Ethics and Technology: Point-Counterpoint

By Richards, Virginia | Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences, January 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

Ethics and Technology: Point-Counterpoint


Richards, Virginia, Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences


Ethical dilemmas emerging from the use of technology in our lives are often cited in the scholarly and popular literature. With the rapid increase in use of these technologies, we should consider the following "Principles of Professional Practice" from the AAFCS code of ethics:

Conflict of interest. AMCS members avoid conflicting roles and take active steps to prevent and avoid exploitation of the individuals with whom they work.

Confidentiality. AAFCS members maintain and guard the confidentiality of persons with whom they have professional relationships.

Respect for diversity. AAFCS members respect differences in the abilities and needs of the people with whom they work. AAFCS members recognize that differences exist among individuals and families and do not discriminate against or patronize others.

These three ethical principles apply to the daily activities of many of our members. I will discuss the issues of conflict of interest in using the Internet in the workplace, confidentiality versus disclosure in databases, and respect for diversity in allowing access to technology in the classroom. I will frame the dilemmas as they relate to the four simple questions from the Rotarian "Four Way Test" (Haddock & Manning, 1990):

1. Is it the truth?

2. Is it fair to all concerned?

3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?

4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

The use of electronic mail (e-mail) has increased steadily during the last decade. Sklaroff (1999) reported that Americans send 2.2 billion e-mail messages per day. Many family and consumer sciences professionals use e-mail to communicate with colleagues in the workplace and across the world. However, professionals should be aware of the inherent characteristics of this digital tool.

E-mail differs fundamentally from other forms of communication such as letters and face-to-face conversations. Individuals have a tendency to think aloud in e-mail and to invest less thought in writing and responding to messages because there is an opportunity for near-instantaneous response. Readers can misinterpret messages because of the absence of non-verbal responses in the communication process. Since recipients can forward messages easily, the sender cannot control further dissemination of the document.

Recent court cases point out that e-mail is virtually indestructible; even deleted messages may remain on a computer's hard drive and can be retrieved. Although we may think the communication cannot be read by persons other than the addressees, e-mail is not private and can even be used against the writer.

Many employers provide Internet access to employees, and e-mail can improve the flow of ideas throughout the organization. Gates (1999) contends that, "There's no doubt that e-mail flattens the hierarchical structure of an organization. It encourages people to speak up" (p. 74). What are the ethical responsibilities of employees and employers in the fair use of this technology?

Point: Should employees use the Internet for personal business and entertainment? Most people would agree that a certain amount of personal use by the employee is within the bounds of ethical conduct, but each professional should restrict his private use so that there is no conflict of interest. …

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