Normative Ethics and the Right to Privacy

Making a moral decision is a complicated matter especially when it involves competing interests. This is because morality involves two fairly subjective notions; good and bad. Morality is not just about what people do, but is concerned with the rationale of decision making. The relationship between morality and personal rights to privacy is fairly complex. This is especially true with regards to information privacy. While there are numerous underlying factors which determine the rationale of decision making, consequences, duties, and motives are the main focus for this assignment. These will be analyzed Vis a Vis the rights to access a dead person’s email.

The need for privacy emanates from peoples’ need for personal space. The term privacy is complicated and assumes many dimensions. For instance, people need to have the space to do things freely in the society without being judged. This refers to social privacy and cannot be taken in the same breadth as political privacy; the need for people to express themselves freely. Suffice to state that privacy is sometimes considered a personal right. However, this is not necessarily so since rights are absolute as compared to privacy. Regardless of these subtle differences, it is important for peoples’ lives not to be interfered with. Privacy is important since it guarantees people basic freedom and as such, privacy needs to be protected. This brings to the fore a vital issue with regard to privacy: protection. Privacy protection is a complicated issue since it is multifaceted. As such, in information privacy protection, a number of factors have to be considered before determining the manner in which information is handled. This becomes more complex while handling personal information such as emails. Since people have the need to maintain personal space from interference by others, then they also feel that personal information needs to be protected from interference. As such, information privacy means the desire that people have to influence how personal information is held (Clarke, 2006).

Clarke, (2006) assertion on the existence of several competing forces with regards to privacy protection puts Justin Ellsworth’s case into perspective. Justin’s parents wanted to be allowed access into their late son’s email. However, Yahoo!, Justin’s ISP, refused his parents informal request to access, since this amounts to violation of personal privacy. Yahoo! argues that such an act might open a floodgate of similar acts, which might lead to mass violation of people rights to information privacy. Yahoo! thus wanted to avoid such consequences, since it is not for the greater good. Additionally, the court had a competing interest in the case since it had to protect Justin’s parents guardianship rights without violating Yahoo!’s privacy requirements. In deciding on whether to allow Justin’s parents to access his email, the consequences of that action must be put in focus.

It is imperative to state that an action has either good or bad consequences. According to utilitarian thinkers, making moral judgment should be for the greatest utility; the attainment of good outcomes. This implies that a moral action should minimize any bad outcomes. As such, an act is only moral if it for the greatest utility. However, to whom should the act benefit? It is imperative to note that an act can lead to good outcomes to one person and bad outcomes to another. As such, in decision making people need to focus on the consequences the decision has. Therefore, people have to consider their interest as well as those of others. This implies that in making a decision, people have to do cost benefits analysis. An act is moral if it ensures the greatest benefit to the majority. The court decision to give Justin’s parents’ right to access his email might set the pace for similar cases, where people use the court to violate other peoples right to information privacy. This is therefore not a moral decision as it is not for the public good (Waller, 2005).

Modern utilitarian theorists however, postulate that the good and bad are not objective but subjective qualities. This implies that in attainment of the greatest utility, there must be concession on the definition of the terms good and bad. In Justin’s case, each of the interested parties has their own definition of good. For instance Justin’s parents might argue that the greatest good is to allow them to access their late son’s email, since as guardians they have a right to do so. This view might be fiercely contested by Yahoo! with the assertion that the greatest good is the protection of privacy rights of the account holder. According to Cornell University Law School, the American Electronic Communications Privacy Act protects an individual’s rights against intrusion of e-personal space (2011). As such Justin’s’ private space is constitutionally protected. In Justin’s case, the court acted as a mediator between the conflicting interests. However, questions arise on the morality of the court’s decision to order Yahoo! to allow Justin’s parents to access his email. According to Yahoo!’s spokes persons, it is for the greater good that only a judge approves access to personal email. However, bearing in mind that the Fourth Amendment allude to rights to protection of personal privacy (Walton, 2000), the question of whether the court violated Justin’s right to privacy arise.

As indicated earlier the relationship between rights and privacy is complicated. Walton (2000) alludes to the existence of constitutional right to protection of information privacy. As such, In Justin’s case the questions of whether such privacy was violated arise, since he did not give consent to allow access to his personal email. Deontologists argue that that an act is ethically right if it balances between the rights and duty. Every right has a corresponding duty. For instance, if some one has a right to free speech, then it implies that someone else has the duty to protect that right, regardless of the consequences. Ironically, simply because an act is permissible does not make it right. It is imperative to state that deontologists use the term duty, obligation and rules interchangeably (Kamm, 2007). As such, an act is morally right if it adheres to established rules. This implies that ethical behavior is perceived in relation to adherence to rules. As such people have a duty to adhere to rules in decision making. This further implies that the motive behind an action is the sole determine of the whether the action is ethical or not.

Deontologist and utilitarian thinkers contradict each other especially with regards to the consequences of an act. This put Justin’s case in jeopardy. However, morality cannot be limited to either rights or consequences, both of which need to be put into consideration. Initially, Yahoo! had an obligation to adhere to its privacy policy rules. As such it rightly refused the informal request by Justin’s parents to allow them to access his email. However, being the legal guardians Justin’s parents had genuine right to access his email, especially that he had died in war. The court ruled in their favor. As such, as obliged by the court order, Yahoo! acceded to the request. However, did the court protect Justin’s right to information privacy?

There are consequences of the decision by the court to rule in favor of Justin’s parents. Regardless of the assertion by Yahoo!’s spokes person that the court ruling is the best alternative, this creates a notion that anyone can go through the court to gain access to people’s private information. As such, the question on whether the court order was out the greater good is questioned. This is further complicated by the fact that good is a subjective notion and as such cannot be objectively determined. This dilemma can however be unlocked through Emmanuel Kant’s assertion that the goodwill and the motive of the act are the absolute determinants of morality. So, Justin’s parents should have been given access to his email, but only after it is determined that such an act is motivated by good intensions.

Giving Justin’s parents access to his email is a justifiable decision. However, a number of considerations need to be put in place. To being with there are consequences of such an action, most of which violate the attainment of the public good. However Justin’s parents had a genuine right to access his email. This genuine right is however, not valid reason to give them the right. Justin’s right to privacy as well as Yahoo!’s privacy laws needs to be considered. Because of the dilemma that arises, then the motive that his parents need to be determined before access is given.

Reference List

Clarke, R. (2006). Introduction to dataveillance and information privacy, and definitions of terms. Web.

Cornell University Law School. (2011). Chapter 121—stored wire and electronic communications and transactional records access. Web.

Kamm, F. (2007). Intricate ethics: rights, responsibilities, and permissible harm. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Waller, N. (2005). Consider ethics: theory, readings, and contemporary issues. New York: Pearson Longman:

Walton, J. (2000). The right to privacy. Web.

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