Social sciences

A richer appreciation of dignity helps in the quest for higher ethical standards

A new book written by the project coordinator for the EU-funded TRUST project, along with a former president of Iran, unravels the different meanings of dignity, as part of a wider effort to raise the bar for international research ethics.

The coordinator of the EU-funded TRUST project, Professor Doris Schroeder, has just published a book with the former President of Iran, Mr Abol-Hassan Bani-Sadr. Entitled, ‘Dignity in the 21st Century’ and available as golden open access. The work explores both Western philosophical and Middle Eastern Koranic interpretations of the concept of ‘dignity’. They write that it is possible to, ‘(…) find an inner kernel, in discussions on the meaning of dignity, that unites major Western and Middle Eastern streams of thought: dignity as a sense of self-worth, which we have a duty to develop and respect in ourselves and a duty to protect in others.’

As the authors contend, the value of making a distinction between dignity in the Middle East and West is that it unpicks the assumptions inherent in attempts to universalise notions of dignity, for example with the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. They argue that with the popular term used in so many contexts, its precise meaning is often only vaguely understood, sometimes actively contradictory, and so occasionally runs the risk of being rendered actually meaningless.

This semantic disentangling is an undertaking that Professor Schroeder believes to be necessary; as she writes, ‘Because dignity is one of the most controversial concepts of the 20th and 21st centuries.’ Equally however, she makes the point that universally agreed interpretations do have a clear function, for example as they facilitate multicultural dialogue.

Striving for equity in ethics

Professor Schroeder maintains that a concern for dignity is implicit in the quest for more ethical approaches to global research, the principle concern of the TRUST project. Following the oft stated commitment driving the 2030 agenda for global sustainable development, to ‘leave no one behind’, TRUST aims to engender fairness, honesty, respect and care in research efforts.

One of the starting points for the project is the acknowledgement that with research becoming progressively more globally dispersed, so it also increasingly carries the risk of conducting so-called ‘ethics dumping’. That is, the exportation of ethically unacceptable practices in Europe, to countries without the same ethical restrictions.

As well as building an international ethics governance structure between organisations across Europe, India, Sub-Saharan Africa, China and Russia, TRUST has identified good practices to help with risk assessment and mitigation strategies. This information is feeding into the production of three sets of participatory stakeholder engagement tools: a funders'' global code of conduct, an on-line research contracting tool and lastly, a follow-up tool for compliance and ethics.

The ambition in the short term is for research conducted outside the EU to be in alignment with EU standards, and so retain exploitability within the EU. Longer term, raising ethical standards, while positive in its own right, also provides incentives by way of cultivating a more accessible marketplace, and so levels the playing field for global research competition.

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last modification: 2017-07-14 17:15:01

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