Part 1. Values and Value Judgments
Part 2. Ethical Requirements on Action
Part 3. Moral Character and Responsibility
Part 4. Privacy, Confidentiality, Intellectual Property and the Law
Moral rights, along with moral obligations and moral responsibilities, constrain how far a person may go in seeking to improve an outcome. For example, suppose you find yourself in some sort of emergency where you can act to save one person's life or to save four (other) people's lives. (Other things being equal) you ought to save the four people, rather than one. However, the greater value of four lives as compared with one would not allow you to violate another's right to life in order to save four others. Thus it would not be morally permissible to kill one person in order to harvest that person's organs and transplant them into four people who each need one of the organs to survive. In contrast, although both human life and great art have value, art does not have moral rights. Therefore, it would be justified to destroy one great painting to save four others--for example, by using the first to wrap the other four.
People talk about legal rights as well as moral rights. Although an effort is often made to bring the force of law behind some moral right by making it a legal right, moral rights must be distinguished from legal rights. There is no contradiction in saying that a person has a legal right to do something but not a moral right to do it, or in claiming that some laws are unjust. Laws that treated enslaved people as property violated the moral rights of those who were slaves. The argument given to justify slavery in the United States was that the Constitution guaranteed rights only to citizens. The law did not recognize slaves to be citizens and so did not accord them civil rights, that is, the legal rights of citizens. Furthermore, the law regarded slaves as the property of others. The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provided that former slaves are citizens and all citizens possess the right to life, liberty and property (although only men had the right to vote) and that naturalized citizens have the same rights as native-born Americans. The same year, 1868, the Burlingame Treaty was signed. It denied the possibility of naturalized citizenship to Chinese-Americans, although it permitted free immigration between China and the U.S. In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first federal law preventing immigration to the U.S. of a specific ethnic group, and it was not repealed until 1943. A Constitutional amendment to accord voting rights to women was passed in 1920. The Civil Rights Acts of 1964-65 legislated against all forms of discrimination based on race, sex, religion and national origins.
The term "human rights" is one that Eleanor Roosevelt brought into widespread use. Previously these rights were called the "rights of man" (or sometimes, "natural rights"). She chose "human" as a more inclusive modifier. There is now international and cross-cultural agreement that all people have some rights simply because they are people. Notice that is not "because they are human." Being human is neither necessary nor sufficient to capture the sense of what characteristics qualify one for "human rights." A culture of human tissue would be both alive and human, but not an person and no one would claim it has human rights. This is a topic we will revisit later in this introduction when we consider the moral standing of various types of creatures.
The view that there are human rights gained wide acceptance in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. It strongly influenced the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the framing of the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. The term "right" (and the corresponding terms in other languages) dates only from the seventeenth century. Engineers and scientists confront issues of human rights directly when they face the requirement to obtain the informed consent of any person who is to be an experimental subject in their research. Human subjects are used in some biomedical research and in product testing. For example, in testing a biomedical device each subject is informed not only of the risks and his right to refuse to participate, but also of his right to withdraw from the study at a later point.
The thoroughness with which subjects in biomedical experiments are informed of their rights due to the stringent requirements on experimental use of human subjects at institutions that receive government support for experiments involving human subjects. In Chapter 8 we shall discuss a case that dramatically illustrates the absence of such constraints when product testing is done in industry. The consideration of human rights is necessary for any discussion of professional ethics, because the international recognition of human rights provides an important example of a standard for ethical behavior that transcends cultural differences and has worldwide agreement. Human rights are implicitly considered in formulating responses to a broad range of problems. Among those problems are the ethical problems that arise for engineers in technologically developed democracies that are the focus of this book. The notions of a moral rule, and that of virtue, which will be discussed in the following sections, have been explicitly used in a larger range of cultures than has the notion of a right. Virtually every ethical and major religious tradition employs some counterpart of the notions of virtue and moral rule. Traditions vary on the content of moral rules, of course and on the characterization of particular virtues, and on the relative importance of one moral virtue as compared with others.
