Research ethics boards (REBs) exist for good reason. By setting rules of ethical behaviour, REBs can help mitigate the risk of researchers causing harm to their research participants. However, the current method by which REBs promote ethical behaviour does little more than send researchers into the field with a set of rules to follow. While appropriate for most situations, rule-based approaches are often insufficient, and leave significant gaps where researchers are not provided institutional ethical direction.
Through a discussion of a recent research project about drinking and driving in South Africa, this article demonstrates that if researchers are provided only with a set of rules for ethical behaviour, at least two kinds of problems can emerge: situations where action is required but there is no ethically good option (zungzwang ethical dilemmas) and situations where the ethical value of an action can only be assessed after the fact (contingent ethical dilemmas). These dilemmas highlight and help to articulate what we already intuit: that a solely rule-based approach to promoting ethical research is not always desirable, possible, effective, or consistent.
In this article, I argue that to better encourage ethical behaviour in research, there is a need to go beyond the rules and regulations articulated by ethics boards, and focus more specifically on creating and nurturing virtuous researchers.