Ethical research

Moros

Ad Honorem
Jun 2012
3,066
#1
I have been discussing ethics with a friend, and wondered if any Historumites think there are any ethical considerations in historical research?

There is the on-going issue about handling and displaying in museums of religious items or grave goods and human remains, which can be offensive and disrespectful to some individuals and cultures.

But are there any ethical questions in relation to uncovering new information about historical individuals or events? Such new information might also be offensive to some individuals or cultures.

Is poor research or misleading research an ethical issue? What if someone's research is shown to be wrong, but they continue to promote their version despite knowing it is based on flawed sources/research? What if a researcher discovers new information and decides not to disclose it, or destroys the evidence, or decides to sell it to someone - is that an ethical issue?

What about searching through private documents and details to find new facts, secrets and scandals - whether the person be dead or alive? Is the 'truth' (or the current version of it!) above any such ethical considerations?
 
May 2011
2,643
Rural Australia
#2
I have been discussing ethics with a friend, and wondered if any Historumites think there are any ethical considerations in historical research?
Ideally I imagine there should be. In the same breath we cannot deny the existence of forged or fabricated manuscripts used to support historical narratives.


There is the on-going issue about handling and displaying in museums of religious items or grave goods and human remains, which can be offensive and disrespectful to some individuals and cultures.
In addition there are changes in ethics of the societies over time. For example I have recently been studying Australian Colonial history after reading the book "Dark Emu" by Bruce Pascoe. The original Colonial histories were written at a time when slavery abounded and the indigenous people and their culture were treated as 2nd or 3rd rate. My point is that peoples' ideas of what is ethical - or morally right - may evolve over time. As a result the written histories themselves - or indeed the omissions in them - may be offensive and disrespectful to some individuals and cultures.


But are there any ethical questions in relation to uncovering new information about historical individuals or events? Such new information might also be offensive to some individuals or cultures.
If by "information" you mean historical evidence, then I cant see how uncovering new evidence can be perceived as being unethical, since the historical method suggests that evidence should be sought.

Is poor research or misleading research an ethical issue? What if someone's research is shown to be wrong, but they continue to promote their version despite knowing it is based on flawed sources/research?
I'd say that if a researcher continues to promote research that they know to be wrong, then they are either crazy or motivated by something other than the historical method, such as an ideology for example. It may be a question as to whether they concede any ground towards their research being wrong, and to what extent. Some sort of approach that uses probability may assist in tjhis.

What if a researcher discovers new information and decides not to disclose it, or destroys the evidence, or decides to sell it to someone - is that an ethical issue?
These actions could hardly advance the historical truth. Say someone finds an ancient manuscript in their backyard and decides to sell it. This may not be unethical. If the someone was a professional or amateur historian, would this become an unethical action? IDK.


What about searching through private documents and details to find new facts, secrets and scandals - whether the person be dead or alive? Is the 'truth' (or the current version of it!) above any such ethical considerations?
I'd be inclined to try and determine the motivation for the search and/or investigation. Seeking the historical truth is a form of motivation, OTOH people can be motivated to search and investigate for many other reasons which may not have anything to do with the historical truth or be ethical.

If you are asking whether there are any ethical limits associated with the search and Investigation of the historical truth then that's a good question.

With the rise and reality of large scale database technology one issue may be the ethics of mass surveillance of "historical information" but I dont know whether this issue is within the bounds of your original questions. This perhaps would involve the ethics of privacy and confidentiality.
 
Last edited:
Nov 2017
69
New Jersey, USA
#3
I have been discussing ethics with a friend, and wondered if any Historumites think there are any ethical considerations in historical research?
Yes. I think the fundamental questions of philosophy of history or historiography are not about metaphysics, epistemology, hermeneutics, historicism, etc. but are about ethics and morality. History doesn't just happen in a vacuum, it is always being used for something (whether or not the historian realizes it), or it always has the potential to be used for something, and we must carefully think about how what we are doing fits into the bigger picture.

Nietzsche wrote a famous essay on that idea entitled "On the Uses and Abuses of History" in which he defines three positive life-serving uses and three negative abusive functions of history: the "monumental" use and abuse, the "antiquarian" use and abuse, and the "critical" use and abuse. Monumental history is used by "the man of action" who looks towards the past for models of greatness to imitate. According to Nietzsche, monumental history becomes abusive of the past when the boundaries between fact and fiction become fuzzy: when "monumental history deceives by means of analogies" and entices "rashness in those who are courageous and fanaticism in those who are inspired." Antiquarian history is used to preserve and venerate the past, but becomes abusive when "anything ancient and past that enters into this field of vision is simply regarded as venerable...if the historical sense no longer conserves [life] but mummifies it." Finally, critical history, operating not in the service of justice but in the service of life, "shatter and dissolve a past...by bringing this past before a tribunal...[whose] verdict is always merciless, always unjust, because it has never flowed from the pure fountain of knowledge." Critical history becomes an abuse when we deny that we are a product of the very history we condemn: "For since we are, after all, the product of earlier generations, we are also the products of their aberrations...it is impossible to free ourselves completely from this chain. If we condemn these aberrations and regard ourselves as free from them, this does not alter the fact that we are descended from them."

Personally, I do not find these categories comprehensive and they are a bit arbitrary and highly abstract, but I think they should illustrate the point.

But are there any ethical questions in relation to uncovering new information about historical individuals or events? Such new information might also be offensive to some individuals or cultures.
I think so. Let me begin by going on a slight tangent. We often think of the historian as providing a factual account of the past. But though we can have “objective” facts about the past, it is impossible for us to assemble these into perfectly “objective” pictures of the past (though some are certainly more objective than others). Our historical "stories" can have consistency with the data, but passing this consistency test won't guarantee objectivity when the story tells more than what the data allow (which it always does). There are always selection biases involved with the data; usually the historian does a lot of filling in the gaps between the facts in his or her explanations of how the chosen raw facts are related; the data historians use isn't free of bias either, especially when working with written sources.

So how does this pertain to searching for new evidence? Well, there are also biases when it comes to which questions we think are important, and when we only allow ourselves to ask certain questions the pool of data we have to work with becomes systemically biased, and the resulting history becomes systemically biased too.

Of course you ask a deeper question, though, which is whether or not we should suppress certain data/facts/realities in order to avoid upsetting people. I think people get upset because there are anxieties over how some people try to use historical evidence to justify racism/sexism/etc. It's fair to have these anxieties, but I don't think trying to suppress the evidence they try to use fallaciously is productive. The only way to permanently remove these abuses is to disprove them.

Is poor research or misleading research an ethical issue? What if someone's research is shown to be wrong, but they continue to promote their version despite knowing it is based on flawed sources/research? What if a researcher discovers new information and decides not to disclose it, or destroys the evidence, or decides to sell it to someone - is that an ethical issue?
Yes. These are all unethical, except (to echo the previous post) maybe in the case of selling.
 
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