Measuring Biotechnology Employees’ Ethical Attitudes towards a Controversial Transgenic Cattle Project: The Ethical Valence Matrix

Authors: Small, Bruce1; Fisher, Mark2

Source: Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, Volume 18, Number 5, September 2005 , pp. 495-508(14)

Publisher: Springer

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What is the relationship between biotechnology employees’ beliefs about the moral outcomes of a controversial transgenic research project and their attitudes of acceptance towards the project? To answer this question, employees (n=466) of a New Zealand company, AgResearch Ltd., were surveyed regarding a project to create transgenic cattle containing a synthetic copy of the human myelin basic protein gene (hMBP). Although diversity existed amongst employees’ attitudes of acceptance, they were generally: in favor of the project, believed that it should be allowed to proceed to completion, and that it is acceptable to use transgenic cattle to produce medicines for humans. These three items were aggregated to form a project acceptance score. Scales were developed to measure respondents’ beliefs about the moral outcomes of the project for identified stakeholders in terms of the four principles of common morality (benefit, non-harm, justice, and autonomy). These data were statistically aggregated into an Ethical Valence Matrix for the project. The respondents’ project Ethical Valence Scores correlated significantly with their project acceptance scores (r=0.64, p<0.001), accounting for 41% of the variance in respondents’ acceptance attitudes. Of the four principles, non-harm had the strongest correlation with attitude to the project (r=0.59), followed by benefit and justice (both r=0.54), then autonomy (r=0.44). These results indicate that beliefs about the moral outcomes of a research project, in terms of the four principles approach, are strongly related to, and may be significant determinants of, attitudes to the research project. This suggests that, for employees of a biotechnology organization, ethical reasoning could be a central mechanism for the evaluation of the acceptability of a project. We propose that the Ethical Valence Matrix may be used as a tool to measure ethical attitudes towards controversial issues, providing a metric for comparison of perceived ethical consequences for multiple stakeholder groups and for the evaluation and comparison of the ethical consequences of competing alternative issues or projects. The tool could be used to measure both public and special interest groups’ ethical attitudes and results used for the development of socially responsible policy or by science organizations as a democratizing decision aid to selection amongst projects competing for scarce research funds.

Keywords: attitudes; autonomy; benefit; ethical valence; genetic engineering; harm; justice; principles; research; stakeholders

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: Social Research Unit, Ruakura Research Centre, AgResearch Ltd, Hamilton, New Zealand, Email: 2: Social Research Unit, Ruakura Research Centre, AgResearch Ltd, Hamilton, New Zealand,

Publication date: September 1, 2005

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