first, do no harm

One of the longstanding guidelines in the ethical treatment of human subjects is the concept of “do no harm”.  Taken from the Belmont Report, which was originally intended to guide the ethics of medical research, this concept has been widely adapted in all forms of research with human subjects.

“Do no harm” falls into a consequential principle in which researchers need to weigh the risks and benefits of the research on the participant in order to justify carrying out the research.  On the American Anthropological Association blog, there is an active discussion on this principle, which is raising some larger ethical debates.

One ethical debate I found really interesting is that this phrase “Do No Harm” conflates/exaggerates the ability of the researcher to predict the temporal positioning of risks and benefits.  How do we actually know if we are causing harm to participants?  By saying that we will not harm our participants, we are implying that we know what the impacts of our research will have in the long term (at least, that is one side of the debate).  Some practitioners commented that they would like the principle to say “First, intend no harm,” but others argue that it is not good enough.

What are your thoughts on the concept of “do no harm?”

On a side note, there has been A LOT of survey responses, and so many interesting perspectives on the ethical debate so far.  I will hopefully have a summary of findings next week.  I’m hoping to put out a similar survey every week or so, just to keep the conversation going.


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