Most academic ethics (indeed, most professional ethics in general) are heavily focused on Kantian/Deontological principles. For academics, the basic rules are blatantly Deontological - don't plagiarize, don't falsify data, don't cheat on exams, don't abuse research subjects, don't divert grant funds to unauthorized activities, don't engage in discrimination, etc. Is there a place in Academia for Utilitarian "greatest good for the greatest number of people" ethics? At first this seems absurd - that anything worth doing is worth doing right, and that the damage done by violating ethical principles simply can't be quantified in any meaningful manner.

There are plenty of examples of post-facto ethical issues with respect to using past data obtained through problematic methods, but I'm asking about present day research. Can someone give an example of a scenario where an ethics committee, IRB, or other social establishment in academia might advise a researcher to go ahead and commit what would normally be misconduct because the likely benefits are just too great to pass up? For example, "This research is so important and so urgent that you need to do anything you can to finish it as soon as possible. Take restricted funds from other departments, bribe government officials, look the other way while your co-researchers sexually harass their grad students, inflate your own students' grades in exchange for extra work hours from them, do whatever you have to to finish it. Once you publish it will truly all be worth it as it will save countless millions from impending doom, balance the national budget, and restore Order to the Galaxy."

Note that I'm not asking about any specific scenario, but about whether utilitarian ethics even apply - that is, if having the basic rules (don't plagiarize, don't falsify, etc.) is normally just the most efficient way to do research (e.g. unfalsified data is worth much more than falsified data, a subordinate who is not being sexually harassed is less likely to quit in the middle of a big project and much less likely to sue, etc.), or if they are truly indispensable in all cases. I also recognize that the cases I am talking about are somewhat rare, probably more at home in a bad sci-fi movie than a real-life university, and that most people probably won't encounter them.

While "Nazi data" can be considered an example of this, I want to concentrate on other things that are less politically charged - say, deciding not to censure a professor for sexual harassment because of the importance of his current research, or falsifying a minor paper in order to qualify for grant money that you intend to use to do much more good than the harm caused by the falsified paper.

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    Are you confusing the theories of ethics with the actual ethical principles and actions of ethical people? People who act ethically can explain their reasoning in various ways but in fact those theories are less important to them than are the acts themselves. While it may be simpler and arguably clearer to express things as forbidden and harder to use more inspirational language, the result is the same. Don't confuse the theory of the thing with the thing itself. It works in cosmology also.
    – Buffy
    Oct 23, 2019 at 17:34
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    In my experience, any arguments based on 'utilitarian' values will lead you to do the wrong things, including the cover up you will need to try and keep it secret. No, always do the right thing.
    – Jon Custer
    Oct 23, 2019 at 17:59
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    Your examples are rather odd, because AFAIK none of the things you mention (redirecting funds, bribing officials, turning a blind eye to misconduct, etc) are within the scope of what an IRB has the power to approve. Typically IRBs and similar bodies oversee the methods used in the research itself, not the acquisition of the resources to carry it out or the workplace behavior of the researchers. Oct 23, 2019 at 19:20
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    Now, I believe there are situations where methods that are normally frowned upon (deceiving human subjects, involving them in research without their consent, etc) can be approved by an IRB, if they are inherently necessary to the research (e.g. you are studying a behavior that changes if the subjects know they are being observed), and if appropriate safeguards are in place. But that does not seem to be what you are asking about? Oct 23, 2019 at 19:22
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    @Thomas: On the other hand, if the sort of "utilitarian ethics" discussed in the question were prevalent, the university could openly admit that "yes, this guy behaved inappropriately, but because of his important research it's still worth keeping him around", and the academic community would find that acceptable. So the fact that they instead cover it up is, in itself, evidence that the community does not accept this sort of "ethics". Oct 23, 2019 at 19:36

2 Answers 2


Yes, but not in the way you're thinking.

No, covering up a given researcher's misdeeds because their research is so important isn't acceptable under academic ethics, both under deontological ethics, but also under utilitarian ethics: almost all research is incremental in nature, with the potential direct human benefit being very small. Things like curing cancer or solving world hunger are very large, very difficult problems, that would require far more than a single researcher to solve, no matter how brilliant they might be. Further, by covering up a given researcher's misdeeds, you're creating an incentive (or, rather, removing a disincentive) that would act to increase other individuals to commit similar harms in the future.

However, there is a very important area where utilitarian ethics have a place in academia: the prioritization of research, through mechanisms like grant applications. When a grant committee is evaluating a grant application, they are carrying out a utilitarian calculation, comparing the benefits and costs of the research and thereby evaluating its utility.


Deontological and utilitarian ethics usually lead to the same course of action, so the premise of the question is incorrect. Usually, both forms of ethics "have a place."

Your examples of utilitarian courses of action that break the rules are not actually the best way to achieve the desired result. They are not utilitarian.

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