At its most basic form, the principles of Respect for Persons are 1) able to act independently (autonomously) and 2) people that aren’t able to act independently are protected (The Belmont Report, 1979). One misunderstanding that one might have if they haven’t read the Belmont Report is that they might think that people with “diminished autonomy” (The Belmont Report, 1979) are people who lack physical independence. As the word autonomous has physical connotations. This misunderstanding leads people to ignore people who are unable to be autonomous agents due to mental capabilities. This misunderstanding can be easily clarified by telling the person the definition of autonomous as the Belmont Report does.
A case where Respect for Persons would be tough to implement is if the researcher is analysing a person’s behaviour to a surprise stimulus. The researcher wants to know how the person reacts to this but to get full authenticity the researcher can’t ask for informed consent so as to get a real reaction. Because of this, the researcher can not find out if the participant is an autonomous agent. If the researcher were to go through the experiment without knowledge of the participant not being autonomous, the results could be detrimental to the participant’s psychological, emotional or physical health, going against basic ethics rules.
As a reference, I will be using my User Research Deliverable to show what Respect for Persons and autonomy look like in this situation. I did an observation of a parking lot at a dorm cluster at the University of Washington to see how it was being used and how one would go about improving it. One practice I noticed was that almost every student that was walking to or back from campus was cutting through the parking lot, walking in between parked cars and walking adjacently to cars trying to park. This poses some risk to the students walking so I proposed that a way to fix this would be to conduct some usability tests and prototyping which again uses testers to then finally come up with a solution where students can walk the least amount of distance to get to class and still ensure their safety. In conducting these user tests, autonomy would have to be taken into consideration as well as a wide range of people walk across the parking lot so it is paramount that the safety of all students is taken care of. When doing these tests, you would want both autonomous and people with diminished autonomy to participate. This would bring up some issues as testing the ability of people with diminished autonomy would mean putting them in a scenario where they are walking through the parking lot with the potential danger of a car hitting them to have the experiment as real as possible. Informed consent would be easy to apply here because the participant should be told that there is the danger of a car hitting them.
For this example, I will be using self driving cars as a reference to show how autonomy needs to be considered in the design stage of production. A big selling point for self driving cars is that in the future anyone would be able to get into a car and get from point A to point B easily without having to be able to even drive a car. So in a way, the aim is to give this ability to both autonomous and non-autonomous people so that everyone is able to travel with ease. Respect for Persons then comes in the design stage as people using the cars should be treated as autonomous people so they should be able to do what they want to do freely but also that people who aren’t autonomous are protected from harm, in this case the most likely harm would be a car crash. So there comes a tough decision to make as to how much freedom to give to the driver but also to keep the driver safe. This is made even harder with the introduction of informed consent. In the design of the car, assuming there is a touch screen, the driver would probably select a button saying that they give consent to driving the car and understand the safety issues that are introduced by driving. With this however comes the issue of non-autonomous persons being able to also press the button as there is no way to really check if the person is autonomous or not, and this puts them in a risky situation. So with the introduction of fully autonomous cars, designers have to find out a way to implement a system where autonomous people are able to act autonomously but that people with diminished autonomy are protected. An simple solution to this would be to introduce a safe-mode where non-autonomous people are given less freedom as a trade off for safety.
“The Belmont Report.” (1979). HHS.gov. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 15 Mar. 2016.