This module is a resource for lecturers  


B.  Case studies for role morality


Case study 1

A journalist won the trust of a public employee involved in a corruption scandal in order to write an article about it. The journalist sympathized with the employee, who provided the detail the journalist needed to write the article. The journalist and the employee made no agreement that the journalist would not publish information about the employee, but the employee thought that the journalist was the employee's friend, something the journalist encouraged with text communication and friendly meetings. The journalist published the article, which exposed a large corruption scandal that had been going on for years and which diverted badly needed public funds. The employee was not named in the article as the source of the information, but was arrested with others involved in the scandal following the publication of the article. The employee was also publicly criticized on social media and is unable to find employment.

Lecturer Guidelines

Use the following questions to guide student discussion of the case. Begin by comparing the journalist's behaviour to what people would normally consider acceptable. Would people normally be able to treat another person in this way? Why or why not? Why did the journalist do this? Do those reasons excuse or justify the way the journalist treated the employee? Should the employee have realized that talking to the journalist could result in the corruption being exposed, and the employee being subject to criminal proceedings? Has the employee been injured by the journalist's actions or the employee's actions, such as the employee's failure to report the problem?


Case study 2

Doctors are required to keep the information shared by patients confidential. A doctor treating an HIV-positive patient was told by the patient that he had unprotected intercourse with several partners and did not tell the partners about his condition. The patient told the doctor that no one would want to be his partner if he disclosed his condition. The doctor explained the risk he exposed his partners to, and the patient agreed not to do this again.

Lecturer Guidelines

Use the following questions to guide student discussion of the case. Start by considering the patient's actions; he is not a professional but his actions have raised issues for the doctor. Has the patient acted wrongfully, and if yes, what exactly is wrongful? Now consider the professional, the doctor. Assuming the doctor knows the identity of the partners because the patient told him, should the doctor take any action toward the partners? If yes, what exactly should he or she do? What if the patient objects and wants to keep the information confidential? Do the patient's wrongful actions mean that the patient should no longer have a claim to confidentiality? If the doctor contacts the partners over the patient's objections, should the patient complain about the doctor widely online, so other patients know what the doctor might do? What guidance can you formulate that could be offered to the doctor to help him or her resolve the problem? During the discussion, the lecturer may wish to mention that the patient's behaviour could amount to a serious crime in some countries, and explore the relevance of this point to ethical issues.


Case study 3

Lawyers have a professional duty to preserve the confidentiality of the information they gain while representing a client. They are also supposed to act in the best interests of their client. In one case, a lawyer represented a defendant in a case involving injuries from a car accident. The claimant was badly hurt but recovering. To determine the extent of the current injury, the claimant agreed to be examined by a doctor hired by the defendant's lawyer. The doctor discovered that the claimant had a heart problem, which was almost certainly caused by the accident, and forwarded this information to the lawyer. The heart problem was serious and could cause further injury to the claimant, but the lawyer did not disclose this information to the claimant, because he was representing the defendant and disclosing this unknown injury could increase the amount the defendant would have to pay to the claimant in settlement negotiations.

Lecturer Guidelines

Use the following questions to guide student discussion of the case. Normally a patient would be entitled to this kind of information from a doctor. Why is that? Why was the claimant not given the information in this case by the doctor hired by the defendant, or by the defendant's lawyer? Assuming that part of the reason for the lawyer's non-disclosure was the lawyer's duty of confidentiality, what is the reason for that confidentiality? Should an exception to the requirement of confidentiality be made, and how would that be articulated? Assuming such an exception were allowable, should the claimant's lawyer have requested the results of the examination? Does the claimant's lawyer's failure to do that relieve the defendant's lawyer of responsibility?

This case study is based on the case of Spaulding v. Zimmerman (1962). It has been subject to extensive academic commentary, one example of which is available here.

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