Ethics and Statistics

What is Ethics? 

Is ethics an examination of :

  • when an act is right or wrong?
  • what kinds of things are good or desirable?
  • when a person deserves blame, reward or neither?
  • what kinds of virtues are likely to lead to good behavior?

You are right.  It is all of the above!

Ethics is,

"a set of morally-permissible standards of conduct all members of a group want each other to follow."

Michael Davis, Illinois Institute of Technology

Moral Literacy

Moral literacy is a combination of a number of complex skills and abilities that all individuals should aspire to acquire.  These skills and abilities are behaviors can be describe as a person being able to:

  • recognize moral problems and to assess the complex issues that they raise,
  • identify and appreciate the underlying ethical values,
  • evaluate moral problems from amny perspectives
  • assess disagreements on and propose responses to moral problems, and
  • choose to act with wisdom and responsibility.

Studying and learning about ethics is a very broad and expansive topic. As statisticians, what we can do is focus on recognizing the ethical issues as they appear in statistical practice.  And, to help us manage the ethical dilemmas that we do confront we need to develop a framework for how to think about ethical issues.

Components of Moral Literacy

Ethics sensitivity, the ability to recognize more problems when they occur and appreciate the full significance of the situation, ethical reasoning, the ability to evaluate moral problems through an understanding of the major ethical frameworks and moral imagination, the ability to understand and analyze a wide range of disagreements about and proposed responses to these problems; these are all components of moral literacy.

Part of your academic preparation as a statistician should include this awareness and appreciation of the bigger ethical picture of certain scenarios you will no doubt encounter so that you will be able to think through these dilemmas considering a wide array of solutions and implications in a thoughtful manner.

Ethical Sensitivity

The first step is to be able to recognize ethical issues in the first place.  Are you proud or ashamed of an action?  Does it feel 'wrong' for some reason?  Emotions often help reveal what is important to us, what we value and what effects us.  Is your action compatible with your own basic ethical values?  Is the action compatible with ethical principles?

Categories of Moral Senses (Jonathan Haidt, Social and Moral Psychologist):

  1. Harm
  2. Fairness
  3. Loyalty to In-group
  4. Respect for authority or hierarchy
  5. Purity / sanctity

What if a client asks you to eliminate data because it doesn’t fit?  How do you think about this kind of request?

Start by asking yourself some questions...

Ethical Thinking / Ethical Reasoning Skills

  • Are you proud or ashamed of the action? Does it feel wrong?
  • Is such an action compatible with your basic ethical values?
  • Is the action compatible with ethical principles (these can be gathered by looking at the Statistical Ethics)

The idea is to think through what the issues are, therefore, ethical thinking involves making your value considerations obvious, to bring them out into the open so that you can examine them against our ethical values.

Our ethical values help us to define what we consider right and wrong. Ethical values guide individuals as well as groups and can serve as goals and ideals that we aspire to and by which we measure ourselves, others and societies.  Examples include what we think of as fair, being just or impartial.  Respect is another example of an ethical value whereby we acknowledge others.

An ethical framework can help to lay out our values.  For instance, a virtue-based approach might involve principles related to the development of good habits of character including:

  • Benevolence
  • Trustworthiness
  • Integrity
  • Prudence
  • Courage
  • Fairness
  • Responsibility

"Practical wisdom cannot be acquired solely by learning general rules.  We must also acquire, through practice, those deliberative, emotional, and social skills that enable us to put our general understanding of well-being into practice in ways that are suitable to each occasion."


Formalizing an agreed upon approach to managing ethical dilemmas and stating these principles as a central aspect for how a company or an institution carries itself in day-to-day activities is an example of ethical thinking.  These published ethical principles that form the backbone of an institution's perspective on the conduct of business are often labeled as a 'Code of Conduct'.  Statisticians at Penn State are guided by two examples of ethical thinking that will be examined in greater depth.

  • The Penn State Principles
  • The American Statistical Association Ethical Guidelines

What about Academic Integrity?  Is this an intrinsic or extrinsic value?  Is it only a negative value comprised of a list of things that you are not supposed to do, or does it have is own positive content?  As educators it is our responsibility to introduce others to the community of statisticians, to prepare them for its responsibilities, to help them anticipate poor decisions, mistakes and temptations.

Moral Imagination

Moral imagination is, given an ethical problem, being able to creatively consider a variety of choices, the consequences from a variety of perspectives.

"An ability to imaginatively discern various possibilities for acting in a given situation and to envision the potential help and harm that are likely to result from a given action."

Mark Johnson, Moral Imagination, Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1993)

Moral imagination allows us to experience compassion, to imagine ourselves in the situation of another.  This is not what we would feel or believe in that situation but what another, given their values, beliefs, and character is undergoing.  How well can you 'think outside the box'?  How well can you genuinely consider situations from other perspectives?  In doing this you are developing a much sensitive attunement to the complexities of the situation.

Ethical Analysis

Work as a statistical consultant touches nearly every field of scientific study.  As a result, the statistical consultant may be confronted with potential ethical challenges from any number of contexts and there is simply no way to categorize and prescribe what actions should be taken in each case.  Instead, the statistical consultant must have at their familiar disposal a trusted method for evaluating what can be very complicated challenges to guide their ethical decision making.  The key phrase here is a method for thinking through what their response should be.

Seven-Step Guide to Ethical Decision-Making

  1. State the problem.

    For example, "there's something about this decision that makes me uncomfortable" or "do I have a conflict of interest?".
  2. Check facts.

    Many problems disappear upon closer examination of situation, while others change radically.
  3. Identify relevant factors.

    For example, persons involved, laws, professional code, other practical constraints ( e.g. under $200).
  4. Develop list of options.

    Be imaginative, try to avoid "dilemma"; not "yes" or" no" but whom to go to, what to say.
  5. Test options.

    Use such tests as the following:
    • Harm Test: Does this option do less harm than alternatives?

    • Publicity Test: Would I want my choice of this option published in the newspaper?

    • Defensibility Test: Could I defend choice of option before congressional committee or committee of peers?

    • Reversibility Test: Would I still think choice of this option good if I were adversely affected by it?

    • Colleague Test: What do my colleagues say when I describe my problem and suggest this option is my solution?

    • Professional Test: What might my profession's governing body for ethics committee say about this option?

    • Organization Test: What does the company's ethics officer or legal counsel say about this?

  6. Make a choice based on steps 1-5.

  7. Review steps 1-6.

    • What could you do to make it less likely that you would have to make such a decision again?

    • Are there any cautions you can take as an individual (and announce your policy on question, job change, etc.)?

    • Is there any way to have more support next time?

    • Is there any way to change the organization ( for example, suggest policy change at the next departmental meeting)?

(From Davis, Michael (1999) Ethics and the University, New York: Routledge, p. 166-167.)

Moral literacy does not give you a pre-prescribed set of rules to follow for every situation.  There are just too many circumstances and complexities that change from situation to situation to make a formal set of rules possible for every situation.  Instead, one looks for a morally guided path and working through a process like the one above provides a process for managing your thoughts, perceptions and your decisions.

It Takes Courage!

These are not easy decisions and sometimes there are associated costs or risks.  Sometimes we have to admit we are wrong! Generating possible actions is helpful because sometimes the "wrong" answer is obvious and we need to really think about the "right" one.

In the long run, the goal is to do your reasonable best and take responsibility for your actions.