Discussion of rights has a particular prominence in comparatively individualistic societies, such as the United States.
The United States in the late twentieth century is sometimes described as a "culture of rights" as contrasted with Japan, which is sometimes described as a "culture of duties." However, when people and groups representing a spectrum of political and religious opinion seek to formulate basic moral requirements that apply in a variety of cultural contexts, as in the United Nations, they frequently formulate these moral requirements in terms of human rights. Therefore, notions of rights and human rights are broadly used today even though the notion of rights arose only in the seventeenth century in relatively individualistic societies.
In a pluralistic society with many different subcultures, people may agree more readily on what each person is due rather than on what each person owes others. For example, suppose that in one culture certain tasks of child rearing are duties of the father and in another similar tasks are duties of the mother or of the maternal uncle. Members of different cultures may disagree on the moral duties of fathers, mothers, and maternal uncles, but still be able to agree that a child should receive such care.
Philosopher Annette Baier points out that people make claims and give moral justifications for them in every human group with any social organization. Therefore there are claims with moral justification in every society. Since rights are justified claims, then there is an equivalent of the notion of a right in every society, even in those that do not have a ready term for justified claims. Cultures that see basic moral considerations in terms of responsibilities, virtues, obligations and duties have the equivalent of moral rights, because the moral requirements they do recognize provide moral justification for certain claims of individuals. The Declaration of Independence clearly rests on the assumption that human rights exist: all persons are created equal, for all are endowed with certain "inalienable rights." In the strongest sense, to say that a right is inalienable means that it cannot be taken away by others, traded away by the person, or forfeited as a result of the person's actions. In a weaker sense, it means that the right cannot be taken or traded away, but it could be forfeited through the person's actions. In the United States a convicted felon forfeits the right to vote, for example, although it is seen as wrong for others to deprive a person of the right to vote and any trading away of the right to vote is seen as morally invalid. In the weakest sense, to say that a right is inalienable means only that others are not justified in removing or abrogating that right. Thomas Jefferson and the framers of the Declaration of Independence regarded such criminal punishments as imprisonment and executions just, even though these involve the forfeiture of liberty or life.
Today, many people interpret the rights mentioned in the Declaration of Independence as inalienable in the sense that one cannot trade them away. Today the inalienable right to liberty is generally agreed to mean that a person cannot make a morally valid agreement to sell himself into slavery. In view of the widespread seventeenth-century practice of making agreements to be an "indentured servant," it is not so clear that the framers of the Declaration thought inalienable rights could not be traded away, at least temporarily. In this book the term "inalienable" will be used to describe a right that others cannot take away and that one cannot trade, but that can be forfeited.
Rights that may be removed are called alienable. You may give up your ownership of a car by selling it, for example. This possibility illustrates that a property right, unlike the right to liberty, is alienable. Furthermore, the general right to property, which forbids that one's property be taken without compensation, may be lost if the property obtained as a result of illegal activity.
Rights need not be exercised, even if they are inalienable. One may fail to exercise a right for many reasons, including just not getting around to it. For example, if you obtain the special legal right to drive, by getting a driver's license, you may decide that you do not want to do any driving, in which case you will not exercise that right. If one acts to voluntarily give up the claim, one is said to waive the right. You may have the right of way but yield to someone else (waive your right to proceed first). The question of whether one waives a right usually arises when the exercise of that right comes into conflict with something else--in this example someone else's desire or need to proceed first.
From an ethical point of view, it is crucial for professionals to distinguish clients, patients and students who wish to waive or choose not to exercise some right--perhaps the right to some further information--from those who do not realize that they have the right in question, or who do not know how to go about exercising the right.
To waive a right, a person must be aware of the right and choose not to exercise it. In some cases others, usually practicing professionals, have an ethical obligation to inform people of their rights. Situations that are unfamiliar to most people or that they do not enter willingly, such as being a patient, being under arrest, or being accused of some wrongdoing, are ones in which people are likely to be ignorant of their rights.
