If we can prevent something bad from occurring without sacrificing morally important things, then we should.

    P2: We can prevent the suffering and death occurring from the recent famine in Land X by doing A, B, and C.

    P3: We can do A, B, and C without sacrificing morally important things.

    C1: Therefore, we should do A, B, and C.

    Premise (P1) is a normative principle--it tells us what to do and is applicable to a number of contexts. Philosophers studying various subjects in Value Theory are best positioned to support or reject normative principles.  Premises (P2) and (P3) are different. We can (following Mark van Roojen) call these Bridging Claims as they serve as the bridge we need to validly move from (P1) to the conclusion (C1).

    Roughly, there are two types of Bridging Claim--namely, Conceptual Bridging Claims and Empirical Bridging Claims. An example of a Conceptual Bridging Claim is, "Abortion is murder" or "Justice is fairness". An example of an Empirical Bridging Claim is, "Hydrogen is light" or "There are fewer rhinos living in the wild today than in zoos". Philosophers are best positioned to support Conceptual Bridging Claims.  But, those who do empirical work (e.g. various types of anthropologists, archeologists, sociologists, psychologists, physicists, biologists, chemists, etc.) are best positioned to support or reject Empirical Bridging Claims. So, if you can find a normative argument with an Empirical Bridging Claim on which your research bears or around which you could build a research project, then that's excellent!! You've just connected your research to ethics and are closer to connecting it to funding for such projects.

    To be clearer, note that (P2) and (P3) employ ethically charged terms like 'suffering', 'death', and 'sacrificing morally important things'. It is likely then that fully supporting each will involve a little philosophizing about the referent of each term. But, that's ok, since there are a number of options open for settling on a reasonable interpretation of each. For instance, you could talk to a philosopher about which of the things involved might be thought to have moral importance. You could, then, with their help or on your own, attempt to deflect worries for your proposed plan of action after showing that we can at least feasibly do A, B, and C and that doing A, B, and C is likely to prevent the bad thing from occurring.

    The links below help to fill out your understanding of research that supports a normatively important premise in three ways. The first offers some concrete examples of this sort of research.  The second lists examples of places that you might find funding opportunities for such research. And, the third delineates some approaches to help you make the link between your interests and ethics.

    Example of Research Example of Funding Ops

    Improving Lives

    Though some research is aimed directly at supporting a particular premise in a normative argument, most research is more loosely related to ethics and normative claims.  It is this sort of research to which ethicists, policy analysts, and others turn to determine which course of action, policy, treatment program, aid initiative, etc. is best.

    Some of that research attempts to expand our understanding of issues that are morally complex. For instance, research that details the ways in which tribal norms close off access to certain goods can help us determine the impact of certain types of aid.  Likewise, those attempting to determine which policy is most likely to strengthen a community rather than shatter it or disadvantage it often look to research projects that speak to the policy at issue, its implications, and the likely consequences of requiring folks to live by it.

    Along the same lines, some research aims to provide us with tools or products that can be used to improve well-being. For instance, research that leads to the production of a prosthetic hand with increased dexterity aims at giving individuals in need of prosthetic hands the opportunity to pursue a certain life that they may find more enjoyable or fulfilling.  Likewise, a study that leads to the production of software for making more accurate predictions about when and where an earthquake of significant magnitude will occur can help us as we attempt to avoid catastrophes.

    Of course, those involved may not have aimed at contributing to our ability to improve lives. And, that’s fine. Whether it implicitly or explicitly does so, it falls into this category of research. The concern for securing funding is whether you can make the connection explicit.  Also, the more direct the connection is between the research project and our ability to improve life the more valuable it is to those who might use it and those who might fund. To secure that tight connection, it is best to talk to an ethicist like our Assistant Director, Adam R. Thompson (ethics@unl.edu).  As these individuals are philosophers who specialize in value theory, they are in a good position to see exactly how your research might bear on quality of life issues.

    The links below help to fill out your understanding of research that contributes to our ability to improve lives in three ways. The first offers some concrete examples of this sort of research.  The second lists examples of places that you might find funding opportunities for such research. And, the third delineates some approaches to help you make the link between your interests and ethics.


    Example of Research Example of Funding Ops

    Ethically Relevant Exploratory Research

    Research can be connected to ethics in a number of ways. Where research bears on a specific premise in a normative argument, the connection is very tight. Learn more about that sort of research here.  A slightly looser connection obtains between ethics and research that aims to increase our understanding of a situation, event, institution, etc. so that we might be in a position to offer our better action guiding advice.

    The same sort of tightness arises between ethics and research that aims to increase our toolbox for diagnosing a situation or our means for implementing interventions or treatments.  In a nutshell, such research contributes to our ability to make life better for someone or some group. You can learn more about that type of research and its connection to funding here.

    An even looser connection between ethics and research is found in research projects that aim to explore ethically relevant issues. Call this exploratory research.  Here, we’ll focus on the value of this sort of research and exactly what it looks like.

    Though the connection between ethics and exploratory research projects is looser than the one that holds between ethics and the aforementioned types of research, it is no less valuable. The value of exploratory research is variously grounded. Like other ethics oriented research projects, it offers those involved the opportunity to expand their own ethical repertoire and so develop their capacity to perceive and respond to moral reasons. And, of course, once the research is made public, those outside the immediate research group can use the information to positively impact their own lives and the lives of those in their community.

