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 Checklist