When in addition to having a right to do something, a person is morally required to do that thing because of a role assumed or an agreement, we say the person has an ethical obligation or duty as well as a right to do the thing in question. An ethical duty or obligation is a moral requirement to follow a certain course of action, that is, to do, or refrain from doing, certain things. For example, according to many engineering codes of ethics, engineers have a moral right to raise issues of wrongdoing outside their organizations, but they also have an obligation to do so when public health and safety are at stake.
Recall what makes some claim a moral right: When there is moral justification for some claim, then that person has a moral right. From this definition we see that for a person to have some moral right all that is necessary is that the person's claim be morally justified.
A person's claim (usually) continues to be morally justified even if that person chooses to waive the right in some circumstances. The decision to waive a right in some circumstances does not mean that one waives it in others. For example, in the United States students have a legal right to see records concerning their performance. A student may waive the right to see a particular letter of reference, but the general right remains in force and may be exercised with respect to other material. However, certain rights, such as the legal right to keep others off your land, are forfeited if you do not exercise the right for a given period.
Consider whether a right that is inalienable would always have to be exercised. That a right is inalienable means that the person's claim is always justified, but not that the claim must always be pressed. That is, the right does not have to be exercised by the person who has the right, even if it is inalienable.
Sometimes rights conflict with one another or with other types of moral considerations. In order to understand how to make a moral assessment of such a situation, we must be able to make other distinctions among rights.
A term that is often confused with "inalienable" is "absolute." An absolute right is a right whose claim can never be outweighed by other moral considerations. The right not to be tortured is widely regarded as an example of an absolute right. This means that no circumstances ethically justify torturing person.
In contrast to absolute rights, rights whose claims may be outweighed by moral considerations are called prima facie rights--from the Latin, "at first face." Most rights are prima facie rights. For example, the right to travel freely, the right to own a piece of real estate, the right to drive, the right to be served next (when one has stood in line) are all rights that can be justly overridden under certain circumstances. Of course the circumstances that would qualify can be common for one sort of prima facie right, but be rare in others. To say that a right is prima facie rather than absolute is to say that there might be other considerations that outweigh the right in a given case. When the claim of some right is not met, it is common to say that the claim (and the right) is infringed. For example, if A refuses to turn over B's car keys to B because B is too drunk to drive or is under the influence of medications that severely impair his driving ability, B's right to drive has been infringed. If a moral wrong is done in infringing a right (i.e., if there are not adequate moral reasons for infringing the right), it is said to be violated. If A refuses to turn over B's car keys simply because A is in an unpleasant mood, A has violated B's right to the use of his property.
An inalienable right need not be an absolute right, because to say that a person has a right which is inalienable only means that there is always moral justification for that person's claim. This does not mean that there couldn't be an even greater moral justification for overriding that claim in some particular situation. Consider the right to travel freely; we regard this as a basic liberty and an inalienable right, but it is only a prima facie right. If people are carrying a dangerous and highly contagious disease, we believe that there is justification for temporarily overriding their right to travel freely and putting them under quarantine. This example illustrates the point that in the case of some rights, justice may be best served by overriding (though not disregarding) people's claims.
The same point is illustrated by the fact that we regard it as just for people to be fined or imprisoned in some cases, notwithstanding their inalienable right to liberty and to property. No court could justly take away their right to own property, however, or deny them all liberty by making them slaves, even if they were imprisoned for life. Justice also requires that the amount of the fine and the extent of imprisonment or probation must be in proportion to their offense.
Most rights are prima facie rather than absolute. However, the right of a (competent) person to refuse medical treatment is another example of a right that is usually regarded as absolute.
It is important to distinguish between different categories of rights, in order to understand whether a moral wrong has occurred when the claim of some right is not fulfilled.
There is another important distinction between types of rights that cuts across the other distinctions considered so far. On the one hand, some rights require of others only that they not interfere with or restrict the rights-holder. These are called negative rights or liberties. On the other hand, there are positive rights, which are claims to receive something. To respect another's negative right requires only that you not interfere with the person's exercise of the right in question, and not that you provide her with particular opportunities to practice this right. Examples of these negative rights include a person's rights to free speech and to religious expression. In the case of positive rights, it is not enough to leave the rights holder alone; something must be done for her. Usually some goods or services must be supplied.
