Saturday, August 6, 2011

Are you practicing Genealogy Ethically?

Can one malpractice genealogy? Are there ethical issues about which genealogists should be concerned? I teach a course entitled “Ethics in the Information Age”. It is designed for students preparing for careers in libraries and in web designing. Recently, it occurred to me that some of the questions upon which this course is predicated might have application to genealogy—particularly genetic genealogy.

The trigger for this line of thought was Lennard Davis’ 2009 memoir, Go Ask Your Father: One Man’s Obsession with Finding His Origins Through DNA Testing. After both of his parents were dead Davis was told by an uncle that the uncle was his biological father through artificial insemination. Davis was in denial for two decades. Then, after the uncle has also died, Davis became “obsessed” with finding the truth. During that quest, he had to deal with some legal and many more ethical issues concerning the right to know and the right to privacy of both living and dead individuals.

We tend to think of ethical questions being struggles between “right” and “wrong”. However, the really interesting ones are between competing “rights”. Two paradigms, around which my course revolves, may be useful in helping us sort out our genealogical ethics. The first is based on my assumption that one’s position on such ethical issues will be shaped by the “right” upon which that person rides into the conversation. Was it:

 The right to access information;
 The right to keep information private;
 The right to own and benefit from information; or
 The right to security by controlling information.

The competition among these rights is played out in an arena occupied by players with vested interests. For the sake of simplicity I will lump these players into three categories—individuals, governments and corporations. Among these three opposing entities a zero-sum game is played. No player can gain rights without one or both of the other players losing some.

Are you practicing genealogy ethically? Perhaps the more important questions are these.

What ethics drive your genealogical endeavors?

Do you respect those who may have chosen to emphasize other "rights"?

Dr D offers no "correct" answer--only more questions.

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