6.4.1 Respect for Persons

Respect for Persons is about treating people as autonomous and honoring their wishes.

The Belmont Report argues that the principle of Respect for Persons consists of two distinct parts: (1) individuals should be treated as autonomous and (2) individuals with diminished autonomy should be entitled to additional protections. Autonomy roughly corresponds to letting people control their own lives. In other words, Respect for Persons suggests that researchers should not do stuff to people without their consent. Critically, this holds even if the researcher thinks that the thing that is happening is harmless or even beneficial. Respect for Persons leads to the idea that participants—not researchers—get to decide.

In practice, the principle of Respect for Persons has been interpreted to mean that researchers should, if possible, receive informed consent from participants. The basic idea with informed consent is that participants should be presented with relevant information in a comprehensible format and then should voluntarily agree to participate. Each of these terms has itself been the subject of substantial additional debate and scholarship (Manson and O’Neill 2007), and I’ll devote an entire section later in this chapter to informed consent.

Applying the principle of Respect for Persons to the three examples from the beginning of the chapter highlights areas of concern with each of them. In each case, researchers did things to participants—used their data (Taste, Ties, or Time), used their computer to perform a measurement task (Encore), or enrolled them in an experiment (Emotional Contagion)—without their consent or awareness. The violation of the principle of Respect for Persons does not automatically make these studies ethically impermissible; Respect for Persons is one of four principles. But, thinking about Respect for Persons does suggest some ways that the studies could be improved ethically. For example, researchers could have gotten some form of consent from participants before the study began or after it ended; I’ll return to these options when I discuss informed consent in more detail below. Finally, research ethicists emphasize that concerns about violating people’s autonomy arise even in the case of completely benign studies. Concerns about harms and risks naturally enter ethical consideration, but they are generally addressed under the principle of Beneficence, the principle that I address next.