Obligations may be negative or positive in the sense just explained for rights. If you pay for the future delivery of an automobile, you have a positive right to the automobile and the seller has a positive obligation to turn it over to you. Your right to life, on the other hand, is a negative right, that is, everyone else must refrain from killing you--a negative obligation. It does not impose on others any positive obligation to save your life. Obligations will be discussed at greater length in Parts 3 and 4.
It is commonly held that all people have a right to certain basic necessities, and thus a society that is able to provide them is obliged to do so. Such rights are called economic rights, as contrasted with political rights, and are positive human rights. Political rights include physical liberty, or the right to travel freely; freedom of association; and freedom of speech. These examples, which are all freedoms or liberties, suggest that political rights are negative rights--that is, they require only that others not interfere with the rights holder's activities. However, some political rights, such as the right to vote, require that the services, in this case those that ensure privacy and accurate tallying of the vote, be provided.
Positive rights to health care and to education are often held to be basic human rights. The nature and extent of a right to health care is now widely discussed in the United States. Many people also claim that everyone has the right to a basic education, and indeed public education in the United States is legally mandated for all. Recent legislation affirms the right of people with disabilities to an education in the least restrictive environment possible. This change illustrates how views of the scope of such rights continue to evolve.
The four rights that were taken to be principle human rights at the end of the eighteenth century--the rights of life, liberty, "the pursuit of happiness," and property ownership--were taken tobe liberties, not positive rights. Other people generally were regarded as being morally prohibited from interfering with the continuance of another's life, exercise of liberty, pursuit of happiness, or retention of property. They were not morally obligated to save other people's lives, ensure their liberty, promote their happiness, or provide them with property.
In summary, consider what is at issue in the contrast between:
1. Alienable and inalienable rights;
2. Human rights and special rights;
3. Negative rights or liberties, and positive rights;
4. Absolute rights and prima facie rights.
The first contrast deals with whether or by what means (e.g., only by forfeiture) the right may be removed from the person; the second with whether the right belongs to all people; the third with whether the claim of the right is to receive something or just to be left alone; and the fourth with whether it can ever be just (morally acceptable) to override the claims of that right.
Obligations and rules, like rights, may have an institutional or legal basis rather than an ethical one. For example, at many colleges there is a rule that makes it an institutional obligation of all students to see their advisor on or before Registration Day. Students in some universities but not others have a right to, an institutional guarantee of, on housing on campus. In contrast people generally have a moral/ethical obligation to keep their promises. Because rights, obligations and moral rules all concern taking action, they are related notions. Thus, moral constraint on action can be expressed in the language of rights or obligations, as well as that of moral rules. For example, if people have a moral right to refuse medical treatment, then a corresponding moral rule prohibits treating people against their will. Therefore, health care providers all have a professional moral obligation not to perform medical interventions on people without their permission. Moral rights and obligations are subject to further classification, as we saw earlier. For example, rights may be classified as either absolute or prima facie, depending on whether the claims they embody always override other considerations in the case of absolute rights or whether the claims can be overridden by weightier rights and considerations in the case of prima facie rights. In Part 3, we will take up the notion of moral responsibility and see that it is a more complex notion than that of moral rights, moral obligations and moral rules.
A moral obligation or duty is a course of action that is morally required. Obligations arise from many sources--from one's promises, agreements and contracts, and from one's relationships, debts of gratitude, and roles. Many roles are not chosen, so a person typically has obligations, such as the obligation of a citizen, or that of a son or a daughter, which are not the result of choices. Of course, one does take on professional roles in part from choice and consequently has certain obligations by choice--the obligations of a nurse, an engineer, or a husband, for instance.
