The Ethics of Research That May Disadvantage Others

Ethics & Human Research, Vol. 43, pp2-16 (Jan-Feb 2021)

Posted: 13 Apr 2020 Last revised: 17 Apr 2021

See all articles by Christopher T. Robertson

Christopher T. Robertson

Boston University; University of Arizona - James E. Rogers College of Law

Date Written: April 7, 2020


In prospective interventional research, a treatment may provide an advantage for the recipient over other humans not receiving it. If the intervention proves successful, the treated are better able to compete for a scarce ventilator, a class grade, or a litigation outcome, potentially risking the deaths, jobs, or incomes of non-treated persons. The concerns for “bystanders” have typically focused on direct harms (e.g., infecting them with a virus), unlike the mere competition for rivalrous goods at issue here.

After broadly scoping this problem, analysis reveals several reasons that such research is typically permissible, notwithstanding the potential setbacks to the interests of non-participants. After considering the almost-dispositive concept of clinical equipoise, insights are gleaned from the harm principle, status quo bias, the levelling-down problem, and a potential bias against prospective interventional research versus program interventions with retrospective study. Consideration of institutional relationships also does not change the analysis that such research is permissible.

Keywords: research, competing interests, risk, direct harms, non-participants, ethics, regulations,

Suggested Citation

Robertson, Christopher T., The Ethics of Research That May Disadvantage Others (April 7, 2020). Ethics & Human Research, Vol. 43, pp2-16 (Jan-Feb 2021), Available at SSRN: or

Christopher T. Robertson (Contact Author)

Boston University ( email )

765 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States
6179100649 (Phone)
02215 (Fax)

University of Arizona - James E. Rogers College of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 210176
Tucson, AZ 85721-0176
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics