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A Young Woman's Struggle for Peace
A Young Woman's Struggle for Peace



Authoring Institution Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE)
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Contributor(s) Brian Schrag
Year 2000
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Rights The Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE) grants permission to use these case and commentary material with the citation indicated above.
Notes Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 4, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2000
Language English
Publisher Association for Practical and Professional Ethics
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  • Michael  Pritchard

    Posted 14 years and 5 months ago

    Michael Pritchard 

    Western Michigan University

    This case raises a number of very important ethical issues for graduate students and their faculty advisers and mentors. For graduate students, it raises questions about what, in good conscience, they commit themselves to as researchers. For faculty, it raises questions about their responsibilities in advising and mentoring their graduate students.

    All of this is complicated by two basic factors:

    • Graduate education is a period of transition that invites careful reflection on one's future aspirations, both professionally and personally.

    • Graduate education is a social enterprise that, to some extent, requires students to adapt to a context of inquiry and vocation that is not entirely of their own making.

    The first factor is evident in Ann's situation. At the very time that she is undertaking her graduate studies, she is reflecting on her basic values and commitments. The second factor comes into play when Ann realizes that the particular religious perspective to which she finds herself attracted is not one she can assume is widely shared by those in her chosen field of study, let alone in society generally. Regardless of how convinced she may be that the engineering profession for which she is preparing ought to share her values, she cannot reasonably expect that profession to adopt her particular perspective. Rather, she must determine whether she, in good conscience, can fit into a profession that embraces a great diversity of views on matters of fundamental importance to individual professionals, and to society in general. That does not mean that members of the engineering profession share no common moral ground, but it does mean that Ann must realize that this common ground will not be a common religious ground. Virtually any profession can be expected to accept freedom of (even from) religion.

    At the same time, advisers and mentors of graduate students need to realize that their students are in the process of sorting out their personal and professional priorities. A professional code of ethics provides a value framework within which members of a profession are expected to operate. However, at best, a code of ethics will express the highest common denominator that may be applied to members. It cannot be expected to do justice to everything that matters morally to individuals in their professional lives. So, although Ann should not expect the engineering profession to endorse pacifism as a moral requirement, it is reasonable for her to expect her advisers and mentors to help her determine to what extent engineering can endorse her right not to participate in engineering research that opposes her pacifism. Nevertheless, for this expectation to be reasonable, she must be forthcoming enough that her advisers and mentors are able to understand that she does have pacifist concerns.

    At the same time, advisers and mentors of graduate students need to realize that their students are in the process of sorting out their personal and professional priorities. A professional code of ethics provides a value framework within which members of a profession are expected to operate. However, at best, a code of ethics will express the highest common denominator that may be applied to members. It cannot be expected to do justice to everything that matters morally to individuals in their professional lives. So, although Ann should not expect the engineering profession to endorse pacifism as a moral requirement, it is reasonable for her to expect her advisers and mentors to help her determine to what extent engineering can endorse her right not to participate in engineering research that opposes her pacifism. Nevertheless, for this expectation to be reasonable, she must be forthcoming enough that her advisers and mentors are able to understand that she does have pacifist concerns.

    What should be clear, however, is that advisers and mentors have a responsibility to encourage their students to wrestle with questions of personal and social responsibility in engineering before they have crossed a threshold that might compromise their integrity.

    At this point we can ask how well Ann and Doe have done in meeting their responsibilities. At their initial interview, Ann gave no indication to Doe that she might have scruples about working on projects that could have military applications. Doe gave no indication that among the grants he was pursuing, at least some would be sponsored by the military. It might never have occurred to Ann that the sorts of projects Doe described could have military applications. It might never have occurred to Doe that Ann would have any scruples about working on projects that could have military applications; after all, links between engineering and the military are commonplace. In retrospect, however, both Ann and Doe might wish they had been more forthcoming in that first interview. This is a lesson both can apply to the future.