    Exploratory research in ethics is primarily research that centers around a particular ethically significant question, topic, argument, or claim. As such, exploratory research can take many forms. A course in which students work to answer a question like, “Should any measures be taken to address wealth inequality in the U.S.?”, or “Should the U.S. adopt a healthcare system like Japan’s?” is a course dedicated to ethically relevant exploratory research.; Likewise, a group that attempts to critically analyze using their favored disciplinary method a topic like desert, responsibility, motivation, the death penalty, parental rights, or democracy is another example of ethically relevant exploratory research.

    Interestingly, then, exploratory research makes connecting your research interests to ethics somewhat easy. Almost every line of research will have some tangential connection to ethically significant questions or topics. Taking on the project of studying that tangential connection counts as ethically relevant exploratory research. For instance, suppose you’re interested in creating a system for growing food that uses nearly no water. The creation of a such a system could potentially eliminate food scarcity in places where water is too scarce to be considered a reliable resource. Critically studying whether aid programs that seek to establish an infrastructure for preventing disasters in areas where water could benefit from such a system is tangential to the research project at hand, but is an important undertaking. Not only does such research have the potential to expand your group’s understanding of the system you’re developing, but it also could greatly impact the global community in a positive way.

    The links below help to fill out your understanding of exploratory research in three ways. The first offers some concrete examples of exploratory research. The second lists examples of places that you might find funding opportunities for such research. And, the third delineates some approaches to help you make the link between your interests and ethics.


    Example of Research Example of Funding Ops

    Research that Encourages Thought and Reflection

    Research can be connected to ethics in a number of ways. Where research bears on a specific premise in a normative argument, the connection is very tight. Learn more about that sort of research here. A slightly looser connection obtains between ethics and research that aims to increase our understanding of a situation, event, institution, etc. so that we might be in a position to offer our better action guiding advice.

    The same sort of tightness arises between ethics and research that aims to increase our toolbox for diagnosing a situation or our means for implementing interventions or treatments. In a nutshell, such research contributes to our ability to make life better for someone or some group. You can learn more about that type of research and its connection to funding here.

    An even looser connection is found in research projects that aim to explore ethically relevant issues. Learn more about that sort of research here. And, looser still is the connection to ethics in research that simply aims to push us to reflect on and think about an ethically relevant issue.  Call this encouragement research. Here, we’ll focus on the value of this sort of research and exactly what it looks like.

    Films, theatre productions, photos, books, magazines, albums, songs, and other types of media inundate our lives. They capture a variety of genres and thematic moments that can and often do sit with us as we pause to appreciate them.   Sometimes they encourage us to re-evaluate, re-package, or investigate a thought, feeling, or experience. Encouragement research, then, does just that with respect to an ethically relevant idea, emotion, or event.

    In some ways the looser connection widens the path to funding. For instance, the research doesn’t need to speak to a specific premise in a specific normative argument nor does it have to transmit understanding or lead to the creation of new technology.   However, there are limits. An individual might be correct that someone reading her essay on the history of violence in Iceland could be encouraged to think more deeply about the various morally relevant aspects of violence and our reaction to it. But, it is unlikely that she will find funding for the project on the basis of such a tenuous connection to ethics.

    Hence, those interested in finding funding for Encouragement Research must show that the point of the project is to motivate reflection or thought about an ethically significant issue or premise. So, while an essay simply on the history of violence in Iceland might not count, an essay on the history of violence in Iceland written in such a way that its aim is to push us to ask normative questions like, ‘Should we respond to violence in the manner typical throughout Iceland’s history?’ or ‘Is a society where violence is taboo subject matter better than one in which violence is openly discussed and regularly seen?’. Likewise, a photograph that captured an exchange of money between two persons might be too loosely connected to ethics whereas a photograph or project that draws our attention to the concept of beneficence or charity and moves us to further reflection along those lines likely bears the right sort of relationship to ethics to count as a piece of Encouragement Research.

    The links below help to fill out your understanding of encouragement research in three ways. The first offers some concrete examples of this sort of research. The second lists examples of places that you might find funding opportunities for such research. And, the third delineates some approaches to help you make the link between your interests and ethics.


    Examples of Research Examples of Funding Ops

    This tab contains a checklist with links to help you complete the connection between your research, ethics, and funding.

    If you have any questions, please, contact our Assistant Director, Adam R. Thompson (ethics@unl.edu).

    Question 1:

    (1) Have you matched your reserach interests with an ethical issue or argument?

    Yes:
    Great! Go to next question

    No:
    Go here for help.

    Question 2:

    (2) Have you identified one or more sources of funding for your research?

    Yes:
    Great! Go to the next question.

    No:
    Go here for help identifying one or more sources of funding or contact us (ethics@unl.edu)

    Question 3:

    (3) Do you need help getting started on your proposal to gain funding?


    Yes:
    We’re happy to assist you with writing the ethics content (ethics@unl.edu)

    The Office of Research and Economic Development assists faculty and staff with the process. (here)

    The Office of Graduate Studies offers some advice to graduates applying for grants and fellowships (here)

     
    No:
    Great!  Good luck!!! 

    Let us know if you need assistance setting up the research project once it's funded.