Often one party's right is matched by an obligation on the part of another party who stands in a particular relation to the first. Rights and obligations have counterpart moral rules. For example, corresponding to the patient's right to refuse treatment and the provider's obligation not to treat a patient without his informed consent is the rule "Do not treat a patient without that patient's informed consent." An engineer's obligation to keep a client's privileged information confidential corresponds to the rule that appears in the codes of ethics of many engineering societies: to keep confidential a client's or employer's business matters. Recall the earlier definition of negative and positive rights. Would the obligation not to disclose a client's privileged information be a negative or a positive obligation?
As stated, it would count as a negative obligation, because commonly it would require only refraining from acts of disclosure. In many circumstances, however, one would actually have to take special precautions to avoid disclosing a client's confidential information--as when one might have to shield a part of a new model from public view. In this case the obligation would require positive action and so would have the characteristics of a positive obligation. This example illustrates some of the judgments that must be made in applying ethical concepts.
Rules of ethical conduct specify the acts or course of action that are required or forbidden. In this book I will follow the common practice of using "moral rule" or "rule of ethical conduct" narrowly and apply it only where there is a rather precise specification of the acts or courses of action that are forbidden, permitted or required. For example, a manuscript submitted for publication should be one that has not been previously published, except for versions written for very different audiences. General exhortations such as "Be honest" or "Treat every person as an end and not as a means," might be called moral rules in a broad sense of "moral rules," but they are so general that they are commonly called basic considerations or "ethical principles" and that is how I shall refer to them here. To summarize: a moral rule has a specific form, an ethical principle is a general moral consideration. Therefore, the terms "moral rule" and "ethical principle" may apply to the same ethical consideration. For example, people often speak of "the principle of informed consent" by which they mean the moral rule that before subjecting someone to experimentation or hazardous treatment one should give them full information about what one proposes to do together with any associated risks and obtain the person's consent. This rule has become such a basic element in so many moral discussions (at least in technologically developed democracies) that it is termed a "principle." Although any given obligation has a corresponding moral rule, not all obligations or moral rules have corresponding rights. There are moral rules that apply to the behavior of moral agents toward beings who, although their welfare must be considered, are not the sort of beings that have rights. (This point will be discussed in this section in connection with "moral standing.")
It is often held that moral obligations and moral rules apply to the treatment of human corpses and to non-human animals. Considering these claims clarifies how to recognize moral obligations and moral rules in the absence of corresponding rights. Consider the treatment of human corpses. Some religions hold that the treatment of corpses affects the person whose body it was, but most people recognize the moral rule that they ought to treat human corpses with respect even if they do subscribe to such a belief. (Just what behavior is held to be respectful varies with the culture. For example, autopsies are regarded as disrespectful in some cultures.) A variety of reasons are given for believing that people should treat corpse with respect. One very common one is that if we fail to treat human corpses with respect, we are likely to become callous toward living people. Another, more common in previous times, is that a person may be mistaken for dead.
The question of moral constraint on the treatment of human corpses was discussed with practical application to product development a few years ago when it was decided to resume using human cadavers in auto safety test crashes. Treatment of corpses is also of practical importance in setting practices of teaching hospitals, which sometimes allow student physicians to practice medical procedures on corpses before rigor mortis sets in. This practice affords prospective doctors the opportunity to increase their proficiency before they apply medical procedures to living patients. Laws requiring the consent of the family for any procedures done to the corpse, are common and reflect the repugnance with which most people in the U.S. view the instrumental use of corpses. However, this legal restraint is commonly circumvented by the ploy of delay in pronouncing the patient dead. The broad ascription of rights to beings who do not make reflective choices has become widespread in the United States in the last few decades along with heightened concern about the welfare non-human animals. However, whether someone ascribes rights to non-human animals does not fully determine the person's view about how such animals ought, ethically speaking, to be treated. In practice, there is only a very general tendency for those who hold that animals have rights, to think that animals should be treated much as we treat persons. Many who are reluctant to ascribe rights to non-human animals do recognize obligations of people toward them. As already mentioned, a moral prohibition on cruelty to animals is widely recognized and is backed by some laws.
Since the strictness with which one uses the term "rights" does not settle questions regarding the obligations of moral agents toward beings who are not moral agents, more must be said.
