Overview of Some Common Ethical Themes
Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR)
Issues concerning Responsible Conduct of Research are intended to guide scientists through a variety of possible issues they could encounter. While not their own ethical issues specifically, RCR issues include do no harm (thus the IRB mechanisms) and even issues concerning fairness in representation (in terms of publication credits). The purpose of RCR principles is to bring into sync the problems individual researchers can generate with the needs of the institutions hosting and funding that research.
Issues that would be considered in this category are concerned with how individual subjects and communities are affected differently, usually in relation to how little or much they contributed to the problem. This issue comes up often in environmental debates, particularly where lower classes are usually more subject to pollution generated for the direct benefit of others. Distributive justice issues can even be seen between richer (developed) and poorer (developing) countries. The main concern here is geographic and political-economic distribution.
The main questions in this category concern legacy. Primarily, the question concerns what kind of world we want to leave for future generations. At the temporal frame of 20 years and beyond, inter-generational considerations force us to ask what sort of long-term burdens our actions are generating. Imagine a reverse of what normally happens, we have a credit card we can use for our entire life, but it is our children who have to pay our credit card debt off. Again, this area is most prevalent in environmental considerations and has become a major question around global warming.
The precautionary principle is a mandate that we proceed cautiously (but not necessarily slowly) and deliberatively in the face of high risks coupled with any reasonably significant uncertainties. Extending from many social movements (anti-nuke and pro-environmental) of the Cold War era, the precautionary principle in its most simple expression suggests that we plan for worse case scenarios in the face of high risks coupled with uncertainties. The main idea is that, when faced with taking risks (intended and unintended) that could affect a significant portion of the population or environment, we proceed through the process cautiously and deliberately. The precautionary principle should be invoked when high-risk, irreversible, or catastrophic situations are possible, even at a very low probability.