Justice is about ensuring that the risks and benefits of research are distributed fairly.
The Belmont Report argues that the principle of Justice addresses the distribution of the burdens and benefits of research. That is, it should not be the case that one group in society bears the costs of research while another group reaps its benefits. For example, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the burdens of serving as research subjects in medical trials fell largely on the poor, while the benefits of improved medical care flowed primarily to the rich.
In practice, the principle of Justice was initially interpreted to mean that vulnerable people should be protected from researchers. In other words, researchers should not be allowed to intentionally prey on the powerless. It is a troubling pattern that in the past, a large number of ethically problematic studies involved extremely vulnerable participants, including poorly educated and disenfranchised citizens (Jones 1993); prisoners (Spitz 2005); institutionalized, mentally disabled children (Robinson and Unruh 2008); and old and debilitated hospital patients (Arras 2008).
Around 1990, however, views of Justice began to swing from protection to access (Mastroianni and Kahn 2001). For example, activists argued that children, women, and ethnic minorities needed to be explicitly included in clinical trials so that these groups could benefit from the knowledge gained from these trials (Epstein 2009).
In addition to questions about protection and access, the principle of Justice is often interpreted to raise questions about appropriate compensation for participants—questions that are subject to intense debate in medical ethics (Dickert and Grady 2008).
Applying the principle of Justice to our three examples offers yet another way to view them. In none of the studies were participants compensated financially. Encore raises the most complex questions about the principle of Justice. While the principle of Beneficence might suggest excluding participants from countries with repressive governments, the principle of Justice could argue for allowing these people to participate in—and benefit from—accurate measurements of Internet censorship. The case of Tastes, Ties, and Time also raises questions because one group of students bore the burdens of the research and only society as a whole benefited. Finally, in Emotional Contagion, the participants who bore the burden of the research were a random sample from the population most likely to benefit from the results (namely, Facebook users). In this sense, the design of Emotional Contagion was well aligned with the principle of Justice.