By Marco Meniketti
Ethics. Not a sexy subject. Despite its importance and significance in archaeological sciences, ethics and ethical practices remain a much neglected and rarely discussed aspect of the profession, appearing only on occasions of apparent breeches, or described and tucked away in obscure cavities of Society websites. Ethics often is offered only in passing in introductory archaeology classes, usually tacked on near the end of a semester, if mentioned at all. In my capacity as Archaeology curriculum articulation assessment coordinator in the California State University system, I regularly must often decline to certify a course proposal offered by a community college because the course designer failed to include an ethics component in keeping with State standards.
The ACUA concerns itself with ethics at two distinct levels, individual ethical behavior and Institutional behavior. While the ACUA does not set the standards for ethical behavior, it can and does serve as a watchdog, pointing out ethical transgressions within the discipline. But just what are ethics in underwater archaeology? How does ethics play a role and help define our science? Are there times and circumstances when ethical practices are followed in principal but not in deed? Must we always be a slave to ethical principals in underwater archaeology or is there leeway for interpretation? In his compelling and spirited book, An Instinct for Truth. Curiosity and the Moral Character of Science, philosopher of science, Robert Pennock, makes clear the necessary ethical character of science stating: “Trust in a practice such as a science…is justified to the degree that it is structured with integrity. What this comes to is its various parts and participants must work together in an integrated way to achieve their common end.” Further, “…integrity must be a virtue of a scientist” if science is to have value.
The Register of Professional Archaeologists, The Society for Historical Archaeology, and other professional societies have codified statements of ethical behavior. The ACUA has devoted a major section of this website to Ethics with a capital E, and provides an ethics “press tool kit” for assisting archeologists in meeting the rigorous standards we set for ourselves. Far from being hidden away, it can be found on page one where it belongs. Have you read it? I raise this issue because we again find ourselves in challenging times where the very concept of professional ethical behavior is questioned and ethical standards are being undermined by the actions of institutions and practioneers. In a post-truth, alt-fact world, it may seem futile to be concerned with ethics. Just the opposite is true, reaffirming ethical behavior has rarely been so critical.
As the discipline of archaeology begins to decolonize itself and promote broader participation by previously marginalized sectors of society in practice and interpretation, ethics in scientific endeavors is being linked to social phenomena that proscribe social behaviors. This overdue transformation is both a good thing and a minefield. What does this look like in underwater archaeology? How will archaeology monitor itself? How can the scientific community reconcile rejection of political ideology as a basis of interpretation of evidence with adoption of political ideology of a different scope? Let me step on few mines here. Anti-racism statements are ideological and political; even if necessary, just, and vital. A neutral stance is also a political act. There is no refuge in neutrality. Archaeology is, and always has been inherently political, and despite aspirations to scientific objective detachment, undeniably subjective. There is no contradiction in adopting socially responsible postures and maintaining ethical scientific practices. In fact, such adoption strengthens ethical principles by increasing accountability through increased scrutiny. A popular internet meme suggests that the typical American claims to be born with “rights,” while the Native American believes themselves to be born with “obligations.” These are cultural beliefs. As professional archaeologists we have obligations. These obligations stem from a mindset that finds our ethical proscriptions reasonable.
Returning to Pennock’s essay on moral character in science; one of the underlying principles of science is speaking truth to power. Other principles critical for success are fairness and collaboration. Indeed, the core cultural value of science is truth-seeking, which connects epistemic and ethical values in science. Through collaboration we increase the validity of our interpretations and value of our findings. We can underscore or highlight (chose your favorite verb) the shared nature of our underwater cultural heritage and its vitality to society. It fortifies our arguments against the selfish acts of treasure hunting by positioning ourselves as guardians of shared heritage and values. The issue of ethical conflicts between different parties arising from differing philosophical perspective as mentioned in the ACUA tool kit also needs addressing. Are ethics fluid? If philosophical differences exist then surely ethics are not rigid—but subject to circumstances and situations. If this is the case, why adhere to any principles at all? This is a false dichotomy. Each of us in our careers will likely find ourselves on the threshold of such a dilemma. I know I have. Adherence to ethical standards has costs.
In a never-ending game of whack-a-mole with the sale of artifacts from shipwrecks (Carpathia for example), museums putting the plunder of treasure hunters on display, plundering of submerged war graves, to “magnet fishermen” hauling in historic relics from lake beds, the ACUA must, in an objective and consistent manner, address actions that are inconsistent with ethical practice. The quandary is that ethics are not universal, at least not the ethics practiced by professional archaeologists. How then to influence the actions of those who do not subscribe to the same ethos? It is not the actions but the mindset we must focus on.
I argue that advocacy, education, and example remain the best approach. We must be undogmatically persuasive. We cannot win ethical arguments outside the profession where we have no leverage, but we can educate and through personal example demonstrate the value of the ethical standards we promote. The conversation should not begin with: “this is how you should behave” but instead with: “this is why I behave according to these guiding principles.” I will end this blog by asking a simple question; have you ever thought long and hard why you follow the ethical principles of our profession?
Categorised in: Deep Thoughts