Research ethics committees (RECs) at universities evaluate applications for ethical clearance through ethical research lenses shaped by positivist and interpretivist paradigms and cultural constructivist thinking. Such lenses predominantly follow reasoning strategies that could include inductive or deductive reasoning. Research ethics committees further interrogate applicants’ methodology and monitor their actions to determine whether they meet extant research ethics principles.
Design, on the other hand, posits by its very nature the possibility of change in the world. As such it assumes an abductive reasoning stance, projecting from the known into the ‘what could be’. This creation of the new is essentially a creative act. Yet such a creative act needs to fall within the domains of research as an academic enterprise. Thus, because design is intrinsically conceptual, its consequences are difficult to hypothesise. Yet research ethics committees need to assess design research proposals, despite the slipperiness of forecasting outcomes.
The purpose of this paper is, therefore, to offer potential ethical principles that speak to the needs of design research. In our attempts to develop such principles, we draw on pragmatism to locate the research project within the particular (the context, the participants, the time, and the problem to be solved).
Within this paradigmatic lens, we suggest four related approaches. Firstly, we accede to the utilitarian imperative of design, accept research ethics perquisites such as beneficiation and non-maleficence, and at the same time acknowledge the risk/benefit ratios. Secondly, we explore the role of Aristotle’s eudaimonia as a philosophical concept that contributes to the greater good of a community and an individual. Our third approach is one of ethics of care that promotes community, relationships, and connections and, finally, we provide a nod to ubuntu and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
From this engagement, we offer a potential code of ethics for design research. This code may provide research ethics committees with an appropriate lens through which to view and assess an application for ethical clearance.
Keywords: research ethics, ethical principles, design research