Ethics Interlude #3 — Justice

Critical Understanding


To many, the principle of justice may conjure up images of a superhero, defeating villains and maintaining balance and order in the universe, which isn’t quite how the Belmont Report defines justice. In this case, the definition of justice is the determination of who is worthy to receive the benefits of research and bear its burdens. To clarify this misconception, I might explain to the individual that the Belmont Report deals more with what is deserved than what is morally favorable.

Why Isn’t Applying Justice Easy?

Difficulties always arise when trying to apply an ethical principle to research, and justice is no different. As an example, consider the Tuskegee Syphilis study, which subjected people to undoubtedly unjust conditions for the benefit of the larger population. In the study, African American men with syphilis were denied treatment for their disease, but were told they were receiving free health care, so that researchers could examine the natural progression of the disease to find a working treatment. This is a classic example of an experiment that isn’t necessarily morally right, but necessary for the greater good, which is where justice tends to run into problems. In this particular case, the men participating took all of the burden of the research, while the general public received all the benefit.

Part 2: Application

Research Example — Usability

Our usability test from a few weeks ago is an excellent example of the applications of justice. In that case, the burdens of the usability test were the potential long-term damages caused to my participants via the radiation from the microwave and the anxiety that may have been caused by filming the participants. The benefits of the test included the access to a future product that better served the target demographic (which included the participants), and possibly better profits for the manufacturer due to that increased appeal. Another burden that may have been undue was the frustration caused by the test with no reward for completing the tasks, as some participants had visible trouble completing the task and likely felt ungrateful after not receiving any compensation for their participation. A denied benefit likely took the form of inability to be tested, as I only used participants that lived on the same floor as me in my dorm, because they were the easiest subjects to access.

Design Example — The Moto Z System Update

Considering that my phone just pushed a system update that fundamentally changed many aspects of the system, I thought it would make a good example of the principle of justice. The burdens of the system update include needing to relearn how to use various aspects of the phone from a user perspective, frustrations of participants in beta tests that likely occurred, and possible mental harm inflicted on the people who created the update, in the event that some participants were unduly frustrated and verbally abused developers in some sort of forum. The benefits include an easier-to-use interface for users after a short adjustment period, and a likely overall increase in customer satisfaction that improves profits for the manufacturer. An undue burden is likely the infliction of mental harm on the developers, and a denied benefit may be the inability to easily revert to the previous version that users may have enjoyed. Overall, the distribution of burdens and benefits is fairly even, as users benefit from a smoother interface while taking on the burden of learning said interface. The manufacturers and developers see an increase in customer satisfaction while taking on the burden of complaints and frustrations during and after the development process.




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

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Alex Katson

Alex Katson

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

More from Medium

Don’t rely on colours alone!

This picture represents how people with color blindness see red light.

Design Fiction or Fact?

Changing the Future of DXP with Design

The Importance of Understanding the Users’ Needs

Photo from Pexels