Introducing ethics

You have probably been told that, when working on your Extended Project Qualification (EPQ), you should work ethically. But what does that mean?

Ethics is a discipline – a way of working and thinking – that is concerned with deciding what is the right, or the best, thing to do. Ethics is a branch of philosophy and an area of academic study in its own right, but that doesn’t mean it is accessible only to people with specialist knowledge and skills – quite the opposite. Just about all of us, even young children, use ethical reasoning when deciding what to do, even though we might not knowingly describe our thought processes in such a way.

Ethical reasoning provides a powerful and helpful way of deciding on the right course of action, not just in project work but in all aspects of life. As you plan and carry out your project, you will be particularly concerned with research ethics: guidelines and regulations that have been developed to ensure that research is carried out responsibly. But before focusing specifically on research ethics, we’ll take a more general look at ethics as a way of thinking.

To illustrate what’s involved in ethical thinking, let’s start by looking at something that most people believe is wrong: telling lies. You might argue that it’s OK to tell white lies: small untruths told to spare someone’s feelings, such as saying you like their new outfit when really you don’t. But that’s an interesting ethical question in itself (and some people maintain that even telling white lies is wrong), so let’s put it to one side and focus on ‘serious’ lies.

Activity 1: What is wrong with telling lies?

Spend a few minutes listing reasons why it might be wrong to lie. Don’t worry about whether the reasons are good ones, just write down all that you can think of.

After writing your list, discuss your reasons in a pair or in a small group. Try to explore their implications. For example, you might have said that telling someone a lie (giving them false information) could lead them to do something dangerous. Not all lies would have this outcome – so are some lies worse than others?

Activity 1 has given you some experience of ethical reasoning and critical thinking. You probably found yourself not quite agreeing with everything everyone else said, arguing to put forward your own point of view, and maybe changing your mind in the process. This sort of critical thinking and arguing is something that you should expect to do as part of your project – not just when considering ethical aspects of your work.

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Go Further: A practical guide to extended science projects’ in October 2016.

Statistics and maths, Careers, Psychology
Go Further: A practical guide to extended science projects
Education levels:
16–19, Independent research projects, Continuing professional development