Philosophy 318: Professional Ethics
Theodore Gracyk

Outline of Armstrong Essay

ISSUE: How do we justify the secrecy and protection of harmful information in professional life? We often place ourselves in conflict with the duty of advancing the public interest, and the duty to do no harm.

Secrecy = blocking access to information.
Confidentiality = not sharing information given by a particular person.

Problem: Keeping information secret (no public access) or confidential (not sharing what a particular person has said) often produces harm.

Two methods of justification: DEONTOLOGICAL and UTILITARIAN.
This essay focus on the deontological approach, by outlining PRIMA FACIE duties.

PRIMA FACIE DUTIES are our basic prescriptive norms (i.e., morally binding rules). However, "prima facie" means "at first look." A second look will often reveal conflicts among our duties, in which case we must examine the particular case to determine which duty must be waived or relaxed.

Two basic kinds of duties: Positive and negative.

Positive duty = a duty to do something. For example, the duty of charity requires you to give help to others.

Negative duty = a duty NOT to do something. For example, the right to life is equivalent to a negative duty not to kill.

Positive duties are basically ideals. You should do them, but it is largely up to each individual to decide when and how to do them. We don't normally punish someone for failing to do them.

Negative duties are strict rules and we normally punish anyone who violates them.

When a positive duty to help society conflicts with a negative duty (don't violate confidentiality), the balance normally shifts to the following the negative duty and setting aside the positive duty. BUT NOT ALWAYS!

So what are the duties that matter here?

  1. Respect personal autonomy.

  2. Respect existing relationships among people, including the privacy of intimate ones.

  3. Do not violate agreements to keep secrets (a "pledge of silence")

  4. Provide utility to other people and society (i.e., our duty of beneficence)


  1. The good we pursue must be an objective, realistic prospect.
  2. The infringement cannot be avoided in bringing about the good end. [There's no alternative route to reach the objective.]
  3. We have the least infringement possible in the circumstances.
  4. The agent minimizes harmful effects of the infringement.

[MY COMMENT: This list leaves out a fifth condition that is normally put on such cases: we can't do a wrong thing as our means to doing the good thing -- it (the infringement)can only be a side effect of doing something else.]

GENERAL RESULTING RULE: Do not violate confidentially unless there is a VERY high probability (approaching certainty) that a failure to do so will result in MAJOR harm, the nature and severity of which are clear.


1. Medical Professionals

The AMA prioritizes confidentiality above avoidance of harm. Doctors should violate patient confidentiality ONLY if required by law. Example: If a psychotherapist/psychiatrist believes that a patient may harm someone, the therapist should not breach confidentiality. In response, many states now require therapists to warn potential victims of foreseeable harm.

[In effect, the AMA says, "Let the law of each state tell you when to violate confidentiality." As a result, there is no consistent standard.]

2. Engineering

Safety and well-being of the public takes priority.

Conflict: employers do not want employees to expose their mistakes. [The JOB and the PROFESSION are in conflict -- it doesn't help to do the professionally right thing if it means you'll never have a job again.]

Solution: limited "whistleblower" protection protecting employees who inform on suspected illegal acts.

3. Accounting

Two basic types of CPA: external (outside auditors, insuring veracity in reporting & bookkeeping) and internal (keeping the records for the company). The external insure are there to "police" and advise the internal.

Problem: It's all about MONEY. Constant pressure to break the rules, and even to be rewarded for breaking the rules.

Code for CPAs dictates a positive duty to protect the public. However, they also have a negative duty of confidentiality. In practice, the public is protected only if the client explicitly consents or there is a legal obligation. Informing the public is effectively blocked.


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            Last updated June 5, 2015