This question is inspired by this recent answer that mentions that whether downloading articles from 'questionable' sites is legal (not ethical) may depend on local law. That is, law is local.

Are academic ethics global or local? Clearly, legal principles and conclusions vary from place to place, but does the same apply to academic ethics, or are academic ethics the same no matter where you go? That is, while there may be (and may continue to be) genuine debates on various ethical matters in academia, do these debates and disagreements apply fully to academics everywhere in the world, or are there "local" ethics?

At first, I figured that getting large numbers of people scattered throughout the world to agree on anything is so remotely implausible that there must be local ethics, but then I realized that I couldn't think of any rational set of circumstances where I would advise a colleague that they could solve their ethical issue not by changing their behavior, but by crossing a border, e.g.,

Dude, while fooing the bar does not violate any specific statute in the Civil or Criminal Codes of Florin, it is near-universially considered academically unethical here! Have you considered a transfer to our branch campus in Guilder? You can foo the bar all you like there - they even have a Department of Fooing the Bar and award annual scholarships for the most bars fooed that year. Just take care that Guilderian ethics requires that you disclose your blood type to research subjects before you ask them to fill out a survey - people who don't are not charged in court per se, but their names get published in Guilder's Most Annoying Unethical Jerkfaces Quarterly and are rarely, if ever, allowed to return to academia there.

  • FWIW, I have intentionally avoided mentioning specific places or specific issues as I do not want to have the question derailed by frame-challenging ethical debates (e.g. "No, Stem Cell Research is wholly ethical, it's just these stupid regulatory regimes that keep asserting it isn't.... Your question is invalid."). Mar 2, 2019 at 12:26
  • The question is also inspired somewhat by my own experiences with people treating ethics and law as more or less the same thing, citing legal requirements as thought-stopping "ethics" conclusions. E.g. when speaking about "ethics", someone will say, "Here are the statutes, case law, administrative regulations, university policies, etc. that cover what we are doing. We've got to obey them, get to work.", and I can't remember the last time someone formed a circle and asked, "Forget the law, is what we are doing (or planning to do) really right? Let me read my favorite passage from Kant...." Mar 2, 2019 at 12:28
  • Another way to consider the question is to consider how legal questions ("Is X legal?") must usually have a jurisdiction in order to get a "real" answer ("Is fooing the bar legal in Pakistan?"). Does this or a similar rule apply to or make sense for asking questions about ethics? E.g. "Is fooing the bar ethical in academia?" versus "I know fooing the bar is ethical here in the Czech Republic, but I just got a faculty appointment at FSU and I want to continue my research there. Is fooing the bar ethical according to the standards of academics in Florida? A lawyer told me it's legal." Mar 2, 2019 at 12:41
  • If you have a specific example where two regions have come to different conclusions about one of the "big" ethical issues of our day (stem cell research, human cloning, not wearing clean underwear during thesis defense, etc.), that can be an answer, as long as it truly reflects ethical considerations rather than differences in what is permitted by applicable laws or administrative regulations. Mar 2, 2019 at 13:01

5 Answers 5


Your ethics vs the ethics of your community

It may well be that your personal ethics differs from the dominant ethics of the society where you happen to live, the society which is also setting the rules that influence your research.

While for many cases there's more or less a worldwide consensus about what's acceptable and not, there are genuine debates where multiple options are plausible, and in the case of such debates it's feasible that the IRB's of different countries would have contrary opinions. One such factor where it's obvious why there are differences (and also obvious why some people may not consider the other's arguments as binding or even relevant) is religious influence which has some impact on medical experiments (e.g. stem cell debate or certain aspects of sexuality in some parts of the world), other factors of medicine include things such as research on certain recreational substances and euthanasia. There are also topics (or findings of fact) that are highly unpopular for political reasons, which again are local.

It may well be that the IRB considers a particular type of research unethical and unacceptable (i.e. it wouldn't be minor adjustments to do that thing properly but "your goal is taboo"), it's not a fluke and every IRB around them would consider it unethical, but the researcher, taking all the arguments provided by the IRB into account, still finds that they personally believe this action to be ethical. In such situations, a reasonably valid option would be to move to a location where the locally dominant ethics matches your own - and which would likely not have objections to that research.


It's difficult to draw a clear line between ethical and legal restrictions, since of course lawmakers are influenced by what is generally considered as ethical in a certain community. For instance, according to Jewish law, the soul does not populate the body until 40 days after conception, whereas Christian theologians will tell you that this happens immediately at conception. This theological difference leads to very different laws concerning the use of human stem cells and embryonic tissue in Israel compared to most of Europe. (As a result, there are European stem cell researchers who move to Israeli research institutes because their research would be considered as unethical and illegal by the authorities of their home country.)