    By the end of the first year of graduate study, Ann sees things differently than when she began. In addition to studying engineering, she has been studying religion, particularly Christianity. Now she has questions that perhaps she was not prepared to ask a year earlier. At the same time, Doe has received a grant relevant to Ann's research interests, the soft photovoltaic. Fortunately, Doe identifies the Air Force as sponsor. Ann then asks questions about the possible applications of this research and wonders whether she should join Doe in working on the Air Force grant.

    At this point, Ann and Doe do not seem to have entered into a contractual relationship, either verbal or implicit. How they might proceed from here is yet to be determined. Given Ann's concerns, it is very important that she and Doe communicate as openly as possible about what Ann's role might be. In the end, Ann might decide that she cannot, in good conscience, join Doe in this project. However, if she does agree to join him, this agreement should be based on a clear, mutual understanding of what can be expected from each other. In his desire to have Ann join him, Doe should not deliberately hold back information that might give her reason to turn down the opportunity. Ann, in turn, should not conceal from Doe convictions she has that might dampen his enthusiasm for joining him.

    Should Ann and Doe agree that she will work with him on the project, their moral expectations from one another change in fundamental ways. Obligations will have been taken on. There will be a commitment of time, energy, and money. Thus, it is very important that their mutual understanding be as clear as possible before crossing this line.

    None of this discussion goes directly to the question of what decision Ann should make about whether to work on this grant. It addresses only the question of what should precede that decision. A reflective student will take on the responsibility of trying to resolve tensions between personal convictions and professional commitments. That is what Ann is doing as she goes home. She may benefit from talking further with others - others who share her moral and religious convictions, as well as Doe or other engineering faculty and students. Ultimately, she must decide what she is or is not willing to do. Doe should be willing to offer further help, should Ann seek it. He can also attempt to influence her decision making by overtly or subtly threatening to make life difficult for her as a student at Engineering University should she decline his offer. He should not do that.

    This case illustrates the importance of encouraging engineering students to try to think though larger questions about the social responsibilities they will have as engineers. This, I believe, is a vital part of meeting the ABET requirement that engineering programs should familiarize students with the ethical dimensions of the profession they are about to enter.1 This effort requires more than acquainting them with engineering codes of ethics. It also requires encouraging students to think carefully about how good a fit there is between what matters to them as moral agents and what an engineering career might entail.


    • 1ABET is the acronym for the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. This board establishes criteria that must be satisfied if an engineering program is to be fully accredited. For a full statement of ABET requirements, see The ABET web page.

    From: Graduate Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries - Volume 4, 2000 

    edited by Brian Schrag

  • Anonymous Participant

    Posted 14 years and 5 months ago

    From: Graduate Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries - Volume 4, 2000 

    edited by Brian Schrag

    "A Young Woman's Struggle for Peace" may be read on two levels. First, it is a case of an individual's personal moral dilemma. Ann must weigh her duties as a student and her desire to become a researcher in light of the wisdom of her developing conscience. Regardless of the basis of her dilemma, the realm of professional ethics includes resolution of conflicts that may arise between personal convictions and professional activities. Questions 1-7 are roughly contained within this framework. I have outlined approaches to these questions in some detail.

    Ann's dilemma does not exist in a vacuum, but necessarily rests upon more fundamental issues. The second reading of this case, therefore, addresses the basis of Ann's dilemma, primarily by questioning the ethics of developing military technology and the related notion of the just war. These underlying matters lie beyond the immediate scope of professional ethics, for they appeal to more basic philosophies. Dismissal of such questions, however, silences discussion of the very issues that give rise to practical problems and consequently squanders the wisdom that can be gleaned from earnest deliberation. Progress in professional ethics, therefore, requires consideration of basic questions, even if consensus cannot be reached. In this spirit, Questions 8-13 investigate broad issues that surround Ann's situation. I make no attempt to answer them systematically. I sincerely hope the reader finds these questions engaging, and that they will inspire thought and dialogue that will inform the consciences of engineers and scientists as they choose to participate in various research activities.

