< back to article index

Teaching Anthropological Ethics: Developing Skills in Ethical Decision-Making and the Nature of Moral Education

Reprinted from: ANTHROPOLOGICAL QUARTERLY Vol. 49, No. 2:81-88, 1976

G. N. Appell
Brandeis University

How can the gap between ethical prescriptions and behavior be closed? The various ethical codes have not been sufficiently internalized so that they have become part of the anthropologist’s decision-making apparatus. This can be corrected by developing a greater knowledge of the ethical codes; by developing a greater sensitivity to moral concerns; and by developing skills in ethical decision-making. This latter is complicated by the abstract nature of codes; the multiple roles of the anthropologist; and the nature of anthropological inquiry that takes place at an interface of ethical systems.

The case-discussion method is described as one approach to training for ethical decision-making. But the grafting of such a course onto a curriculum is only a partial solution. Departmental structure and the processes of anthropological education must also be such that they do not contribute towards an erosion of moral controls. For the ultimate source of moral behavior is the individual. This is expressed in the development of the habit of the truth and trust. For a science whose primary instrument is the individual, these characteristics must be finely tuned. Observational precision is eroded by any deceitful or ungenuine interactions. And those whose everyday relations are so contaminated are also likely to become dishonest in their research and publishing.


The institution of a code of ethics for the American Anthropological Association — I refer here both to the Statement on Ethics and the Principles of Professional Responsibility — has been a significant and important event. While I have reservations about certain aspects of this new code, and while I believe its function and implementation have been inadequately considered from anthropological perspective (cf. Appell 1974), these are not the problems that I would like to discuss here. Instead I would like to consider the basic problem of how to close the gap between ideology — that is the various codes of ethics including the code of the Society for Applied Anthropology — and behavior. Or in broader terms, how can we increase the levels of active moral concern within the profession?

A number of questions can be raised as to how one achieves conformity to a code of ethics. For example, conformity to a moral order is related to the degree to which the moral order represents the intentions and beliefs of the members, and this question might be put to our own codes of ethics. Or, we might ask, what sanctions are there available to enforce conformity? But, these types of questions are ones that the Committee on Ethics has already dealt with, whether we agree with their conclusions or not, and so I shall not approach them here.

Instead, in approaching the problem of closing the gap between ideology and behavior, I should like to consider the part that education might play in contributing towards improving the ethics of anthropological inquiry. However, first, some estimation of the degree to which members of the Association have internalized the codes and the degree to which the codes are being used as a basis to form action will be of relevance.

The Gap Between Official Ideology and the Moral Order of Everyday Action

I have been struck by how lightly the Statement on Ethics and the Principles of Professional Conduct lie on the collective conscience of the members of the Association. For the past several years at various professional meetings and universities I have been holding discussion sessions of case materials describing actual field dilemmas that investigators have had difficulty in resolving, and only in one instance did an individual refer to the statement on ethics of the Association as being relevant for resolving an issue. And this was quickly dismissed by the other participants. The year the Principles were first circulated for consideration, I raised the point at the general meeting of the Northeastern Anthropological Association that if some of the behavioral prescriptions were conscientiously followed they would stop research in many areas where the critical problems the Principles were attempting to deal with had not yet arisen. But only a very few displayed any knowledge of the Principles, and fewer yet expressed any concern.

The point I want to make here simply is that in my observation few anthropologists have sufficiently internalized the code so that it has become part of their decision-making apparatus.

It seems to me that at least three approaches to correct this problem might be considered: 1) developing a greater knowledge of the substance of the Code; 2) developing a greater sensitivity to moral concerns; and 3) developing skills in ethical decision-making so that the anthropologist, when confronted with a difficult decision in the field, will have had some experience and resources to fall back upon.

Developing a Knowledge of the Code

As a start it seems to me that some effort should be undertaken to ensure that the contents of the various statements on ethics are more generally known, and this can be a relatively simple matter. The statement on ethics can be assigned as required reading in anthropology courses and control over the contents can be tested. Perhaps here the Committee on Ethics might consider designing a “minicourse,” including testing instruments, for use in anthropological departments.

