Original Research

Research ethics: Examining the tension between principlism and rational self-interest in a neoliberal university context

Lesley Le Grange
Transformation in Higher Education | Vol 5 | a88 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/the.v5i0.88 | © 2020 Lesley Le Grange | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 27 June 2020 | Published: 15 October 2020

About the author(s)

Lesley Le Grange, Department of Curriculum Studies, Faculty of Education, Stellenbosch University, Cape Town, South Africa

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Background: The reconfiguration of the contemporary university as a consequence of the (re)ascendency of neoliberal politics has not escaped South African universities. The higher education landscape in the country is characterised by performativity regimes – discourses on quality assurance, efficiency and accountability abound and so too modes of regulation based on rewards, sanctions and censorship.

Aim: The article explores the extent to which these two conflicting ethical discourses (principlism and rational self-interest) have a bearing on a South African case that resulted in an investigation into research misconduct at a South African university.

Setting: The broader setting is the neoliberal university. The specific setting is Stellenbosch University. As is the case with many western(ised) universities, this higher education institution has not escaped neoliberal influences.

Methods: The methods used combine conceptual exploration supported by a case study. The usage of case in this study does not refer to how it is typically used in qualitative research. The focus is not on a bounded system but on the narrative essence of the case, more akin to the usage of ‘case’ in law and medicine.

Results: The philosophical tensions between the two discourses on ethics might be overcome by refocusing the university on the public good, instead of valorising the individual.

Conclusion: Overcoming the philosophical tensions between the two discourses might only be possible through recognising the value of an immanent rather than a transcendent ethics.


ethical regulation; immanent ethics; neoliberal; principlism; rational self-interest


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