    Discussion Questions

    Question 1

    • Characterize Ann's dilemma. Is it a conflict of interest or a personal moral dilemma? Depending on Ann's course of action, does Doe have a conflict of interest? (See Question 7.) The purpose here is to distinguish between a personal moral dilemma and a professional conflict of interest.1Clearly, Ann has a personal moral dilemma. If she has a conflict of interest, then it is necessary to identify vested interests and show them to be in opposition. "Interests," in the professional sense, correspond to duties associated with employment, contractual obligations or financial interests.It is not clear that Ann has any interests in this sense. Perhaps she has duties as a student, but as yet they are not directly related to her research. Ann's conscience is not regarded as an interest. Therefore, this case does not present a conflict of interest. As a point of reference, Harris, Pritchard, and Rabins note that a person's objection to developing military technology is regarded as a personal moral dilemma.2 (See comments to Question 4). On the other hand, a conflict of interest would occur if Ann were a hired researcher asked to perform military research, while at the same time she were a professional in a church or other organization that actively professed noncooperation with military interests. As for Doe, he clearly does have duties to his students and to agencies that fund his research. He could conceivably have a conflict of interest if Ann begins to work on the Air Force project and later determines that she cannot continue the work.

    Question 2

    • Does Ann's dilemma change if she is Jewish? Muslim? Buddhist? Hindu? Humanist? If so, how? The purpose here is to acknowledge that Ann's dilemma is not dependent on her Christianity, but could arise in a variety of faiths and belief systems. Adherents of particular belief systems are encouraged to consider this case from their own perspectives.

    Question 3

    • Identify Ann's goals and purpose as she matures and progresses. To what extent do Ann and Doe perceive differently the relevant applications, goals, or purposes of the research? Here the reader is asked to critically consider the basis of the attitudes of Ann and Doe. Ann's intellect and conscience are both developing. Initially, her goals are based on her zeal for science and her desire to become a scientist. While she attaches some sense of purpose to her scientific work (sustainable energy), the science is an end in itself. Later, as a result of her budding understanding of nonviolence, she begins to attach greater importance to the military application of the science rather than the science itself. We can only conjecture how her views will develop in the future. The text does not elaborate on Doe's character. One possibility is that he has not considered ethical issues surrounding the application of science and is therefore oblivious. He may be happy simply to conduct research irrespective of its source of funding. On the other hand, he may have thought very critically about such issues, and perhaps is even a devout Christian who supports a notion of just war. In this case, he may have determined that the research he is conducting is acceptable, and even necessary. Either way, he does not appear to consider that Ann may be sensitive to issues beyond rote science.

    Question 4

    • Does Ann have responsibilities to know and understand the applications of her work? How might these responsibilities depend upon the stage of her education or career?Professional ethics asserts that each person, as part of his or her professional duty, is called to act as a moral agent. That means that professionals must be sensitive to ethical concerns in their working environments and must be able to make informed judgments to solve or prevent ethical problems.

    In this light, two basic questions emerge concerning Ann's situation:

    • Does the domain of moral agency include the objectives and premises of professional activities?

    • As a graduate student, is Ann a professional, and thereby required to act as a moral agent?

    A reasonable answer to the first question is "yes." Moral agency is not confined to the ethics of conduct within a profession, such as conventions of authorship, confidentiality, data reporting, informed consent, etc. Vigilant moral agents may legitimately question the basic objectives and premises of their professions. Imagine that a new version of the Tuskegee study is devised to study untreated HIV. Perhaps the study is scientifically sound and provides for informed consent of the participants. Surely a clinician would be justified in questioning the premise of the study if he or she felt that it targets poor people who cannot afford treatment.

    However, not all ethical problems are necessarily problems in the professional sense. In Ann's case, one basis of analysis rests on understanding the ambient system of law. One may presume that Ann is working in a nation whose constitution authorizes the power to declare war, and in which subsequent laws have provided for the systemic development of military technology. Therefore, Ann's potential objection to military research per se is not an issue of professional ethics, but is rather a personal moral dilemma. (Of course, this case could be modified to examine the specific nature of the research and analyzed with reference to additional criteria, such as international law and conventions of warfare. In some instances, Ann could object to certain types of military research on professional grounds.)

