Ethics Interlude #1 — Beneficence

Part 1: Critical Understanding

Clarification: What is Beneficence?

Beneficence is a word that to an inexperienced person may seem strictly involving benefits of a certain task, hence the common root among both words. The Belmont Report, however, defines beneficence as a set of rules: “1) do not harm and 2) maximize possible benefits while minimizing possible harms”, which isn’t quite the same thing as concerning oneself with only the benefits of a task. To clarify this misunderstanding, I might explain that beneficence simply looks to maximize the benefits available to someone performing the task, while looking to minimize the possibility of negative consequences.

Why Isn’t Applying Beneficence Easy?

As is the case with all ethical principles, difficulties and dilemmas exist when trying to apply the idea of beneficence in actual situations. For example, in usability tests of a microwave, the user is exposed to a level of radiation that if prolonged may be extremely harmful, but without someone to test that, we don’t know whether that possibility is realistic. Without some sort of test user, we are also never able to make improvements based on the results of the usability test, forcing the researchers in this situation to expose their users to a certain level of harm in order to minimize potential future harms. The idea is a bit like the classic trolley problem — either the researchers potentially harm many users by not testing possible harms, or they potentially harm a small amount of users to minimize the possibility of harm for their larger user base.

Part 2: Application

Research Example — Microwave Usability Test

Our usability testing sprint from last week is an excellent example of the applications of beneficence. Because we were testing a microwave, risks involved included exposure to radiation and the possibility of burning something in the microwave and possibly starting a fire. Benefits to the user included a greater understanding of how to use the microwave we tested and the possibility that their test results contributed to the design of a microwave that was easier to use, assuming the test was real and not a simulation run by my group and I. When deciding whether risks outweigh benefits, our group had to examine both possible risks, at which point we realized that the risk of radiation exposure was beyond our control. However, we minimized the risk of otherwise harming the user by having them perform the usability tasks with an empty microwave, so that nothing could burn and potentially harm the user. The only risk was then exposure to radiation, which we attempted to adjust for the best we could by coming up with tasks that took little time to complete, so that the users were exposed for as little as possible. We also examined the risk of filming our participants, which we resolved by obtaining their consent before the beginning of the test.

Design Example — Moto Z Play

The principle of beneficence can be applied when looking at the Moto Z Play Android phone, the phone that I currently own. The risks involved in designing the Moto Z might have included the screen, which may harm the user with broken glass if it were to break, and the display, which could cause lasting damage to a user’s eyes if made too bright. Benefits might have included the ability to connect various devices such as speakers to the back of the phone and the ability to communicate with others, access the internet, and entertain themselves. When deciding whether the risks outweigh the benefits, the Moto Z design team might have asked potential users how important the benefits of the phone were to them, and compare them to the possibility of risks coming to fruition. They likely minimized risks by designing a screen protector that users can purchase, which protects them from the broken glass of a cracked screen, and having the brightness be adjustable, so that users can control the damage to their eyes. Both solutions minimize the risks associated with designing the Moto Z, with all the benefits still in place, and thus the benefits greatly outweighed the potential risks, and the phone was released.

Amateur writer, mostly about football and the NFL draft. UW psychology grad. Asian-American.