An Ethics Case Study
You might know (or remember) that some little kids find it difficult to fall asleep at night because of various fears that prey on them in the quieter, darker pre-sleep environment. The “Goodbye Fears Monster,” a new toy currently under development by the Metell toy company, is designed to respond to those fears. The furry, teddy-bear-like “Goodbye Fears Monster” (we’ll refer to it as “GFM” for short) is soft, roly-poly, and comes in a variety of colors; what makes it unique, however, are its interactive features. The toy is designed to “listen” and respond to a child who speaks to it.
When a fearful child is about to go to sleep, he or she is supposed to press GFM’s belly button (which is, actually, a button); that action turns on the toy’s microphone (which is hidden by its fur). The child is then encouraged to tell the “monster” all of his or her fears. Once the child stops speaking, the monster replies, “I will eat all of those fears! Nom nom nom. There. They’re gone. Are you worried about anything else?” The process is supposed to repeat until the child says he or she has no more worries to detail. At that point, GFM gently replies, “Well, then, now we can close our eyes and go to sleep in peace”—and turns off the microphone.
The child’s statements are recorded, and all of the recordings are made available to the child’s parents (they are sent directly to the child’s parents’ phones, via a companion app).
Marketing materials that accompany GFM tell prospective customers that
- the interactive toy will allow young children to express fears that they might not otherwise disclose to anyone;
- reassured by their fears being “eaten” by the friendly toy, children might sleep better (which, of course, would allow parents to sleep better, too);
- the recordings will give parents new insights into their child’s thinking.
The Metell company also promises to share the recordings (at no cost) with child psychology researchers, in the hope that the data collected will promote the development of new therapies or other methods to alleviate common childhood fears.
As part of the promotion of this new (rather expensive) toy, the toy makers propose to distribute free GFMs to children living in homeless shelters throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.
What ethical issues do you spot in this scenario? How might these issues be perceived through the ethical prisms of utilitarianism, rights, justice, virtue, and the common good? Before answering these questions, please review this article about ethical decision-making, different ethical perspectives, and the considerations that we should keep in mind when faced with ethical issues.