Developing Sensitivity to Ethical Issues

There is no question, at least from my experience, that individuals vary greatly as to whether or not they see a situation or view an experience in moral terms. For example, I have inquired widely of members in the profession as to whether they might have any interesting case materials illustrating difficult ethical decisions. But I have found that a number of individuals maintain that they never have experienced any such problems. And I have the distinct impression that this position is more frequently found among those social scientists who view the world in terms of “negotiated social orders,” in terms of stratagems, than among social structuralists. But this is a minor point, though interesting if true. The point I do want to make here, however, is that not all people view the social world in which they operate as constrained by a distinct moral order that supports a certain level of behavior. Nevertheless, it has been my experience that many of these same individuals, after experiencing a discussion session of case materials illustrating ethical dilemmas and conflicts, become sensitized to moral concerns and then realize that they too have faced such concerns in the field. And from these I have collected some very interesting case materials.
In summary, I maintain that by participating in group discussion of ethical and moral concerns many people are sensitized to look for these issues and become more aware of the consequences their own behavior has on others.

Developing Skills in Ethical Decision-Making

In considering techniques and programs whereby anthropologists can develop skills in ethical decision-making, the nature of the environment in which many of these critical decisions take place might first be profitably examined.
Anthropological inquiry by its very nature takes place at an interface of ethical systems. Thus, the anthropologist frequently finds himself in situations that demand a choice, a plan of action, or a decision in an environment of conflict between customs, rules, and principles that would normally provide guides for action. And for many of these situations of conflict in value judgment, no immediate and obvious solution may exist. The investigator may also have to make such a choice and reach a decision without adequate information or sufficient time to probe all the ramifications of the situation. Thus, how the individual resolves this conflict depends on the degree to which his judgment has matured through knowledge, experience, and training. However, graduate training for such contingencies is as yet not very far advanced.

Complicating the problems of decision-making at an interface of ethical systems is the fact that the anthropologist occupies multiple roles — field worker, teacher, writer, citizen, guest in a foreign country, member of a cultural tradition, and so forth — all of which have ethical and moral expectations which are frequently irreconcilable. As a result an anthropologist characteristically must live with moral ambiguity, and it may well be that the best field workers are those who can tolerate, but not ignore, these ambiguities. However, since the process by which field workers come to terms with these dilemmas of moral ambiguity has seldom been studied, it is difficult to prepare students for the field, except, as I shall shortly argue, by the case method. But before I discuss this approach, I would first like to outline very briefly some aspects of the nature of moral systems so that we can understand the difficulties in developing teaching techniques that might help close the gap between ideology and behavior.

First of all, moral codes present general principles to guide action, and as such they are usually phrased in abstract and general language so that they have a more universal relevance. On the other hand, actual decision-making environments are very concrete and clouded with bewildering detail. Furthermore, facts are seldom clear-cut and are usually subject to several interpretations. Consequently, the first problem in the use of a moral code for guiding action is learning to recognize those instances where an ethical issue is involved. Secondly, there is the problem of sorting out from a variety of ethical principles that particular one that would apply to the actual instance. This can be complicated as situations are frequently so structured that several principles may be operative, often in conflict with each other. Thus, skills must be developed first for analyzing the problem; then for determining the range of issues involved, and next for sorting out from the several possible principles those that most directly apply to the situation at hand, resolving any conflicts, if this is in fact possible, between competing ones.

The next stage involves the problem of how to move from a precept to its application. A rigid application of a principle may result in unethical behavior when viewed from other principles. And the generality of phrasing in principles may actually permit justification for behaviors that cannot in terms of the spirit of the principle be subsumed under it. Both in analyzing a specific situation and in determining the application of a precept, skills must be developed for selecting those facts that are of significance to the issues at hand and to discard others which are only peripheral to the problem. And in the application of a precept, skills must also be developed for deciding how and in what form a principle may be amended to fit the idiosyncrasies of the ongoing situation without destroying the validity of the principle. But both in deciding which precept applies and in planning how to put it into action, one must also learn to judge what the consequences of a line of action might be, for in the probable consequences themselves there are clues as to what principle might be more appropriate and what line of application the most satisfactory.
Finally, through experience in dealing with difficult ethical decisions the anthropologist comes to develop his own set of working rules for the application of ethical precepts, and he should also develop skills to discern when new situations arise that demand new ethical principles or revisions of old ones.

Use of the Case Method

The case method has long been used in business schools to provide students with the opportunity to gain experience and develop skills in decision-making before being confronted with actual situations. However, this method has also been recently applied to ethical decision-making (cf. Fletcher 1966; Eckels 1968), and so I have not really invented anything new in developing a case book, entitled Dilemmas and Ethical Conflicts in Anthropological Inquiry, for use in teaching and learning about the ethics of anthropological inquiry. It is inappropriate to discuss this further here, as I have done so elsewhere (cf. Appell 1971, 1973a, 1973b, 1974). However, I believe it to be essential that the profession take some action on developing skills for ethical decision-making, not only because of the nature of the environment in which anthropologists characteristically make their decisions, or because we have a new statement on ethics which needs to be studied, tested, internalized, and perhaps modified, but also because graduate education takes place in a rather rarified atmosphere and does not prepare the student for the actualities of extended field work. It tends to develop skills in theoretical debate rather than those for making more appropriate ethical decisions in field conditions.


