Ethics Interlude #2 — Respect For Persons

Part 1: Critical Understanding


The idea of “respect for persons” may seem intuitive to an inexperienced individual, as it seems to mean to simply take the wishes of another person into account when conducting a task. The Belmont Report, however, defines respect for persons as a set of ethical conventions: “first, that individuals should be treated as autonomous agents, and second, that persons with diminished autonomy are entitled to protection”, which is much more complex than it initially seems. To clarify this misunderstanding, I might explain that respect for persons deals more with the autonomy of participants and less with shaping the task to fit the participant’s wishes.

Why Isn’t Applying Respect For Persons Easy?

Similar to most ethical principles, difficulties and dilemmas come up when trying to apply the practice of respect for persons. For example, some studies require that participants not be aware of some of the conditions of the experiment, in which case it may be more difficult to determine whether or not the participant is autonomous. In that case, the researchers may use the principle of “informed consent”, in which they give the participants just enough information to make the test comprehensible to the user so that they are in a position to give their autonomous consent. Otherwise, the researchers may have to find another way to determine autonomy, such as in a study where it is vital that the participants not be aware of what is going on.

Part 2: Application

Research Example — Microwave Usability Test

Our usability testing sprint from four weeks ago is a good example of the applications of respect for persons. In that case, acknowledging autonomy looked like giving participants the option to decline participation upon learning 1) what they would be doing and 2) that they would be filmed while doing it. Protecting those with diminished autonomy in a future test may involve children, perhaps if we were measuring how intuitive the microwave truly was. In that case, the researchers would approach the parents with informed consent forms outlining the procedures of the study, including that their children would be filmed, ensuring that someone with the goodwill of the child in mind was choosing whether they would participate or not. In supporting the informed consent needed to acknowledge a participant’s autonomy in a more general context, the researchers would need to inform the participant in terms of what the study would entail. For example, in this situation, participants might be notified that they would be performing three tasks related to using a standard microwave, perhaps with a brief description of each activity. They would then need to be notified that their participation would be filmed, so long as they consented to that occurring. This description may also make use of the principle of beneficence, outlining the protections against harm the researchers had put in place. At that point, the autonomous participant would be able to choose whether or not they wished to continue to participate.

Design Example — Interaction Design

A design example of the applications of respect for persons is present in the form of my interaction design solution from week 2 — the citizen science app. In this situation, acknowledging autonomy would look like giving the user the opportunity to choose when, where, and in what situation to perform certain activities associated with the app. Protecting those with diminished autonomy may look like an implementation of parental controls, thereby limiting the choices a child (someone with diminished autonomy) can make while using the app. In this scenario, the parents would be in control of approving or denying certain types of submissions or viewing certain submissions. The app may follow the principle of informed consent by notifying the user that the activities available in the app vary in difficulty, and disclose the possible risks or harm the user may expose themselves to while using the app. There may also be a section that outlines the procedure for the various activities, which would appear in tutorial form during the user’s first use of the feature. It would also require that users consent to having a limited amount of personal information (i.e., e-mail address) shared with other users in the event that users want to communicate with one another. That consent would certainly require that an autonomous individual gives their consent, which would be secure by sending the user a confirmation e-mail to reaffirm their choice.




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

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Alex Katson

Alex Katson

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

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