    Regarding the second question, Ann is a junior student and is clearly not a professional. She is not expected to master any of the dimensions of her work, whether they are research techniques, mathematical skills, or ethical reasoning. Furthermore, just as beginning students enter with varied technical skills, they enter with different backgrounds in ethics. While loose ethical standards can be expected of all students (in the general area of academic integrity), it is my own experience that beginning and even advanced students lack a full conception of moral agency. Given this climate, I contend that Ann is not responsible for understanding or affirming the wider applications of her thesis work at its outset.3 However, as she progresses in her studies, her professional responsibilities increase. I suggest that a reasonable benchmark is to expect that at the time of her thesis defense, she does understand the applications of her work to the point that she could reassess her initial decision to pursue the work in the first place. To her credit, she is thinking along these lines at a much earlier stage.

    The assertion that a graduate student is free from the full obligation of moral agency is perhaps less than satisfactory. The argument that relieved Ann from considering the applications of her thesis work rested not on philosophy, but rather on an estimation of the current norms among graduate students. As ethics education is implemented at the undergraduate level, these norms will change. Students will become more responsible for acting as moral agents before they become full professionals.

    Question 5

    • Is Doe obligated to reveal the applications of the research to his advisees and the corresponding funding agencies? Does he have a responsibility to be aware of ethical concerns that others may have about his work, even if he does not share those concerns? This question is a companion to Question 4. Doe is clearly a professional and therefore has the duty to act as a moral agent in the course of his work, including research, teaching, and advising. Based on the arguments given in Question 4, Doe is clearly responsible for understanding and affirming the applications of his research. As an adviser, Doe has the duty to help his students become aware of information that is pertinent to their career development, in order that they will learn to think independently and make informed decisions. Therefore, he must be prepared to engage his students in both technical and ethical matters. In particular, Doe is obliged to discuss with them the applications and funding of his research, for the following reasons. In Question 4, the argument is made that moral agency includes the possibility of questioning the basic purpose or premises of one's work. Doe cannot assume that his students are unconcerned about the applications of their research. Reticence on their part may be due to their fear of raising sensitive issues. He must actively create an environment in which his students have the freedom to investigate their ethical concerns. To this end, he has a responsibility to be reasonably aware of ethical matters that students might raise, even in cases in which he personally disagrees. Even if his students do not have ethical concerns about the applications of their research, Doe must raise their consciousness to include these concerns as part of their ethical thinking. As professionals, they will be asked to devote their time and energy toward achieving certain goals in accordance with the norms of their fields. As students prepare for professional service, they must realize that they are not merely developing technical skills to qualify for employment; they are actively choosing how they wish to participate in society, a choice for which they will ultimately bear responsibility. I submit that ethics education must reveal the interests and objectives of the various professions in order that students may make informed, deliberate career choices. The solicitation of research funding requires justification of the proposed work. Doe should discuss with his students the current interests and trends in their fields and which agencies are likely to provide support. That is especially important for students who decide to pursue research careers.

    Special Note. I contend that researchers in engineering and science have a special obligation to consider the motivations and applications of their work. In his essay Target Equals City, Thomas Merton argues that during warfare in which new technologies are applied, ethical principles shift very quickly, and yield to "practical dictates."4 Should our system of ethics (including ethics of warfare) be based primarily upon what is physically possible and "effective?" Does a system invested in the presumed need to develop military technology rely on sound ethics to discern what is "effective" in the first place? The nature of scientific and engineering research is to expand the envelope of control over matter and energy. Within this envelope, questions of how to control matter and energy are clearly ethical. Researchers who choose military endeavors must draw upon theories of warfare and principles of nonviolence in order to evaluate and justify the objectives of their research. They must be aware that their research may play a role in changing the very system of ethics that is presumed to inform their work a priori.

    Question 6

    • how is the funding agency related to the application of the research? Does Ann's dilemma change if

    • she pursues the same basic research with funding from NSF or DOE?

    • she pursues research that has no direct military application but is funded by the Air Force?

    This is a line-drawing problem.5 None of the alternatives appear to be purely satisfactory or purely unsatisfactory. A practical distinction that Ann might make is whether her research directly contributes to the development of a new weapon system.

    • It is unlikely that the NSF or DOE would be funding research specifically for the purpose of designing a new weapons system. However, Ann may still wish to determine whether the research has clear military applications.