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    Could you elaborate on the European perspective? As far as I can tell, having such a strong influence from Christian sources on what is considered ethical in research is mainly an American thing. Feb 27, 2019 at 11:53
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    Not on the European perspective as a whole, but at least on the German one: The German Ethics Council had 26 members. According to this page, 6 of them are delegates of religious communities (1 Jew, 1 Muslim), 2 are teaching at Christian schools, and at least 9 more members have a strong Christian background. That's 15 out of 26, including the chairperson. And don't forget that the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) has been ruling Germany for decades. Occasionally, it feels the need to stress the "C".
    – Uwe
    Feb 27, 2019 at 12:42
  • I see. A quick glance at a few other countries seems to suggest that Germany are by far the most restrictive in this regard (though I may have missed some, as I only checked up on a few). Feb 27, 2019 at 12:44

The Declaration of Helsinki attempts to define medical research ethics. Over time debates, often local, have occurred leading to alternativesee like Good Clinical Practice and the Common Rule. Each ethical guideline is slightly different and research that might not be allowed in one locale, could be permissible under a different set of guidelines.


Ideally, ethics are universal, based on fundamental principles that don't differ by place or time. Nor by profession, actually. Ethics may be applied a bit differently in different professions, but only in the sense that different issues arise there.

But there are two other considerations. One is what is considered to be ethical in a place might be considered differently somewhere else, but this is a mistaken judgement. There was a time, and certainly places, where slavery was considered to be ethical, even meritorious, and some still do (sadly) believe that. But such considerations are based on faulty analysis.

The other consideration isn't really about ethics. It is about what sort of behavior people in a place or time expect of other people. It is about regulations, whether formal or not and whether sanctioned officially or unofficially. Your example of barring foos is of this sort of thing. One place celebrates it and a neighboring place forbids it. This has nothing to do with ethics, nor with law. It is all about social pressure which can be intense. Such social pressures can lead to shunning or even killing. I think the other examples here also fall into the social pressure or community expectations framework, rather than being ethical considerations.

But this question is one for philosophers rather than for academics per se.

And note that my first word here was "Ideally". There are philosophers who believe differently about the very nature of ethics, leading to different conclusion.

You can, for example, study situational ethics which comes to a different conclusion.

However, I don't think that we have discovered all ethical principles and so are in a bit of a muddle.

Vaguely remembering Dr. Seuss: I do not like them Sam I Am. I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them here nor there I do not like them anywhere. Etc.


I would argue that, while agreeing on them to a certain extent is required for a functioning society, ethics are inherently personal, and depend in no small amount on what the individual researcher believes to be true. Due to their socialization as well as the necessity to get along with one another, people will tend to form localized groups with similar beliefs, and thus ethics. It follows that where a person learns and works is likely to influence their ethics, but just crossing a border will usually not. In other words, if your hypothetical colleague is themself unsure whether a certain behaviour is ethical, moving them around the globe shouldn't alter their (or your) perspective on the matter.

However, if they are in disagreement with the majority in their location, I could think of a few scenarios where, while impractical, moving from one place to another might resolve the issue. Others have pointed out religious differences, and closely related to that are (e.g. professional) codes of conduct, but for the sake of simplicity I'm going to point towards the issue of intellectual property and, by extension, plagiarism. I'd posit that, on average, Chinese researchers have a different outlook on that than US based ones. Perhaps not even in principle, but certainly in terms of relative priorities.*

The relationship between law and ethics is an interesting one. Not only will a society's commonly held beliefs influence its legislation, there is also a certain pressure from authorities, via propaganda, law enforcement etc. in the opposite direction. While the academic community as a whole emphasizes communication and critical thinking, and might, one would hope, be less affected than the "average" citizen, I do not believe that we are entirely immune to this effect. At the very least, research ethics have changed with time, but they have not changed at the same pace in every culture.

* No judgment intended either way.

  • Can you think of a specific example where crossing a border would solve an ethical issue? I'm not talking about moving to an area where one is likely to get away with ethical violations due to less-well-funded watchdogs, but to an area where the substantive ethics are different. E.g. "My research proposal is clearly unethical here. Instead of editing it according to the suggestions of my IRB, I'm going to go to Ruritania, where patient privacy ethics is notably different! <hauls a big trunk to the border while frantically applying for faculty positions online at the U of Ruritania>" Feb 27, 2019 at 15:22
  • @Robert Columbia I'm trying to think of something that's not too politically charged. A lot of what's commonplace in some countries would tend to feel like "getting away with something" to someone with "western" ethics, e.g. animal rights considerations. Genetics/cloning/stem cell research come to mind as well, but I don't feel qualified to state hard facts concerning this area. Feb 27, 2019 at 15:57

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