Was the Facebook mood experiment “fair” or “foul” from an ethical perspective? Is it even possible for ethics to produce a determinate or “right” answer to this question? Several armchair philosophers, for example, have concluded that Facebook’s recent study of user behavior is “scandalous,” “violates accepted research ethics,” and “should never have been performed.” Michelle Meyer, by contrast, recently wrote this well-reasoned defense of Facebook’s research methods:
But if it is ethically permissible for Facebook to offer a service that carries unknown emotional risks, and to alter that service to improve user experience, then it should be allowed — and encouraged — to try to quantify those risks and publish the results.
Although we agree with Professor Meyer’s analysis on the grounds that more knowledge is generally better than less knowledge, what about the problem of consent? That is, even if these secret online experiments are useful from a consequentialist perspective, are they not still unethical (illegal even) from a contractarian or Kantian perspective?