In concluding, I do not want to leave the impression that a simple case discussion course grafted onto the regular curriculum is really going to solve completely the problem of developing more moral concern on the part of anthropologists (cf. Wright 1971). Moral education does not cease with the socialization in the home, or by a course, but must be an integral part of the whole educational process. And I am constantly amazed by the fact that anthropologists will fight for the humane treatment of an ethnic group in some far geographical region but will develop departmental structures and instructional processes that leave their students brutalized and dehumanized. For a discipline that straddles the humanities and the human sciences, for a discipline that studies and attempts to understand human behavior, this boggles the mind.

Thus, if the staff-student relationship is one of mutual hostility or indifference, antisocial behavior is encouraged; where self-esteem is threatened, moral controls are weakened (Wright 1971:239-244). If the teacher does not provide the proper role model, if in his teaching he overstresses the objectification of man and ignores the crucial issues that are affecting ethnic groups throughout the world, then he con tributes to moral anesthesia.

Finally, I would like to make a few remarks on the responsibility of the individual for contributing to a better climate for ethical behavior in the profession, for the ultimate locus of moral concern and behavior must lie with the individual. While we can create the environment in departments that encourages the development of moral concern, while we can institute courses to increase skills in ethical decision-making, the question of ethical behavior in the final analysis must be answered by the individual. It must be answered by his willingness to become sensitized to the interests of others, and not solely oriented towards self-interest, in both the conduct of his anthropological inquiry and the use of its results. He must become sensitized to how one’s actions may jeopardize or threaten the interests of others and become willing to sacrifice his own interests if humanity can be better served.
But ethical behavior is also expressed by the individual in his willingness to develop the habit of the truth. For the habit of the truth creates trust, and trust is the mortar of all social relations, the mortar which holds society together, and the mortar on which the scientific profession must be based (cf. Bronowski 1965). It is clear that the present social disorganization in society at large derives from a breakdown in trust, and in my observation there has been a similar erosion of trust and concern for others within the anthropological profession. This has occurred as the result of demographic changes, the increased opportunity for financial gain, and the greater opportunities to gain power and position so that the search for the truth no longer has the power to motivate people that it once had.

However, for the members of a science that deals with human beings, a science whose primary instrument is the individual scientist himself, personal gain must be subordinated to the commitment to others and the habit of the truth cultivated in the extreme. This is so not only because of the potential harm that an individual scientist can do, or because, otherwise, he betrays his own profession, but also and more immediately because the investigator must depend on himself, and the training that he has given himself, for the clarity and truth of his observations and scientific conclusions. It then follows that the anthropologist must refrain from any deceitful, insincere, ungenuine, or false social interactions with anyone. He must be completely truthful and honest with himself and others, no matter where the interaction takes place. For otherwise he corrodes his most precious scientific instrument, himself, and interferes with its observational precision. For those who are less than honest in their social relations out of the field, who fall into the habit of being less than frank in their everyday relations, they are also likely to be dishonest in their research.

Thus, while we can institute courses, and we should, we also must make sure that the rest of the instructional processes and the departmental organization itself are such as to encourage moral concern. But in doing all this we must be well aware that such actions can be used as an excuse from facing the very hard fact: the ultimate responsibility for ethical behavior lies with ourselves.


1 G. N. Appell is a Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology, Brandeis University. This paper was prepared for the Symposium, Learning and Teaching About Ethics in Field Work, Dr. Steven Polgar and Dr. G. N. Appell, Moderators, 1973 Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association.


1971 — Three cases dealing with dilemmas and ethical conflicts in anthropological inquiry. Human Organization 30.

1973a — Case book on anthropological inquiry. Newsletter of the American Anthropological Association 14: 4:2.

1973b — Comments on Anton Blok, “A note on ethics and power.” Human Organization 32.

1974 — Basic issues in the dilemmas and ethical conflicts in anthropological inquiry. In The Series of Position Papers on the Dilemmas and Ethical Conflicts in Anthropological Inquiry G. N. Appell, ed., New York: MSS Modular Publications. Module 19.

1965 — Science and human values. New York: Harper and Row.

1965 — Practical logic: Problems of ethical decision. American Behavioral Scientist 8: 8.

1968 — The ethics of decision-making. New York: Morehouse Barlow.

1966 — Situation ethics. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.
1971 — The psychology of moral behavior. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.