    • The Air Force and other military branches do fund basic research that is not directly related to weapons systems and in fact may be far from technological development. Ann must consider whether she is an accomplice to the development of weaponry even if she is not directly involved.

    Question 7

    • Consider the extent to which Ann and Doe have entered into a contractual relationship (written, verbal, implicit). It may help to draw upon your own experience as a student or faculty member.

    • Is Ann bound by this contract if she discovers information that contradicts the initial premises of the contract? Is she obligated to reveal her own attitudes, which may conflict with her research?

    • What risks does Ann take if she voices her objections? What risks does she take if she decides to change her research course?

    • Does Doe have responsibilities to Ann if Ann determines that she cannot participate in the research, given its intended purpose?

    This situation may vary according to institution and individual faculty-student relationships.

    • Ann has not yet begun any research. If she is certain of her convictions, now is the time to raise them. This strategy is in the best interests of her credibility as well as Doe's research program. A stickier situation occurs if she realizes her dilemma in the midst of her research, or if she is uncertain of her convictions at the beginning of her research. That could happen if she is not certain of her convictions at the beginning of her research. In such a case, she is advised to raise the issue and seek a mutually acceptable arrangement with Doe.

    • Ann may at least perceive a risk that she will be labeled "uncooperative" if she changes her research course based on a nontechnical issue. Depending on the availability of other research projects in her department, it is conceivable that she risks working in an area that interests her less. In the long term, she may risk losing employment opportunities in research if her objections are perceived to conflict with general conventions of research in her field.

    • Doe has a right to sponsor research that may not meet Ann's approval, and may reasonably determine that she cannot work in his lab. However, his duty as a mentor requires him to respect Ann's convictions and at least try to find common ground. Perhaps he can find an alternative source of funding or help to establish a position for her with another faculty member.

    While Doe may have to reveal information about Ann's convictions as he helps her find a satisfactory position, it is ultimately Ann's responsibility to report her convictions to her associates as they are relevant. It would be unethical for Doe to discuss Ann's moral convictions with colleagues indiscriminately. His faithfulness to this duty will help to prevent some of Ann's fears from being realized.

    For Further Thought and Investigation

    The following questions are very broad and may serve as the basis of discussion in a range of settings, including academic, professional, and religious. I have only a couple of comments here

    Question 11

    • University teaching, especially at the graduate level, is influenced by faculty research. Research is typically funded by external organizations that have their own agendas (corporations, government agencies, nonprofit institutions).

    • To what extent is the relationship between basic research and research sponsorship discussed in teaching settings? In research settings?

    • To what extent do the values and interests of the research sponsors bias the teaching of basic science? Are students aware of these biases? Is objectivity compromised?

    • What can be done within the educational system to convey to students the need to understand the applications and implications of science and technology? Can social responsibility be "taught?"

    I believe that these questions are centrally important in modern education and apply to issues beyond military technology. Another example to consider is the relationship between genetic engineering and large agricultural corporations that produce food.


    • A discussion of conflicts of interest can be found in Deni Elliot and Judy Stern, eds., Research Ethics (Hanover, N.H.: UNiversity Press of New England, 1997), Chapter 6.

    • Charles Harris, Michael Pritchard and Michael Rabins, Engineering Ethics,(Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1995), Chapter 4.2.

    • P. Aarne Vesilind asserts that it would be unfair to expect a graduate student to question arrangements surrounding the funding of his or her research. I considered this argument in writing my commentary. See P. Aarne Vesilind, "Commentary on 'Owing Your Soul to the Pharmaceutical Store'" in Brian Schrag, ed., Graduate Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 3 (Bloomington, Ind.: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 1999).

    • Thomas Merton, Passion for Peace: The Social Essays,ed. William Shannon (New York: Crossroad, 1995), Chapter 3.

    • A discussion of line drawing canbe found in Harris, Pritchard and Rabins, Engineering Ethics, Chapter 5.

Cite this page: "A Young Woman's Struggle for Peace" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 4/7/2006 OEC Accessed: Thursday, September 10, 2020 <>