The question of the moral limits on experimentation with animals is of particular importance for science. Some scientists burn and maim animals in order to devise treatments for burned and maimed people. Furthermore, because anesthesia and analgesics would interfere with some of these experiments, the animals are not given anything for their pain. Just because these acts are called experiments does not mean that they should not be viewed as acts of cruelty. So we must ask whether we should view these acts as cruel; whether such cruelty constitutes a violation of moral rules or obligations toward animals; and whether this violation can be justified.
What considerations are relevant to determining whether it is morally justifiable to do experimentation with animals? The first consideration is what happens to the animal--whether it is disabled, killed or caused pain. Beyond that, it depends on whether the obligation not to cause animals severe pain when their own welfare is not promoted is an absolute or only a prima facie obligation. If it is prima facie, justification would depend on the relative strength of the countervailing considerations those that count toward taking actions that would cause the pain for example, benefit brought to people through some action that would cause pain to the animal.
Many who do wish to ascribe rights to non-human animals contend that their well-being is important in itself, not just because their well-being contributes to the well-being of humans. When the welfare of some creature must be considered for its own sake, it is said to have moral standing. To say that some group of beings have moral standing does not decide the question of whether they have the same moral standing as people and thus have "human" rights, but only that the welfare of such beings must be considered for its own sake. The welfare of such beings might be considered simply because it benefited some people, but that would not require that they be accorded moral standing.
The history of ethical thought shows that those in power have often recognized the moral claims only of others similar to themselves. The human rights of many people have been ignored because of their race, class, or gender. That behavior is now described as racism, classism or sexism, understood as unwarranted preferential treatment of the race, class or gender in power. If one claims that humans are the only group with moral standing, this looks suspiciously like a new unwarranted bias, a bias in favor of the human species--what Peter Singer has called "speciesism." In order to show that the claim of moral standing (or absence of moral standing) of members of other species is more than an arbitrary exercise of prejudice on the part of humankind one must show that distinctions in moral standing are based on morally relevant features of the beings in question. Another way of expressing the view that a being has moral standing is to say that its well-being (or some aspects of it) is of value in itself, and not merely a means to other desirable ends.
Using Animals in Medical ExperimentsThose who claim that non-humans have moral standing and those who say that animals have rights often agree on what they believe is morally required in the treatment of animals. Both groups tend to disagree with people who are concerned about the treatment of non-human animals only if (and to the extent that) humans are affected by that treatment. However, even those who are concerned about the treatment of non-human animals only to the extent that such treatment has an effect on human well-being may object to cruelty toward non-human animals on the grounds that cruelty is a moral vice and that the moral corruption of people should be opposed. Therefore, denying moral standing to non-human animals does not thereby commit one to the view that "anything goes" with regard to their treatment.
Suppose that certain experiments are thought to be needed to develop better means of coping with extreme pain in humans. These experiments would involve performing a variety of procedures that would be very painful to the experimental subjects. The subjects would have to be vertebrates. There is some expectation that species, such as primates, that are closer to humans according to evolutionary biology, might give more meaningful results, but it is not known exactly how much like humans in this respect are the candidate laboratory animals. Because the information about neural response would be crucial, no pain medication would be given. The subjects would be temporarily paralyzed to keep them from flailing about.
What, if any, species would it be ethically acceptable to use in such experiments? Is it morally relevant whether the subjects are mammals? Would intelligence be morally relevant to the decision, and if so, how? Would the presence or absence of a complex social system in which members care for other members of the species be a morally relevant factor to consider? Would it be morally relevant that one candidate species had a more humans face than another? Would it be relevant that some particular individuals had once been human pets? If so, would it be better or worse to use those individuals?
As Robert Proctor points out, the Nazis were stanch defenders of the view that it was wrong to victimize healthy specimens of other species by using them for scientific experiments and that it was morally preferable to use as subjects "defective" humans (1). This example illustrates the point that cruelty to one group can easily coexist and even seek justification in compassion toward another.