Virtue Ethics for CBPR? Research Ethics in the Academic Literature

Community-based participatory research (CBPR), by definition, includes communities as partners in the research process. Therefore, although individual research participants (also known as “human subjects”) may be sufficiently protected, the barriers and risks of full community participation will also need to be addressed. Are the ethical principles of “autonomy,” “nonmaleficence,” “beneficence,” and “justice” enough or do we need more than the principles-based approach of the Belmont Report to resolve the ethical issues in CBPR?

In “A virtue ethics guide to best practices for community-based participatory research”, Marjorie A. Schaffer proposes the addition of a virtues approach to the ethics toolbox. A list of relevant virtues might vary depending on the context, but Schaffer chooses to focus on six: compassion, courage, honesty, humility, justice, and practical reasoning. For example, Schaffer observes: “The compassionate researcher will imagine what the research experience is like for community partners and participants.” Likewise, the author advocates for humility because it can “guide the researcher to examine the inadequacies in their own understanding of community experiences and viewpoints as well as examine both knowledge and lack of knowledge in implementing the research process.” Schaffer devotes the most attention to justice, which, among other things, “means including vulnerable and disadvantaged populations in one’s research agenda, planning research that will benefit these groups (based on their input), and using research findings to contribute to improved social conditions.”

In this paper, Schaffer provides a good overview (with plenty of references) of the value of the virtues to the practice of ethical research in the community. In addition, the table of “best practices” walks through the CBPR steps and marks the places in which the virtues can assist. It seems to me, however, that a few issues will need to be addressed before a virtue ethics approach can be widely recognized and explicitly employed in CBPR. First, how do we teach (Schaffer suggests mentoring) and systematize the virtues? Is it really possible? Second, which virtues do we chose and why? And finally, Schaffer notes that “virtue ethics supports a collaborative approach”, but it might be more accurate to say that a collaborative approach requires or even instills the virtues in its practitioners. In other words, which comes first, the ethics or the eggs?


Schaffer MA. A virtue ethics guide to best practices for community-based participatory research. Progress in Community Health Partnerships: Research, Education, and Action. 2009 3(1), 83-90. DOI: 10.1353/cpr.0.0053


Frey WJ. Teaching virtue: pedagogical implications of moral psychology. Sci Eng Ethics. 2009 Sep 1. PMID: 19728163.

Holland S. The virtue ethics approach to bioethics. Bioethics. 2009 Aug 25. PMID: 19709078.

Shore N, Wong KA, Seifer SD, Grignon J, Gamble VN. Introduction to special issue: advancing the ethics of community-based participatory research. J Empir Res Hum Res Ethics. 2008 Jun;3(2):1-4. PMID: 19385741.

Other Recent Research Ethics Articles (October 2009)

– J.O.


2 responses to “Virtue Ethics for CBPR? Research Ethics in the Academic Literature

  1. Pingback: The Virtue Approach | Research Ethics RSMET Group Blog

  2. Jurgens Peters

    Thanks so much for a fantastic overview of ethics in CBPR. It is of substantial quality.

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