Upfront Home
In This Issue
News and Trends
Times Past
The Ethicist
Teen Voices
Upfront Topics
Magazine Info

The Ethicist
Life's full of questions; he's got answers.

Randy Cohen writes "The Ethicist" column in The New York Times Magazine. If you'd like help with a moral dilemma you're facing at school, at home, or at work, send your question to: ethicist@nytimes.com or The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10018, and include a phone number.

September 21, 2009

Candid camera in an elevator?

For a research project, one of my fellow graduate students wanted to film people in a campus elevator without their knowledge or consent. I think this is an invasion of privacy. He thinks it's fine because the film is for educational purposes and would never be shown publicly. Who's right?

YOU ARE. Your classmate is obliged to seek permission from the elevator riders. Dalton Conley, chairman of the sociology department at New York University, says, "In all research endeavors, student projects included, informed consent is the ideal that should be strived for."

This is a prudent policy. Much harm has been done to unwitting research subjects. The danger may be less in the social sciences, but here, too, scholars must be honest with their subjects. And while there may be little privacy to violate in an elevator, given the frequent use of surveillance cameras, that does not eliminate this duty.

Conley says consent is not required when it is impossible to obtain and the expectation of privacy is low (filming a crowd at a baseball game, for example), or when the research is sufficiently important (studying prisoner-guard interactions, say) and deception is necessary to pursue it.

But that is not the case here. (Nor am I reassured by any vow to never show the research footage. Somehow YouTube and the like continue to acquire such material.)

Your classmate's professor should instruct his students not just in research methodology, but in the ethics that govern it.

My family and I arrived at Disney World to find a crowd waiting to get in. I casually mentioned that it was a shame that one of the signature rides was down for maintenance. In fact, it was functioning, but those around me overheard my remark and began to repeat it. When the park opened, my son and I made a beeline for the ride and were able to enjoy it twice without a wait. Was my comment unethical? PHILIP JUNKER, LITTLE ROCK, ARKANSAS

ALL'S FAIR IN LOVE AND DISNEY WORLD? That's a tempting notion, but one to be rejected. If you had genuinely believed that the ride was out of order, your rumor-mongering would have been inept but not unethical. But to deliberately deceive everyone within earshot for your own advantage is, as I suspect you know, discreditable. In ethics, intent counts.

Had you engaged in this puny fraud after going on that ride, I would assume you were suffering from some sort of moral dizziness, but given the order of events, you're merely a liar. And a cheat.